Bernice and I were at a meeting with some leaders recently. One of the statements I heard towards the end of the meeting caught my attention. The brother said that the movement they were involved in was searching for new language to guide the Christian enterprise going forward. I thought it was a no-brainer. In the lonely world we live in, the motif that should guide Christian mission is friendship.
I had written in a recent article about some of the main components for the practice of friendship. Here is the list of these basic practices.
- Spend time together.
- Share meals.
- Do things together.
What would some components of church life look like if we invested in the above practices?
Though this is changing, for the longest time teaching in church meant assembling people in a room to listen to someone give a talk. There was no real relationship between teacher and pupils, and essentially the teacher shared material but did very little listening. Teachers who put in more effort may have meals with their students. Ironically this would be hard to do if the teacher was popular and the class was very big. Other teachers may initiate ministry projects with their classes.
Imagine a situation where teachers spent time getting to know their students. They would share meals where the teacher would do a lot of empathetic listening to know the worlds of their students. When the teacher shares his or her material it will be true not only to the Word but would also seek to connect the Word to the worlds of the listeners. And it would be ideal if there was also a ministry project the class did together. This would be experiential learning which is very powerful.
But even as I write the above, I worry that this approach to teaching/learning where teacher and pupils are friends learning together will not be popular. For one thing it sounds too inefficient. After all, with technology we can reach so many people now and we don’t need to force people to gather in one place. Indeed, it is tough for some people to travel, and this is a valid concern. In the past all that was needed was that teachers were good speakers. The experiential learning approach will force teachers to develop and practice different skills. All I can say is that this approach was practised by Jesus.
Here are the main ways we have done evangelism: We invite folks to evangelistic events where an evangelist gifted in preaching evangelistic sermons would speak, at the end of which people would be challenged to accept Jesus as their Lord and Saviour. Many have come to the Lord this way (think Billy Graham). Some of these evangelistic events could be much more elaborate, with music presentations, plays, and movies added on.
Then there is the practice of personal evangelism. Some approaches require people to memorise large portions of biblical material and some guiding questions. They then present those portions of Scripture and the questions to those they are trying to reach for Christ. Another approach reduces the gospel to a few main points and puts those in a booklet. Then we need to guide people through the booklet with the aim of helping them accept Christ by reading/praying the sinner’s prayer. I want to be clear that the above approaches have helped many come to the Lord. I have also used some, if not all, of the above methods with varying degrees of “success”.
When we look at how Jesus preached the gospel, however, we note that He used various methods. He did public preaching which was usually aimed at Jews in an attempt to awaken them to who they were and what they were meant to do. But when reaching out to people, His favourite method was to eat with them (Mark 2:15–22). In His culture, as in many others, to share a meal was to reach out in friendship. In sharing a meal with someone, we spend time with that person, we listen to his/her stories, and we look for opportunities to connect the gospel with his/her life. We can also look for ways we can do things together, e.g., community projects where we connect as regular folks.
In the past, there was something called friendship evangelism. I always had problems with this name. It implied that friendship was a means to an end — conversion. But friendship should not be a means to an end. A friend loves at all times (Prov. 17:17). And Jesus makes it very clear in John 15 that the focus of friendship is the welfare of the friend. So let’s not do friendship evangelism. Let’s just be friends. The world is fed up of people pretending to be friends so that they can sell them something. Let us just be real friends, people who desire to walk together with them.
There is also a mutuality in friendship. We must have the humility to receive from the folks we are befriending even as we seek to be a blessing to them. At some point we will want to introduce these friends to another of our friends, Jesus. Perhaps it is not surprising that one of the most effective evangelistic approaches these days is the Alpha programme which places a high premium on relationships and meals where people are encouraged to ask questions.
In subsequent essays I may explore what other components of church life, like worship and leadership, may look like if we approach them from the perspective of friendship. So, if we are looking for new paradigms to shape what it means to follow Jesus, I strongly suggest we look at friendship.