If I were to ask readers of the Congregational Record why they started attending church I wonder what the answer would be. Douglas Humphris passed on to me some statistics which reflect other surveys done in the UK and the US, which suggest that the initial process was through what has become known as ‘Friendship Evangelism’:
Parish Visitation: 1%
Church Clubs & Groups: 2%
Special situations: 3%
Children’s work: 4%
Ministerial contact: 7%
Invitation by friends: 77%
The notion of ‘friendship evangelism’, which has underpinned the renewal in Sandyford during the ministries of George Philip and Peter White, has become an increasing part of the philosophy of ministry from the late twentieth century onwards.
Recent publications ascribe the emphasis to a business model which sets out relationship building as meeting particular goals. However, the relational approach in the last twenty years may be due to a reaction against ‘cold contact’ evangelism. People will not these days listen to strangers who knock on their door, who phone them or contact them by mailshot. One of the problems when this method is applied to the sphere of religion is that it tends to treat the gospel as a commodity, the evangelist as a sales person, and the people we are trying to reach as targeted consumers. The ‘cold calling’ approach has also been seen as victimization, with the targeted individual reduced to the status of a potential convert.
The relational approach may also be a reaction against mass evangelism, which was particularly prominent some forty or fifty years ago, notably with the Billy Graham campaigns and the many similar rallies. While we cannot deny their effectiveness (in fact, many church leaders first came to faith through such means), the insufficient attention given to making disciples left so many adrift after the momentum of the initial engagement was lost.
Is friendship evangelism biblical?
The current focus on ‘friendship evangelism’ in a number of churches has unleashed a backlash of criticism calling into question its biblical justification. Some theologians see this as ‘extra biblical, faux-evangelistic methodology’. How can we reconcile James’s warning that ‘friendship with the world is enmity with God’ (James 4: 4) or the need to beware ‘when all men speak well of you!’ (Luke 6: 26). Obviously, we need to ensure that we are not just ‘friend pleasers’ and that in all our friendships we retain the integrity of our profession of faith in Christ. Sometimes, we may lose friendships if the cost of retaining them is the sacrifice of our Christian principles.
However, the major fear, that ‘friendship evangelism’ makes the ‘verbal proclamation of the gospel unnecessary’, misunderstands the nature of such evangelism. Such evangelism is based on ‘earning the right to speak to people’ about their need of salvation. Jesus himself was criticized for his friendship building by the religious leaders of his day (Luke 7: 34; 15:2). Friendship evangelism enhances rather than undermines the need for preaching, whether in less formal surroundings as happened when the early Christians were scattered abroad (Acts 8: 4 in which the word ‘preached’ means ‘gossiped’), or in church services. The ultimate aim of such evangelism is that friends might be ‘added to the church’.
What is friendship?
In the past, in secular society, friendship was something to be prized above all things. One of the great Irish poets of the early twentieth century, William Butler Yeats, captured the longings of his generation:
Think where man’s glory most begins and ends
And say my glory was I had such friends.
The aspirations and longings of so many in the twenty-first century are no different. One of the major problems of our age is the isolation and loneliness that so many feel. The agony columns of newspapers, contemporary literature and films, betray the desperate need of people for friendship. A common theme is the cry for reality in friendship. There is a weariness with regard to manipulation in whatever form. Here is the challenge for us in Sandyford. It is easy to be a false friend who is only interested in people becoming Christians or making people think we care about them. Real friendship evangelism is not interested in metrics (even though it is encouraging when God does add to our numbers). No amount of training can replace genuine care. Outside the church the complaint is of superficial cordiality. How important it is that our friendships are genuine!
What if after many years there is no response to the gospel? Again the model of Jesus is helpful. He loved Judas till the end, inviting him to be with him even in his last supper. Sometimes it is hard to leave the outcome to God. Though, for our encouragement, our relationship may be an important step in the journey to faith of a friend, as it is God who gives the increase (I Corinthians 3: 6-7).
Who are my friends?
How easy it is for us to choose our friends exclusively from our own particular age group, from people like ourselves. However, for the sake of the gospel, God often wants us to reach out to people who are very dissimilar. How glad we are that Jesus was not restrictive in the company He kept! The criterion for his friendship, as we know, is that we are sinners recognizing our need of Him. In this respect, there are four areas in which through the providence of God we may have openings for potential friendship: familial (our relatives), geographical (our neighbours), vocational (our place of work, if we are privileged to be in employment), social (clubs, hobbies, interests).
The church presents an additional challenge and opportunity. Two weeks ago we spoke to over 200 people at BBQ events and at the ceilidh. At the first congregational lunch many people new to Glasgow met with us, some of whom had never before been in a church. How do we extend friendship to them and to others of all ages who have come to what we might call our pre-evangelistic meetings?
One of the best methods commended in both Old and New Testaments is through hospitality. In fact, hospitality was a way of life and part of the identity for the believers of old. The Bible is full of exhortations to welcome the stranger – exhortations which come with blessing added. Abraham’s welcoming of the three visitors (Genesis 18) or Rahab’s taking in the spies (Joshua 2) are merely two illustrations of the life-transforming benefit to the host, examples which encourage the writer to the Hebrews to exhort a struggling group of people not to neglect the alien and the sojourner: ‘Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it’ (Hebrews 13: 2). The ministry of Jesus is steeped in hospitality culture, with Jesus shown as both guest and host. This was one of the hallmarks of the gospel in a world in which, like our own, there was little care for the stranger.
Now over the last twenty years there has been a resurgence of interest in hospitality in philosophical and political debate. Reasons suggested have included concerns about the ‘seemingly increasingly inhospitable nation state’, the movement of population within an expanded Europe, the influx of refugees and the commercial exploitation of the tourist in what has become ‘the hospitality industry’, which has brought into being degree- qualifying courses. However, a glance at sermon series in evangelical churches would give the impression that this subject has been relegated to the margins of biblical ministry.
In Sandyford, collective church hospitality in the form of lunches has been an integral part of our friendship evangelism. However, it is perhaps easy for us to think that this form of hospitality, which takes a lot out of those who prepare food and help with other aspects of organization, absolves us from the need to pay attention to what is not an optional extra. The description of an elder (not often heard in ordination services – 1 Timothy 3: 2; Titus 1: 8) is applicable to all believers (1 Peter 4: 9). Hospitality does not demand a special kind of spirituality (if such a quality exists). It requires love, compassion, kindness and hard work.
Some might justifiably claim that they have not the resources, either physical or material (though it must be pointed out that, like the widow at Zarephath in 1 Kings 17, welcoming one stranger is never despised by God). Some of the older folk, who over the years have helped lay the foundations on which so much Sandyford evangelism has been constructed are no longer able to receive people in the way that they once did (though some still challenge us with what they contribute!). But what about the rest of us? What a special privilege God has given us in bringing so many ‘sojourners’ to within 800 yards of our church! What an opportunity to identify afresh with the One, who, as host, has welcomed us on a scale we could never have imagined or thought:
…I was a stranger and you invited me in (Matthew 25: 35)
With very best wishes
Noël Peacock, Session Clerk