Here’s a question to my brothers and sisters, and to myself: “Do you have any friends who are not followers of Jesus? Good friends?” This may be a question we have to take seriously because it appears that this was the main way people were brought to faith in the early days of Christianity.
By most estimates, the church grew by about 40 percent per decade in the first 300 years of its life. How did that happen? Mike Aquilina writes:
When Christianity was an illegal underground movement, it spread from friend to friend. That was the only way it could spread. And anyone who became a Christian was making a big sacrifice just by that very identity. You could die in one of the periodic persecutions. But even if you didn’t get thrown to the beasts — as obviously most Christians didn’t — you still had to be watchful all the time. It was a pagan world out there, and everything conspired to pull Christians away from their straight and narrow path back to the easy road. (Mike Aquilina, Friendship and the Fathers [Steubenville, OH: Emmaus Road, 2021], 9.)
He further reminds us:
Christianity certainly didn’t have force on its side (then), and Christians couldn’t rent halls and have big revival meetings to convert the heathens. The only thing they had going for them was an apostolate (an evangelistic activity) of friendship. Christians made friends and then they made their friends Christians. (Aquilina, 5.)
The church today, especially in places like Singapore, are not illegal — we can afford to rent big stadiums and, by and large, we can run whatever evangelistic programmes we want. Therefore, we must ask why the church isn’t growing as significantly as it did in the days of the early church? Could one reason be the fact that we no longer know how to make friends? And by this I am not talking about a programme like friendship evangelism where friendship becomes a means to an end. When non-Christians realise that you are not really out to care for them but that you befriend them just to convert them, they would feel betrayed. I know I would. I am talking about reaching out with genuine love to people; that we make friends because we want to walk with them, because we want to be committed to mutual care.
We are in the midst of a raging culture war where there are forces pressing in on things we know to be wrong. We must believe that God is sovereign while we do what we need to in order to stand for what is right and true. But I do not want us to adopt a siege mentality that stops us from reaching out to those different from us. We want to follow Jesus who knew what was right and wrong, and who knew when it was time to call people to repent, but who made friends with all sorts of people and shared meals with them.
One truth affecting Christian and non-Christian alike is that we live in a lonely world. But we worship a God who reached out to us in friendship (John 15:15).
. . . if God—who has no equal—has befriended us, who are we to place anyone outside the reach of our friendship? If Christianity is participation in the divine life, then grace makes us omni-capable in friendship. We can be friends with the most unlikely people. (Aquilina, 6.)
I think we are long overdue for a revolution of friendship. First, within the church because the church can be as lonely, if not more lonely, than the world. Then, the church can be a training ground for friendship that equips us for befriending a lost and lonely world.