After more than 50 years as a Christian, and more than 40 years as a Pastor, I have come to the conclusion that the only really acceptable form of evangelism is ‘friendship evangelism’. If we don’t genuinely care about people as people, and only see them as some kind of ‘conversion fodder’, we are doing a disservice to Christ and the Gospel and turning people away rather than drawing them in.
Throughout history, Christians have used many different approaches to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ. A quick internet search will reveal the numerous ‘titles’ given to these various methods. Wikipedia (that fount of all knowledge) alone lists 15 different approaches, and there are many others that are not mentioned there that I can think of. Some of these approaches to reaching out to people in Christ’s name are more creditable than others. I particularly like the idea of ‘lifestyle evangelism’ – an approach to evangelism characterized by someone demonstrating their faith by their actions, the byproduct of which is that people around them will be impressed with how God affects that person’s life and become Christians. Jesus certainly drew people to God through showing them kindness and performing good deeds, and this is certainly a method employed by the early church. Luke tells us that when the people of Jerusalem saw how these first Christians lived, the church ‘enjoyed the favour of all the people and the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved’ (Acts 2:47).
My wife, Julia, also talks a lot about ‘evangelization through fascination’ – the idea that there can be something about a Christian or a particular church that just draws people to them, even though the people themselves cannot explain exactly why? Time and again, when I was at Elm Road, Beckenham, new people attending worship would say to me, ‘I don’t understand what you people are on about half the time, but I really like it here, and I want to know more about it!’ This was also true of the early church. Luke tells us that despite the ‘holy fear’ that apparently engulfed the whole of Jerusalem at that time – engendered by the sudden deaths of Ananias and Sapphira – ‘more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number’ (Acts 5:14).
The point that I am seeking to make here, however, is that whatever method of evangelism we employ – either as individuals or as churches – genuine love and friendship for others must be at the heart of all we do! Jesus summed up the Ten Commandments in the Two Commandments – ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength [and] love your neighbour as yourself’ (Mark 12:30,31). And by ‘neighbour’ Jesus meant ‘everyone we rub shoulders with’. Sadly, it is possible to engage in any method of evangelism without genuinely loving the person we are engaging with. Take, for example, the Alpha Course – seen by many as one of the most effective evangelistic tools employed by many churches in the UK today. It is quite possible for a church to put on an Alpha Course without actually really loving, or seeking to genuinely befriend, those whom they invite. I personally know of one town where several of the local churches ran Alpha Courses at the same time, and actually ‘warred’ with each other in their attempts to enlist people to attend, in order to boost their own numbers?! Even this aspect of ‘friendship evangelism’ that I am advocating here, has sadly morphed into a ‘system’ known as ‘Friendship Evangelism’ defined on Wikipedia as ‘an approach to evangelism characterized by Christians developing relationships with people in order to show them kindness and talk to them about God eventually’ which, to my mind at least, smacks of something false – befriending people because we have a hidden agenda rather than because we really love them?
I might be accused of being a tad skeptical of course, I admit. But I have seen so many churches over the years where a lot of interest and attention has been focused on people until they make some kind of commitment, only to find themselves ignored afterwards as the church moves on to the next likely candidate?! This may account to some degree as to why the ‘drop out’ rate in some churches is huge. One prominent leader of a big charismatic church told me – in a rare moment of honesty – that they had as many people leaving by the back door as they had coming in through the front door. I suspect that they are not the only church where this phenomena is happening, although I suspect that you will be hard pressed to get anyone to admit it?!
John Harris (Love In Action Ministries) suggests that seeing people simply as ‘conversion fodder’ is also know in some quarters as ‘scalp hunting’ – an old Wild West term stemming from a time when soldiers were paid for each Red Indian scalp they collected?! One of the rules of hermeneutics – the science behind correctly interpreting Scripture – is that there must be ‘an honest reading of the text’ rather than a bringing of our own ideas to a biblical text or passage. In much the same way we need to indulge in ‘an honest reading of the text of our own lives’! In seeking to share the good news of Jesus and the Gospel with others, do we do so out of genuine love for them? Perhaps the acid test is whether or not we intend to remain friends with people even if they never turn to Christ? As my good friend, Serena Newman, suggests, ‘You can be lifelong friends with someone, and they still may not choose to become a Christian … [but] that isn’t a reason to stop being friends … or [perhaps you may discover that] you never were a [genuine] friend in the first place … you were just playing the conversion fodder game in disguise!’