Some thoughts on “Friendship Evangelism”
“A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.” (Proverbs 17:17, ESV)
“A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” (Proverbs 18:24, ESV)
I remember many years ago watching a movie on television about a young man who got sucked into a cult group that followed a communal way of living. (I think the group the movie was trying to depict was the so-called “Moonies.”) Deeply concerned about their son, his parents arranged for him to be “rescued” (i.e., benevolently kidnapped) and forcefully de-programmed. Questions aside about whether or not it would ever be legally and ethically right to physically capture and forcefully “un-brainwash” someone who had freely chosen to associate with a particular religious group (especially in the context of a nation that has enshrined the principle of freedom of religion into law), this movie depicted one of the major tactics used by such cult groups and sects to draw in new converts; namely, the tactic of “love bombing.” “Love bombing” involves showering potential new converts with attention, concern and friendship with a view toward winning their trust. But the ultimate aim of this “love bombing” is not to develop genuine, lasting, loyal friendships; rather, it is to “close the deal” and win new converts. Once the potential new convert is brainwashed and finally converted into the group, the “love bombing” ceases (or at least its intensity is seriously toned down), since the “conquest” (i.e., the new convert) has been won and made thoroughly dependent upon the group for his/her identity, and is thus unlikely to abandon the group. (Of course, if the convert begins to express doubts or show signs of abandoning ship, the “love bombing” kicks in again in the form of “concern.”) In the movie this young man is befriended by an attractive young lady who is part of the group, and who invites him to participate with her in the religious services and activities of the group (hence the “love bombing”); but once he is converted, she emotionally distances herself from him and moves on to love bombing newer prospects.
While evangelicals and evangelical groups do not usually practice “love bombing” in the kind of crass, blatantly manipulative manner of the cults, as depicted in this movie; nevertheless some forms of so-called “friendship evangelism” as promoted in many evangelical churches and parachurch ministries seem to me to share some disturbing similarities to the “love bombing” of the cults as depicted in this movie. Similar to the tactic of love bombing, Christians are often urged to befriend non-Christians, not primarily for the purpose of fulfilling the great commandment (“love your neighbor as yourself”) and developing genuine, lasting friendships, but primarily for the purpose of winning the non-Christian’s trust so that the Christian can have an opportunity to share the gospel with his/her non-Christian “friend” and hopefully see the non-Christian eventually come to faith in Jesus Christ.
Of course, I’m not at all saying that we Christians should be unconcerned about the spiritual condition and eternal fate of the non-Christians (and nominal Christians) in our lives. We absolutely should! Part of loving our neighbor as ourselves means being concerned about the eternal well-being of our neighbors; and thus there is nothing wrong with desiring to share the good news of Jesus with the non-Christian (and questionably-Christian) friends in our lives, as God in His providence gives us opportunity to do so, and when it is appropriate. But any method of “friendship evangelism” which says that we should develop friendships with non-Christians primarily for the purpose of winning their trust so we can share the gospel with them is inherently dehumanizing. It is dehumanizing because it treats the prospective non-Christian friend not as a human being, created in the image of God and thus worthy of respect and dignity (and genuine friendship!), but as an evangelism project. It is also deceptive. It is deceptive because it involves the believer “befriending” the non-believer on the false pretense of developing a friendship for friendship’s sake, when in reality the hidden motive of the believer is simply to get the relationship to the point where the believer can deliver an evangelistic sales-pitch and “close the deal” by making a new convert. As with “love bombing,” where such “friendship evangelism” succeeds in making new converts, one suspects that once the new convert is made the “soul winner” who brought him to conversion often drops him like a hot potato and moves on to newer prospects, having added a new notch to his soul-winning belt and a new statistic to his tally of “number of souls saved.” (Thus it can cater to human pride, as in “I’ve won 15 to Christ through my efforts of friendship evangelism in the last year!” type of fleshly boasting.) It also tends to be phony to the core and manipulative, for any interest and concern shown by the Christian to the potential non-Christian friend is not primarily for the purpose of simply showing a genuine interest in and concern for him/her as a person, but as an evangelistic project.
I write with the dripping cynicism expressed above because I must confess that I have been guilty at times of this very kind of “friendship evangelism.” I know of what I speak, for I have been guilty of it. Of course, I meant well, and I do genuinely care about people who are apart from Christ. And even while engaging in such “evangelistic” activity I always felt a sense of unease and discomfort about it, like it was just so unnatural. But, I pressed on with it because the all-pervasive message I was getting in the evangelical circles in which I travelled was that it was my Christian duty to “witness” to as many people as possible, and part of that witnessing involved “making friends for Jesus.” But I suspect that many non-Christians can see right through this manipulative ruse. They sense that we are only interested in them as potential religious consumers. They suspect that we are trying to “work the angles” and manipulate them into believing under the pretense of offering genuine friendship. In my opinion, “friendship evangelism” (at least of the type described in this post) has not helped the church’s witness for Christ and His gospel; on the contrary, I believe it has ended up doing the opposite of what its proponents intend, namely, setting up additional barriers and hindrances for non-Chistians who might otherwise be open to considering the truth claims of the gospel of Christ.
Should we Christians seek to develop friendships with non-Christians for the purpose of evangelizing them? Here’s a novel idea: Why don’t we seek to develop friendships with non-Christians for the purpose of developing genuine friendships with non-Christians? Instead of “friendship evangelism,” how about “friendship friendship”? Let’s repent of the dehumanizing, deceptive, manipulative, fleshly practice of “friendship evangelism” and strive to demonstrate genuine, no-strings-attached, loyal friendship to believer and non-believer alike. Let us remember that Jesus our Savior befriended us when we were enemies, and He continues to befriend us even though we continue to struggle with sin and often don’t live up to the implications of the faith we profess. He is faithful even when we are faithless (which is often). So, let’s relax and put aside our evangelistic sales pitch. If I were a betting man, I would bet that the non-Christians (or nominal Christians) in our lives would be much more interested in the gospel we believe and the Christ whom we embrace if we would stop treating them as religious consumers or evangelistic projects, and instead started treating them as fellow human beings with genuine worth and dignity, worthy of befriending simply for friendship’s sake. Let’s prayerfully break down the barriers erected by phony and manipulative evangelistic techniques (like certain forms of “friendship evangelism”), and show ourselves, like our Savior, to be a “friend of sinners.”