How Friendship Evangelism has been failing the Church

For decades western Christians have been regaled with the importance of non-judgemental, non- threatening, friendship evangelism. Forming relationships with the unsaved in order to ‘win them over’ is the universally approved method. Anything else is often met with doubts and mistrust. Despite the growing acceptance of what we like to call the law-to-grace method, which stresses using the ten commandments to bring people to see they are lost without Jesus, friendship evangelism is still the dominant methodology.

The problem is it is not working well. Over the decades since the 70s the western church should have seen substantial growth, given the supposed superiority of friendship evangelism, but it has not. Quite the reverse. Most studies, reported by the likes of the Barna Group, show a declining belief in Christianity, especially amongst youth. The oft-repeated and erroneous reaction to poor performance is to escalate commitment to a failing order in the hope that it will bear the fruit expected of it. If only we can do it better we will see it work. The emergent church movement and a raft of books like Kinnaman’s Un-Christian and Rob Bell’s book, which minimises the reality of hell, are at the forefront of this misguided escalation and fall naturally out of a mistaken emphasis on friendship as the only basis for evangelism.

The reasons for this failed emphasis has got little to do with friendship evangelism per se, after-all the Great Command is about loving our neighbour. The reasons for its poor success rate are to do with broader influences and problems, but the Church refuses, by- in-large, to accept them. Having committed itself to a wilderness of its own making its leaders and speakers keep the Church there with now clichéd calls to make ourselves more amenable and acceptable to the unsaved, despite the violence it does to truth, reality and effectiveness. So, even if the contemporary evangelist uses relational evangelism with the ‘Roman Road’ and some measure of Ray Comforts law-to-grace they remain hobbled. Some will come to Christ but the ‘harvest’ is always going to be meagre. Here is Truth Watch’s catalogue of the reasons the harvest is so poor:

Exaggerated empathy: In a recent message attended by a Truth Watcher the speaker claimed the reason the gospel is not well received is because Christians put the unsaved off with their attitudes, demeanour and lack of empathy. It’s this belief that encourages the emergent church emphasis on engaging with non-Christians at their level and de-powering biblical truths to make them palatable to the unsaved. The real difficulty can actually be sheeted back to the unsaved. It is secular attitudes and philosophic pre-suppositions, influenced by a whole lot of media and academic brain-washing, that makes it difficult to reach them. Anti-Christian skeptics have been highly effective, but the Church does little to counter their influence. On top of that it would be hard to find a biblical rationale for the egregious emergent response. Jesus taught with authority, not by trying to ignore reality, or empathise with his audience’s prejudices and sensitivities.

Defence-less: The biblical model for reaching the unsaved relies on a mix of things: good apologetic skills (1 Peter 3:15 and the example set by Paul in Acts 17:22-31); a determination to defend the faith (Jude 3); an ability to recognise and ‘demolish’ arguments raised up against a knowledge of God (2 Corinthians 10:5) and the proper use of law-to-grace (Galatians 3:24,Romans 7:7 and 1 Timothy 1:8-10), coupled to the Roman Road. Without these skills it is very difficult for a Christian to cope with the opposing arguments raised by the skeptical non-Christian. Unfortunately, these skills do not receive anywhere near enough attention in the Church and the basic pre-suppositions behind the non-believer’s world view go unchallenged. This is especially true when it comes to life’s origins, God’s existence, religious pluralism and moral relativism.

Seeker-friendly falsehood:  Following on from the success of Rick Warren and Bill Hybels mega-churches many leaders have directly or indirectly adopted the seeker friendly approach to church which emphasises giving the general populous something they are more likely to like.  Doctrine is de-emphasised, felt needs are met and the gospel is stripped of sinfulness and repentance to avoid offending anyone.  Warren and Hybels were mentored by management and corporate guru Peter Drucker who was not a Christian, but admired churches as community institutions. The seeker friendly methodology is obviously anti-Christian.  Vital biblical truths are ignored.  Jesus explicitly taught that friendship with the world was not to be pursued (John 15: 18-20 and 16:33).  He did not shy away from revealing unpalatable truths (John 6:60-66).  Jesus did not set out to please men but to witness to the truth and please God (1 Thessalonians 2:3-4).  Pay particular attention to Galatians 1: 6-10 which precisely sums up the gross error in the soft gospel of the seeker-friendly movement which has so heavily influenced friendship evangelism:

 "I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed! For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ (NASB)."  

The grasshopper syndrome (Numbers 13:33): Spurgeon once predicted that a ‘pitiably weak’ church would never challenge the world, while Francis Schaeffer lamented the fact that the Church refused to engage in what he called ‘loving confrontation’. Christians have shrunk away from confronting the world.  This is why the seeker-friedly, friendship evangelism methods are so popular. There is no counter-cultural example that sets itself against the prevailing secular culture. The now incipient version of Christianity leaves Christians feeling like grasshopper facing the giants of secular thinking and living. Instead of daring to imagine a Church with its face set against an atheistic culture, it has retreated into a subservient lets-get-along mode that characterised the Israelites condemned to the wilderness. There is therefore no attention-grabbing reason for the secular world to see Christianity as a distinct life alternative. Worse still there is no reason to take Christian doctrines seriously. When divorce in the Church is as high as secular divorce rates and when other moral sins are relegated to the side-lines of importance why would it be taken seriously. In the first century Christianity was taken seriously because it contrasted sharply with the Greco-Romanised world. Persecution followed, just as Jesus predicted, but so did explosive growth. In today’s world it is hard to draw any sharp contrasts between Christianity and secularism. Even traditional Christian philanthropy is overshadowed by state-sponsored welfare-ism.

The teaching treadmill: Teaching in the Church hardly ventures beyond a set of acceptable subject areas. In Hebrews 6 the Church is scolded for failing to get beyond ‘elementary teachings’. It is compared (Hebrews 5) to a child on milk rather than an adult on solid food. So much teaching is devoted to prayer, forgiveness and life-enhancing psychology that the weaknesses being addressed here are hardly touched on. Matthew 23:23-24 has become a reality. Gnats are sifted while the elephants in the room are avoided in the interests of a false unity.  An exaggerated quest for unity sacrifices truth and the real gospel on the alter of acceptability.

Christian narcissism: Too many Christians are treating the Bible as a devotional self-fulfillment tool.  Rick Warren's Purpose Driven Life took this me-ism to new heights.  The process of growing as a Christian needs to be much more than looking for happiness and met needs.  It is about being 'born again' and advancing God's spiritual kingdom. Unfortunately, many churches nurture a narcissistic, self-esteem focus. The Bible’s real intent is to build knowledge, discernment, insights, wisdom and obedience to God into a consistent whole of life world view. Being born again starts with repentance but it should not end there. The Bible has been given by God to help Christians build a fully-rounded world view that is deliberately actionable and directed beyond the Church at repentance, salvation righteousness and justice.  First comes a love for God, expressed through obedience to his commands (John 14:23, 1 John 5:3, 2 John 1:6); next comes the works associated with a love for our neighbour that begins with the right gospel.

Poor leadership: If you go to our Long Declaration, our 95 Theses and the ‘Can They’ article you will appreciate Truth Watch’s indictment of the western Church. Much of it can be laid at the feet of a largely unimaginative and conservative leadership that put rules made by men (church cultures) before a proper appreciation of and reaction to the times in which we live. The damage done to the western Church by leadership has been pervasive and pernicious. What’s more it has been tarred with moral and spiritual cowardice. In his latest book U-Turn George Barna cites research that proves very few Christians have a Christian world view, while leaders know it and refuse to do anything about it because they do not want to admit their failing, or confront the secular giants. Apart from the way this appalling situation hamstrings effective evangelism it also makes on-going discipleship and sanctification difficult. A fuller knowledge of God (Titus 1:1) is not developed in Christians and as a result the revolving door of people ostensibly coming to Christ while others are leaving is a feature of church life. Thanks to the Church the seeds of evangelism easily fall on rocky and weed infested ground.

Feminisation: The feminine traits of fraternisation, affiliation and empathy have been given an unnatural emphasis, while more masculine traits like goal setting, philosophic contemplation, competition, risk-taking and male camaraderie have had the life squeezed out of them. This magnifies the problems being identified here, while making it even more difficult to overcome them. Churches see significant growth when masculine traits are given more prominence. Perhaps the Church needs to re-embrace the much more robust attitudes held by the first century church and described by German scholar Adolf von Harnack in Richard Neibuhr’s Christ and Culture:

  • Our people are older than the world (an eternal perspective).
  • The world was created for our sakes (therefore we should be upset when the tenets we stand on are abused).
  • The world is carried on for our sakes – we retard the judgement of the world (part of the problem of evil answered).
  • Everything in the world is subject to us and must serve us (but not right now!).
  • Everything in the world, the beginning and course and end of all history, is revealed to us and lies transparent to our eyes (understanding the times).
  • We shall take part in the judgement of the world and enjoy eternal bliss (An ‘end times’ or future history perspective).

Just like Jesus: The weaknesses in the church are often justified using misleading depictions of Jesus’ ministry. The more feminine aspects of his ministry, like a concern for the poor and his call to children, are magnified over the masculine aspects. He is also misrepresented with claims he never judged people and therefore neither should we. This is nonsense. He taught we should judge the things God had already judged, providing we did not do so hypocritically (Matthew 7:1-5). He judged the woman at the well and he roundly condemned the Pharisees. He taught that he had not come to do away with the law (the moral, not the ceremonial), because as Paul tells us, it convicts us of sin. He demanded, in areas like lust and adultery stricter adherence to the law. He also said he had not come to bring peace but division and a sword (Matthew 10:34). We should also remember he insisted that he was the only way to salvation and God and he deliberately used analogies that drove people away (eat my body and drink my blood -John 6:56). This is a different Jesus to the one misconceived by those who insist the Church remain non-judgemental and inoffensive

Fixing the problem
Truth Watch remains pessimistic about the western Church despite the fact that remedying the poor state of the Church involves some obvious steps:

  • Make teaching Christians a fully-rounded world view and effective apologetics a top priority.
  • Abandon the Drucker inspired seeker-friendly methods.
  • Elevate truth and the gospel above an over-emphasis on forming relationships with the unsaved.
  • Face up to the anti-Christian bias in politics, academia and education and confront the secular world with counter-cultural alternatives. Back it up by actually becoming counter-cultural. This would involve rejecting secular moral values and significant elements of popularist public policy. This process is discussed in detail in Issachar's Call: A Christian Manifesto for Resurrecting the Christian Church and Western Civilisation. Available as a free download from this site.
  • Restore masculine traits to church life with a particular emphasis on confronting false secular suppositions (pretentious arguments) in local communities with biblical truths.