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Friendship and Relational Evangelism

Black Coffee, see mio.co.za
(Black Coffee. See www.mio.co.za).

A while back I read a book called Kiss and Tell by Pete Gilbert.

The book is about evangelism and looks at how friendship evangelism (or relational evangelism or lifestyle evangelism) trumps other kinds of evangelism in terms of overall effectiveness.

The basic idea is that we ought to evangelise through friendships with people, rather than do ‘cold-turkey’ evangelism such as door-to-door evangelism, big events, or even things such as TV.

Not that those don’t have merit, it’s just that they’re not as effective overall.

Where this really makes sense is in the statistics. As can be seen in a PDF which summarises the statistics in the book, in a US survey of 15,000 people, 80 percent of people said they came to faith in Christ through a friendship. Only one percent said they came to faith in Christ as a result of a “crusade” (who actually likes that word?); one percent due to a visitation; one percent because of a ‘crisis’; three percent because of a cold church contact; three percent because of a church event; five percent because of Sunday School and six percent because of contact with church leaders.

When you check out the factors leading to conversion you’re greeted by some more shocking numbers. Out of 500 UK Christians, zero percent (probably rounded off, but still) said they were influenced by Christian radio/TV. Zero percent! Yet so much money is pumped into TV evangelism, isn’t it?

Also, you’ll see that 69 percent say their “conversion” was a ‘gradual’ coming to Christ and 31 percent immediate (like a Damascus road experience). Conventional evangelical Christianity likes the Damascus road experience, yet more Christians appear to be saying their ‘conversion’ was gradual — step by step. Clearly, when a seed is planted there are things happening under ground we don’t see, and we don’t give this enough credit at all.

Evangelism is best done through friendship, then, but it must be intentional. We can’t be everyone’s friend but never share the faith and hope we have. I’ve found that being myself has the most effectiveness. In other words, what do I talk around my Christian friends? Why can’t I talk about those things to my non-Christian friends? It’s who I am, after all.

Furthermore, true friendship is what is needed here. We cannot claim to be someone’s true friend unless we share with them what gives us life and joy. At the same time, our intention is to be their friend, not to get some sort of badge for getting another one saved. Discipleship is a relational, friendship dynamic.

So what does the Bible say? In most examples, it appears that Jesus made evangelism some sort of discipleship process.

Look at the story of Zaccheus in Luke 19. Jesus accepted Zaccheus as a friend first (vs 5), and then later salvation came to his house (vs 9). It’s a touching story.

About Ryan Peter


Ryan Peter is a writer, journalist and ghostwriter from Johannesburg, South Africa. He writes fantasy, sci-fi, inspirational fiction, and on faith. Ryan is also part of the New Covenant Ministries International (NCMI) translocal team.

8 replies
  1. Jeremy
    Jeremy says:

    Like any other aspect of Christian faith and practice, the Bible should be the final word, not numbers and statistics. Surveys are only as good as the reliability of the people who are being questioned. You wrote, “80 percent of people said they came to faith in Christ through a friendship.” That is what they say, but were they truly converted? How do we know for sure? We cannot just take somebody’s word for it. We have to go to Scripture as our final authority.

    When we do turn to Scripture, we see that friendship evangelism as a tool to win the lost is not even hinted at in the Bible. You mentioned Jesus making evangelism some sort of discipleship process, and that’s true in the case of his disciples, but in the vast majority of cases he preached to people and did not wait to cultivate a friendship. The same is true of the apostles: Preaching was their prime directive, which Paul made clear about himself in 1 Cor. 9:16 and the other apostles made clear by their examples in the book of Acts.

    The common approach to friendship evangelism is to befriend people and hold off telling them the gospel until one has gained their trust and earned the right to be heard. Jesus and the apostles, however, *never* did that. Preaching the word was their primary goal because they knew that was how people were converted.

    So, there is a contradiction between the numbers you referred to and the Bible. The numbers imply that friendship evangelism is spiritually effective while cold-contact evangelism is not. The Bible, however, says nothing about the former while speaking of preaching and cold-contact evangelism favorably throughout its pages. Which should we trust? They both cannot be right. If we believe that the Bible is inspired and because of that inspiration it has divine authority, then we must submit to its teaching and not a man-made survey that is entirely dependent on the word of fallible human beings.

    Using friendship as a means to an end is not friendship at all, and holding back the gospel from people who need to hear it is definitely not love.

    Reply
  2. Jeremy
    Jeremy says:

    Just an additional thought. I have to give you some credit for saying, “Furthermore, true friendship is what is needed here. We cannot claim to be someone’s true friend unless we share with them what gives us life and joy. At the same time, our intention is to be their friend, not to get some sort of badge for getting another one saved. Discipleship is a relational, friendship dynamic.”

    That raises an important question, though: Must we have a friendship with someone in order to tell them the good news? If we say yes, we are treading a dangerous path, since we cannot have a friendship with everyone.

    Reply
  3. Ryan Peter
    Ryan Peter says:

    Hey Jeremy,

    In Luke 4 and 5 Jesus knew Peter (he was his friend) before Peter became his disciple.

    In Luke 5 Peter becomes a disciple, but notice in Luke 4 that Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law at his house. It seems that the friendship initially began in John 1:35 to the end of that chapter. Jesus was friends with Peter before he became a disciple.

    How did Peter come to know Jesus as a friend, though? Well he was introduced to Jesus through his brother (John 1: 40-42). A little further on, Jesus finds Philip, but Philip brings Nathanael to Jesus.

    These are examples of how these things can work together. I think you’re creating too much of a dichotomy between ‘preaching’ and ‘friendship’ here. What is preaching, exactly? It’s simply proclaiming the word. Surely you can agree this is done in numerous ways, including through a friendship, including through open-air preaching, including through cold-contact? Why limit preaching to one or the other? The Bible doesn’t.

    If you want to question how genuine the salvation through these friendships mentioned in my blog post (the 80 percent) are, why stop there? Why aren’t you also questioning the genuineness of the salvations of the many millions of people which have come to be saved at numerous crusades, through mass preaching alone — shall we question their salvation, too?

    Why aren’t you questioning the genuineness of the salvations of those through cold-contact? What if they didn’t really understand the message? What if they were just needy at the time? What if they just wanted to get rid of you? How would you ever find out?

    Besides, we can also present the problem of no decent discipleship process here at all. People are converted, told to go to a local church, and left to the wilderness.

    Furthermore, in how many cases has someone gone to a Billy Graham meeting or some sort of preaching crusade because a friend brought them there?

    “Must we have a friendship with someone in order to tell them the good news? If we say yes, we are treading a dangerous path, since we cannot have a friendship with everyone.”

    I think this question affirms a false dichotomy. Thanks for giving me credit for what I said, but I have to re-iterate quite strongly that the goal of any friendship ought to be love and not conversion. One loves their friend by telling them the good news.

    You said: “Using friendship as a means to an end is not friendship at all, and holding back the gospel from people who need to hear it is definitely not love.”

    I’d have to question your terms here. How is salvation a ‘means to an end’? Surely it is part and parcel of a friendship. One loves their friend by telling them the good news. If one does not tell them the good news, do they love their friend? No. Holding back the gospel from people who need to hear it is definitely not love, agreed, but who is saying the gospel needs to be held back from anybody?

    “If we believe that the Bible is inspired and because of that inspiration it has divine authority, then we must submit to its teaching and not a man-made survey that is entirely dependent on the word of fallible human beings.”

    Agreed. So let’s submit to it. Let’s go back to the scriptures and stop limiting what preaching means. I think you’re taking too much of a one or another approach here. I still think evangelism is ‘best done’ through a friendship, but that doesn’t mean that I think evangelism should *only* be done through a friendship, nor that cold-contact or other forms have no merit. The Scriptures most certainly affirm evangelism through friendship, or through relationships — it’s all over the place.

    Our western society has become so sharply individualistic that the process (yes, process) of discipleship, bringing people to Christ, has been lost for a McDonald’s preach-the-word-and-people-must-convert-right-now approach. I am seeking to get away from the idea of conversion and talk about the discipleship process, which is a process that centres around relationship. This is affirmed when one studies the Scriptures, in particularly the life of Jesus.

    Reply
    • Jeremy
      Jeremy says:

      Hi Ryan,
      Thanks for your reply. You wrote:
      “In Luke 4 and 5 Jesus knew Peter (he was his friend) before Peter became his disciple.
      In Luke 5 Peter becomes a disciple, but notice in Luke 4 that Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law at his house. It seems that the friendship initially began in John 1:35 to the end of that chapter. Jesus was friends with Peter before he became a disciple.”

      The only thing the text in Luke 4 tells us was that Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law. That says nothing about a friendship at all. The exact details of what Jesus’ relationship to Peter was at that time are not told us. For all we know, Jesus may have healed Simon’s mother-in-law and moved on to the next individual who needed healing without spending any more time with Peter. Considering the great number of sick and demon-possessed people whom Jesus was curing at that time (vv. 40–41), this is not unlikely. The bottom line, though, is that the text does not give us the details to support your claim that Jesus had had some friendship with Peter prior to his being called as a disciple.

      “How did Peter come to know Jesus as a friend, though? Well he was introduced to Jesus through his brother (John 1: 40-42). A little further on, Jesus finds Philip, but Philip brings Nathanael to Jesus.”

      Once again, I think you are reading too much into the text. No friendship is mentioned. Sure, the two were introduced, but that is a far cry from friendship. Here is what the passage in John 1 states: “And he brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which, when translated, is Peter).” Nothing there about a friendship being developed.

      “These are examples of how these things can work together. I think you’re creating too much of a dichotomy between ‘preaching’ and ‘friendship’ here. What is preaching, exactly? It’s simply proclaiming the word. Surely you can agree this is done in numerous ways, including through a friendship, including through open-air preaching, including through cold-contact? Why limit preaching to one or the other? The Bible doesn’t.”

      Yes, it actually does. Nobody—absolutely nobody—in the Bible practiced friendship evangelism the way it is commonly taught today, i.e., holding back the gospel from someone until a sufficient relationship is built. The idea is completely foreign to the Bible; in fact, it’s a relatively recent, modern method. It never entered the mind of God, or if it did, there is no evidence of it in God’s revelation. Evangelists in the NT built relationships with people who believed their message, but they did not build relationships prior to proclaiming the gospel.

      “Why aren’t you questioning the genuineness of the salvations of those through cold-contact? What if they didn’t really understand the message? What if they were just needy at the time? What if they just wanted to get rid of you? How would you ever find out?”

      Why hold me to a paradigm that I clearly rejected in the first place? I don’t examine the results of a ministry to validate it, so I’m not going to go around examining everyone’s professed salvation. My point was that we should not do that in order to establish the validity of a given approach.

      “Must we have a friendship with someone in order to tell them the good news? If we say yes, we are treading a dangerous path, since we cannot have a friendship with everyone.”

      “I think this question affirms a false dichotomy. Thanks for giving me credit for what I said, but I have to re-iterate quite strongly that the goal of any friendship ought to be love and not conversion. One loves their friend by telling them the good news.”

      If you begin all your friendships by sharing the gospel, then I applaud you. Is that what you do?

      Aside from that, I find it hard to believe that anyone who practices friendship evangelism does not have the conversion of their new friend as a goal. If it were not for your plan to share the gospel with that new friend, would you have even befriended them at all?

      You said: “Using friendship as a means to an end is not friendship at all, and holding back the gospel from people who need to hear it is definitely not love.”

      “I’d have to question your terms here. How is salvation a ‘means to an end’?”

      You must have misread what I said. I wrote, “Using friendship as a means to an end is not friendship at all.” And that is exactly what friendship evangelism is: a means to an end. Those who use this method would not enter into the friendship with the unbeliever if they had no intention of sharing the gospel with them. They are hiding the gospel behind friendship. It is friendship with a card up one’s sleeve, which is a counterfeit friendship. Christians should avoid such disingenuous, distasteful practices.

      “Surely it is part and parcel of a friendship. One loves their friend by telling them the good news. If one does not tell them the good news, do they love their friend? No. Holding back the gospel from people who need to hear it is definitely not love, agreed, but who is saying the gospel needs to be held back from anybody?”

      The popular take on friendship evangelism does. It teaches that we must build friendships with peope *before* we share the gospel with them, as if the Word of God were not effective apart from a relationship.
      “I still think evangelism is ‘best done’ through a friendship,…”

      What we think is irrelevant. We need to think God’s thoughts after him, not our own thoughts in spite of him. If you can show that friendship evangelism was taught, recommended, and practiced by the apostles or Jesus, then I will reconsider my position. Your references to John 1 and Luke 4-5 don’t prove it.

      “The Scriptures most certainly affirm evangelism through friendship, or through relationships — it’s all over the place.”

      I see it nowhere. What I do see is relationship as a result of evangelism, not the other way around. But perhaps there is some biblical passage that I’ve overlooked. Please provide the passages with sufficient explanation showing that the writers of such passages actually intended to teach evangelism as a result of friendship.

      “Our western society has become so sharply individualistic that the process (yes, process) of discipleship, bringing people to Christ, has been lost for a McDonald’s preach-the-word-and-people-must-convert-right-now approach.”

      I agree that this is a cultural mindset that we have to watch out for. But the “preach-the-word-and-people-must-convert-right-now approach,” as you put it, does not preclude relationships at all. It simply puts relationships in their proper place. Those who respond in saving faith to gospel preaching will inevitably have relationships with those who bring the gospel to them. The relationship should grow *out of* the evangelism and not be a trick, a manipulative tactic to draw someone in so they can hear the gospel at some later time. The pattern you see in the NT is: Preach the gospel first –> some respond in saving faith –> relationship and discipleship then take place. The relationships developed in the context of evangelism and would not have taken place apart from evangelism. The Bible affirms evangelistic relationships but not relationship evangelism. There is a big difference. You never see relationship-building done first and then followed by the preaching of the gospel. That paradigm simply does not exist in Scripture.

      “This is affirmed when one studies the Scriptures, in particularly the life of Jesus.”

      What is confirmed when we study the Scriptures as a whole is that those who brought the gospel to the lost never waited to proclaim the message of Christ. They never spent time building friendships with the lost as a pre-evangelistic pursuit. Wherever they went, they proclaimed the truth, and they did so right away. For them, the order was this: Gospel proclamation first, relationship second, and even then only with those who responded favorably to the gospel. *That* is all over the New Testament. However, if you can show biblical examples of Jesus or the apostles holding back the verbal teaching of the truth so as to build friendships first, then I will reconsider my position.

      Jeremy

      Reply
  4. Ryan Peter
    Ryan Peter says:

    Thanks Jeremy, great points and lots to learn :)

    Let me jump at what I think is the core of the matter here.

    You said: Yes, it actually does. Nobody—absolutely nobody—in the Bible practiced friendship evangelism the way it is commonly taught today, i.e., holding back the gospel from someone until a sufficient relationship is built.

    Two things. Firstly, I don’t agree that we should hold back the gospel from someone until a sufficient relationship is built — that’s not what I mean by friendship evangelism.

    Secondly, we may be defining ‘friendship’ differently.

    See what I said in my post: Evangelism is best done through friendship, then, but it must be intentional. We can’t be everyone’s friend but never share the faith and hope we have. I’ve found that being myself has the most effectiveness. In other words, what do I talk around my Christian friends? Why can’t I talk about those things to my non-Christian friends? It’s who I am, after all.

    ALL the commentaries I’ve read say that John 1:35-42 probably precedes Luke 4 & 5. John 1 therefore shows us that:

    (a) Peter was introduced to Jesus through Andrew, his brother (a friend, of course) — I see a sharp principle being shown here. The Scriptures don’t use words carelessly.
    (b) Andrew introduced Jesus to Peter as the Messiah.
    (c) Jesus prophesied to Peter, calling him Cephas. He prophesies to him before he became a disciple.

    If that precedes Luke 4 & 5, we can see that:

    (d) in Luke 4, Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law before Peter becomes a disciple.
    (e) Jesus gets into Peter’s boat (Luke 5:3). It seems they at least know each other.
    (f) Peter only becomes a disciple after the miraculous catch of fish. So far, Jesus has been introduced to him as the Messiah, Jesus has prophesied to him, Jesus has performed a miracle in his house, but yet only now Peter becomes a disciple. What took him so long? And only later it appears Peter realises that Jesus is the Son of God.

    My point here is to show Jesus’ persistence, his commitment to his relationship with Peter. The flip side of the coin is to show that for some, or perhaps most people, the revelation of who Jesus is takes time to ‘click’ as it were.

    1) Jesus didn’t wait to preach the good news to Peter. He didn’t hold back the gospel until a relationship was built. I agree with you on that.
    2) He didn’t give up on Peter, but was persistent in their relationship and eventually brought him through.

    That’s the underlining principle. And that’s what I mean by friendship — persistent love towards others. We DO tell them the Gospel from the beginning, they must know from the beginning what we’re about and who we are, we don’t hide ourselves from them and then pounce on them with some secret we’ve been harbouring.

    But we don’t wipe the dust off our feet from people if they don’t listen the first time. Rather, we remain persistent, and we also remain Spirit-led. We do a few signs and wonders, perhaps, giving them words from God and so forth as we feel God calling them. But we insist on being their friend, we insist on persistently bringing them the good news until they come through: and that’s what I mean by friendship evangelism. And I believe the Bible shows us that sort of principle and defines friendship for us in that way.

    I believe that all friendships must be intentional, and the intention is to love people truthfully and honestly. That means from the beginning we share the gospel, and we share it and share it and share it, and then they come to believe, and then we keep sharing the gospel to encourage them in the faith. I’m mixing friendship and discipleship together, and saying discipleship happens with non-Christians and Christians. I see Jesus’ heart for Peter as one of discipling him, bringing him through to the end.

    So I disagree with the kind of friendship evangelism you mention there.

    As an aside, my own coming to faith was a process. My school teacher was a Christian and my parents used to send my brother and I to a youth group every Friday night. The pastor of the youth group was in his 60’s. Through the persistent bringing of the gospel from both my teacher and this pastor I eventually clicked one day and accepted Christ. But it took persistence from those people.

    Reply

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