The idea of friendship evangelism has become super popular over the last couple of decades. Perhaps because it’s the polar opposite of the street preacher, standing on a corner, shouting into a megaphone. Friendship evangelism sounds personal and loving.
In this article, I’ll be writing about; what friendship evangelism actually is, my failed attempts at it, and why it might be time for a rethink.
This is part three of a four-part series looking at evangelism in the 21st century. I’m covering…
What is friendship evangelism?
Friendship evangelism can mean one of two things. For the purpose of this blog post, I’m going to label it as either active or passive.
1. Active friendship evangelism
I’ve called this first strategy “active” because it encourages you to actively seek out new friendships with non-believers. It’s deliberate, purposeful and simple.
- Step 1 = Befriend some non-Christians
- Step 2 = Share the gospel with them
How you do that specifically is up to you, but there are two general ways of doing active friendship evangelism; start a church-led community group or join an existing community group.
Start a church-led community group
These are, usually, free to attend weekly groups that are organised by churches. The primary aim behind them is to build friendships with non-believers (with the hope that opportunities to share the gospel will follow).
There are so many examples…
- Arts and crafts groups
- Baby and toddler groups
- English language classes
- Gents drinks (at the pub)
- International cafés
- Seniors lunches
- Sports groups
- Youth football
Groups like these give church members an opportunity to serve the church and get to know non-believers who share the same interests, or are at the same life stage, as them.
Join an existing community group
But you don’t always have to start an official church group.
Chances are, there’s already a tennis club, or group, in your area. So, instead of starting a church tennis outreach group, you could just join the local tennis club. Perhaps you could even get a few tennis-loving church members to join with you?
You’ll have just as many opportunities to develop friendships with non-believers and way less admin!
So that’s active friendship evangelism. But what’s passive friendship evangelism?
2. Passive friendship evangelism
I’ve heard this called “network evangelism” before. The basic idea is that every Christian already has a network of non-believers (friends, family members, colleagues, neighbours, etc.) and they should seek out opportunities to share Jesus with their network.
The seeking out of opportunities can still be quite deliberate and intentional but I call this “passive” friendship evangelism because it doesn’t involve actively going out and looking for non-Christians to befriend.
If you’ve read my previous two articles on free lunch evangelism and funnel evangelism you’ll recognise passive friendship evangelism. It’s largely responsible for getting people along to our “free lunch” church events or top-of-the-funnel initiatives.
I’ve often heard it said…
“Start thinking about who you might like to invite.”
This is passive friendship evangelism. A church wine tasting evening is coming up in three weeks time. Our job is to think of all the non-Christian friends we already have and then decide which of them might enjoy coming along.
“Not Dave because he’s more of a beer man. Not Sally because she’s on holiday. Maybe Michelle. Yes, I’ll send her a text!”
My failed attempts at active friendship evangelism
When I moved to Tunbridge Wells in 2016 I was 100% on board with active friendship evangelism. I even remember chatting to the vicar and explaining that “if we want people to actually listen to our gospel, then first we need to earn their trust because nobody listens to strangers”.
So, I did two things;
- I started a weekly church table tennis club
- I joined the local squash club
What can I say? I love sport. And that’s both forms of active friendship evangelism covered!
Squash club evangelism
I was a member of the local squash club for two years and in that time I got to know roughly 30 other members. I was there, on average, about three times a week. I had a great time and my squash got a lot better!
But opportunities to talk about Jesus were few and far between. I did manage one or two conversations, but overall it proved extremely difficult to get beyond chit-chat and squash-chat. People aren’t generally discussing life and death and faith and God before or after a squash match!
If I’m honest, it would probably also be a bit of a stretch to call any of the guys I played squash with “friends”. “Acquantainces” would be more accurate.
Table tennis evangelism
Unfortunately, I wasn’t having much luck at my church table tennis club either. If anything, it was even harder to have proper conversations with people when you’re the one running the whole thing!
Don’t get me wrong, it was a lot of fun and we had plenty of non-Christians coming along. It looked like a great success. There were probably 20 people there each week who ordinarily would never step foot inside a church. A few even mentioned that our table tenis club was friendlier and had a nicer, more inclusive vibe than any other club they’d been to.
But there wasn’t really any “evangelism” going on.
I suddenly realised that active friendship evangelism was a much bigger task than I’d anticipated. In order to actually become friends with someone, and reach the place beyond chit-chat, we’d need to spend a lot of time together! And that’s not easy to do when you have a wife, and multiple businesses, and lots of church commitments, and family members you haven’t seen in ages, and three or four existing networks of friends.
Realistically, you can only really do that with a handful of people. This has unintentionally turned into some sort of friendship evangelism funnel!
Is it time for a rethink?
While researching this blog post, I stumbled across an article with an absolutely cracking title… Friendship Evangelism Is Neither Friendship Nor Evangelism.
I highly recommend reading that. But here are some thoughts I’d like to share.
Just like funnel evangelism, friendship evangelism is based on the assumption that non-believers are more likely to accept the gospel as wise, true and powerful (1 Corinthians 1) if they hear it from a friend. And there are plenty of stats to back that claim up.
“According to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, 80% of adults coming to faith in Jesus Christ do so as a result of the influence of a friend.”
It seems like friendship evangelism is one of the only things that’s working these days. Ignore it at your peril. But stop and think for a minute and you’ll realise that that isn’t necessarily true. Survivorship bias is an important consideration.
“What on earth is survivorship bias?”
Put simply, survivorship bias describes our tendency to focus on the people or things that have passed some kind of selection process.
For example, for the past 18 months every single person who’s turned up at my Tuesday-night church table tennis club has been brought along by a friend. 100% of members!
We could conclude from that that people will only turn up to a table tennis club if they know a friend who already attends the club. But I know that to be false because three years ago, when I first started the club, everyone who attended the club came along on their own after finding out about it online.
The truth is that 18 months ago I removed all mention of the club online because we were getting far too busy. So, for the past 18 months, friends of current members are the only people in Tunbridge Wells who have even heard about the club.
I was very excited yesterday to find someone else saying the same thing…
“There is an important fallacy underlying the concept of friendship evangelism. The reason friendship evangelism is statistically dominant is simply because we, as Christians, are so uncomfortable sharing our faith with strangers. We have created this statistical reality. We typically only share our faith with people we know, so it’s shouldn’t surprise us that these are the people who come to know something about our faith!”
So, on the surface it may appear that non-Christians will only attend Christianity Explored if they are invited by a Christian friend. But once we dig a little more, we realise that nobody else in our parish even realised a Christianity Explored course was happening!
The truth is, our friends are no more likely to accept and believe the gospel than total strangers. Therefore, it makes no sense for us to focus our evangelistic efforts on a handful of our friends.
We had a guy come to our church last year to talk about door-to-door evangelism (a method I’ll be talking about more tomorrow). He gave a decent presentation, highlighting many reasons why door-to-door still works well today. But there was one thing he said that really made me question his approach.
He said, “We’re not trying to convert people on the doorstep or get them to come to church. All we want to do is start a friendship.”
I was aware that a few other people around the room also picked up on that. And we were all thinking the same thing – is that true?
You see, the church in question had a strategy in place to make sure they got to every house in their area. That’s a lot of people! Did they really want to start a friendship with all of them? Is that even possible? What would that look like?
I pictured myself knocking on a random stranger’s door in our parish. Can I honestly say that “all I want is to become friends with whoever opens the door”. I’m not sure I can. I’ve got plenty of friends already.
I want to tell them about Jesus. Yes, that’s the reason I’m knocking on their door. And if they’d like to know more, then I’d love to invite them to church. If I was simply after a new friend I don’t think my first thought would be to pick a random road in our parish and start knocking on doors!
Is friendship evangelism even friendship? I guess it could be. But surely a lot of the time it ends up being a fake friendship. Or a friendship with a very clear agenda. I’m not sure how I feel about that. I’m not sure how our new “friends” would feel about that either.
Passive friendship evangelism ignores the marginalised
What about the lonely, the isolated, the outcasts, the forgotten, the vulnerable, the homeless? Passive friendship evangelism doesn’t do a very good job of reaching them with the good news of Jesus!
And you could argue that these are the people who might be most responsive to the gospel.
Currently, we’re putting on evangelistic events and then primarily using passive friendship evangelism to invite people along. The most common result? Our friends come up with an excuse for why they’re not able to come along this time.
It reminds me of the parable of the great banquet in Luke 14…
“A man once gave a great banquet and invited many. And at the time for the banquet he sent his servant to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’ But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it. Please excuse me.’ And another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to examine them. Please excuse me.’ And another said, ‘I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.’ So the servant came and reported these things to his master. Then the master of the house became angry and said to his servant, ‘Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame.’ And the servant said, ‘Sir, what you commanded has been done, and still there is room.’ And the master said to the servant, ‘Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet.’” – Luke 14:16-24
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with inviting people from our current “network” to our church’s evangelistic events. We should be looking for opportunities to talk to them about Jesus and praying that God would do a powerful transformation in them.
But we mustn’t focus on our friends exclusively. And we mustn’t ignore the marginalised.
What’s the alternative?
Ok, so maybe friendship evangelism isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. But what’s the alternative? We’ve already crossed off “free lunch” evangelistic events and evangelism funnels.
Well, here’s an idea…
If you want to tell people about Jesus, don’t start a table tennis club or a knitting club, start a Jesus club!
Not that there’s anything wrong with starting a free community table tennis club or knitting club, by all means go ahead and serve your local community self-sacrificially if you want to. But don’t kid yourself into thinking that’s evangelism.
I’ll be releasing the final part of this four part series very soon. It’s pretty easy picking holes in the stuff we do currently. It’s quite a bit harder coming up with fresh ideas and alternatives. But that’s the plan, anyway.
And even if all I’ve done is start a conversation about how we can do better at “evangelism” in the 21st century, well, I think that’s time well spent!