Back when I was growing up in the eighties, “evangelism” consisted of accosting people in the street with a tract and a bracing question: “Do you know where you’d go if you died tonight?” (For an example of the kinds of tracts I might have used, see my article “Evangelistic tracts so bad that they’re good.” For an on-the-ground account of street witnessing in the eighties see my articles “My Experience with Street Witnessing” Part 1 and Part 2.)
Things improved significantly in the nineties, for this is the period we set aside street witnessing in favor of a kinder, gentler form of so-called “friendship evangelism.” This is the process where you befriend folk and allow the gospel sharing to emerge in a natural, organic manner over time as you build a relationship.
But if street witnessing seemed like an improvement insofar as it was kinder and gentler, in other respects it seemed worse than the old approach to street witnessing. Why so? In the old days you were clear about your intentions. There was no beating-around-the-bush. You let people know their soul was at stake, and that was your reason for talking to them, period. By contrast, friendship evangelism embeds the gospel sales pitch in days or weeks of friendly banter about Nascar and football, in a way that calls to mind that “friend” with whom you shared a delightful hour at the coffee shop … until they pulled out the Amway brochures. From that perspective, this approach begins to look rather misleading, even downright disingenuous sales pitch.
Consider this passage from Brian McLaren’s 2001 book A New Kind of Christian where the character “Neo” expresses his aversion to his friend Daniel’s use of the phrase “friendship evangelism”:
“Pardon me, Daniel, but I am not too fond of that expression, ‘friendship evangelism.’ It can prostitute friendship, which in my mind then invalidates the evangelism. If I’m going to pretend to be somebody’s friend just so I can try to proselytize them, well, I might as well be selling soap. No, it’s worse than that. At least when I’m selling soap, I’m not degrading the soap by exploiting the friendship. I can’t tell you how much that term bothers me.” (A New Kind of Christian, 104)
I share Neo’s concerns. Insofar as friendship is reduced to being a sugar-coating for the “gos-pill” this “kinder, gentler” form of evangelism is even worse than the old school street witnessing.
The good news is that we don’t have to toss friendship evangelism out altogether. And God forbid we should return to the brutal strategies that preceded it. Instead, we should set aside the existential angst, guilt and fear that leads people to believe they need some sort of evangelistic strategy in the first place.
So what’s the alternative? In its place, we should invite people to become friends with others simply for the value of friendship itself. Within that context of a mutual sharing of life, personal convictions, passions and interests, one can then share their Christian faith with the same naturalness and sincerity that they share their passion about their favorite music, brand of beer (assuming you’re not a teetotaler) or sports team.
Does this sound trivializing of Christian faith? Believe me, it isn’t. Christian faith is trivialized when it is reduced to being the punch-line of an extended sales pitch. By contrast, when it is presented in the context of a mutual sharing of personal convictions, passions and interests, it is honored as the natural outcome of genuine relationship.