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Friendship evangelism

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Archives / 1993 / September

 

 

Friendship evangelism

Monte Sahlin
Monte Sahlin is adult ministries coordinator for the Church Ministries Department of the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists. He is the author of Friendship Evangelism and Sharing Our Faith With Friends Without Losing Either.

 

Members of the Sunnyvale Seventh-day Adventist Church in suburban San Jose, California, report that one of their most effective outreach activities is the Sunday ball game. It may not seem evangelistic—there is no preaching, no call for decisions, no Bible study or literature distribution—yet many new members of this growing church testify that their decision to join started with friendships developed during ball games.

Pastor Tim Mitchell is one of an expanding network of Adventist preachers who have discovered that the development of friendships between members and nonmembers is a powerful tool for evangelism. In secularized, urban societies, friendship evangelism may be the only avenue to reach large numbers of people who are resistant to religion.

Clay Peck is another Adventist pastor who promotes friendship evangelism. Two years ago in the Davenport, Iowa, church he held meetings that yielded 30 baptisms. "More than half were from small groups," he reports. "The rest were from friendship evangelism— every one." The congregation had worked at a relational strategy for evangelism for three years prior to the meetings and had 80 or more people participating in a dozen small groups each week.

The unchurched are not necessarily unbelievers; they just know little about the Bible and are distrustful of organized religion. Often they are not often against religion; they just feel that it is somebody else's hobby and not for them.

Public opinion surveys in the United States indicate that most unchurched people feel that churches are overly concerned with organizational matters—institutional processes, fund-raising, and programs. They also see the churches as neglecting humanitarian issues like hunger, the homeless, unemployment, and civil rights. 1

This means that most of the unchurched are not likely to participate in any religious activity. They can be reached only at a personal level through a relationship with someone whom they trust and respect.

Friendship evangelism recognizes the fact that most converts to Christ and the church are won through the ministry of friends or relatives. For example, Gottfried Oosterwal says that 57 percent of adults who join the Adventist Church list friends and relatives as the most important influence in their decision, and 67 percent say this was the avenue through which they first became acquainted with the Adventist message.2 Recent global surveys indicate that the percentage may now be as high as 80.

Research reveals that most converts think seriously about spirituality and the possibility of church membership during a time of trauma or transition. In most cases, during the six to 12 months before first attending church or public evangelism, they have experienced one or more of the following: a move, divorce, marriage, death or birth in the family, job loss, or a serious stressful event.3

Building trustful relationships

Readiness to hear the gospel conies with awakening feelings of need. And the most effective channel for communicating the gospel is a friend. Friendship evangelism is learning to build trustful relationships with unchurched persons in the context of secular life, and then listening and watching with patience and caring for situations in which they show an openness for God.

This process can take a long time. It is highly individualized and defies the typical organizational processes of church programs and statistical reporting. Dr.Mark Walker's story illustrates this reality.

Walker was baptized after more than 12 years of friendly contacts. An Adventist pastor helped him in his teen years to enroll in a respiratory therapy program. He began the program at Kettering College, an Adventist institution operated in Dayton, Ohio. He was accepted into an internship at Porter Memorial Hospital, in Denver, Colorado. The quality of care at these Adventist institutions impressed him. One of the many Adventist friends he made was Linda, a nurse, who became his wife. Finally, as a second-year medical student, in spite of the pressure and demands of medical studies, Walker found time to study the Bible with an Adventist pastor.4

Brenda Criss has another typical story. When she and her fiance moved to the state of Washington in the summer of 1984, one place she went job-hunting was Walla Walla General Hospital. "You can't work there," warned her husband-to-be. "They employ only Adventists."

Criss wasn't a churchgoer at the time, yet she did land a job there. She did not know anything about Adventism, or any other religion. She worked at the hospital for four years before her life began to change. When her youngest child was born, Criss decided she wanted to find a church family. She shopped around, visiting a Nazarene church, a Methodist church, and others. The book of Revelation fascinated her and frightened her, and she wanted to find a church that would help her understand it. "Every time I went to an Adventist church," Criss remembers, "they had answers to my questions."

Adventists whom she knew on the job encouraged her spiritual journey. A work associate shared his conversion experience. Others lent her videos and literature. What they shared wasn't smooth and well polished; it was personal and real. They demonstrated a working faith grounded in Scripture. They showed her how they used the Bible as the basis of their faith.

An evangelistic series provided an opportunity for Criss to review all Adventist beliefs and decide for baptism. "I always wanted to be baptized," she said. "I thought maybe you could only be baptized when you were young." She had already bonded with church members, and felt a part of the fellowship. "It's so nice to go to a church and feel like you know half the people there. At both the church and the hospital, I really feel like I'm home." 5

Three elements of friendship

Friendship evangelism consists of three elements. Each can be seen as a "layer" of solid foundation in Christ, and each builds upon the other.

First, the Christian demonstrates caring and compassion through a genuine friendship that is unconditional—not allied with any expectation of the nonbeliever. I do not expect my friends to accept Christ or join the church, because they may never do it, no matter how much I would like it. I do not expect my friends to do anything for my ego, my pocketbook, or my career. I accept them as they are.

Second, the Christian seeks to under stand the needs of unchurched friends. I do not make a theological judgment or a Christian analysis of their need, but accept their feelings as they understand them. I am aware that their needs will eventually push them toward a readiness for the good news about Christ.

Third, the Christian finds opportunities to share the possibility of faith meeting the felt needs of unchurched friends. Such openings are often brief and fragile, and they are always highly personal moments. In the lives of some, they are rare. Usually they are related to some aspect of life in which their secular values fail to provide genuine substance and inner strength.

Listening skills are the key in friendship evangelism. When believers really listen to others, they are demonstrating that they care about others' opinions, feelings, and values. Disciplined listening embodies unselfish love and compassion at a practical level. It also helps uncover the felt needs of nonbelievers and paves the way for appropriate verbal witness even to those usually resistant to "religion."

Listening skills such as "active questioning," how to check out the feelings of another person, and "story listening" can be taught in a few hours of simple work shops in which church members enjoy fellowship as they "practice" on each other. These are basic life skills that can improve family communication as well as help in relating to unbelievers in the secular context of work, neighborhood, and community service.

Focusing on real-life cases

Consider a beautiful example of these skills modeled by Christ in John 4. He encounters a Samaritan woman at a well about a mile outside of town. The conversation begins with the problem of thirst, which Christ quickly identifies with a deep, inner thirst for love and affection desired by a woman who has experienced five failed marriages. He uses "living water" as a metaphorical expression. It carries the deep meaning of the gospel to this lonely woman, who accepts Christ as her Messiah and becomes an active witness in her town.

Through discussion and sharing of real-life "case studies," church members can sharpen their ability to identify needs and discern opportunities for sharing gospel answers. Opportunities for appropriate verbal witnessing, even among the most anti-religious, come through the skillful use of a simple question. After listening to the needs and feelings of a friend, ask: "Do you have any spiritual resources to help you with this?"

Careful attention to the response—both verbal and body language—will quickly reveal if there is readiness for hearing about Christ. This sets the stage for another basic skill that I call "option introduction": introducing faith in Christ as one alternative that might be considered in meeting personal needs. To make a more conclusive statement at this point would simply cause the unbeliever to back off.

For example, if an unchurched friend has just confided discouragement about his or her career, and answered my readiness question in a way that indicates openness, I might respond by simply saying, "Have you thought about the possibility of establishing a serious faith in Jesus? If you were to do so, that relationship would provide you with a different standard against which to measure success in your career. You would have the feeling that a life of service is more rewarding than winning a promotion in the corporation."

Jesus uses this type of verbal witness in John 4:13,14. He tells the woman that the solution to her deep, inner thirst is the "water that I shall give." It has the advantage of quenching thirst forever, so that those who receive it "never thirst." And the specific benefit of becoming in the woman "a spring of water" (NIV), or source of eternal love.

Many church members are learning to apply this model in their everyday contacts with unchurched friends, relatives, neighbors, and work associates. It not only brings in prospective members but transforms attitudes of church members toward everyday living. They see the relationships they cultivate with others as precious in the eyes of their Lord. Secular life becomes a true "vocation" under the direction of the Lord.

One man told me that for 20 years he repeatedly attempted to circulate hand bills for evangelistic meetings in the office where he worked, and finally gave up after others became offended. Within three months after attending a Friendship Evangelism Seminar, two of his professional colleagues had visited Sabbath worship and begun to study the Bible with him.

Friend Day concept

Where pastors and lay leaders teach friendship evangelism to members, and set up special Sabbaths for them to bring their friends, church attendance greatly increases. In 1987 we began an experiment with the Friend Day concept through the North American Division Church Ministries Department. To date I have received reports from more than 40 churches, large and small. They all report attendance by nonmembers equal to 25 to 35 percent of the church membership. These become an immediate pool of prospects to be visited by lay Bible ministers.

Eoin Giller has used the Friend Day concept with excellent results in more than one pastorate. Last year at the Desert Valley church in Tucson, Arizona, more than 120 work associates, neighbors and acquaintances of members attended the annual event. Planning had begun with associate pastor Sali Jo Hand and the church board four months in advance. The pastoral staff and elders set the pace by each inviting a friend to write a letter accepting an invitation to be present on Friend Day. These letters were posted on the church bulletin board.

Three weeks prior to the event, Desert Valley members began studying a special series of Sabbath school lessons focusing on friendship: "Being a Friend," "What a Friend Is," "What a Friend Does," and culminating on Friend Day with "God Is a Friend." Sermons also focused attention on the coming event.

On Friend Day, greeters in the parking lot and at all the doors welcomed members and guests, creating an immediate impression of warmth and acceptance. The young adult Sabbath school staffed an information table, distributing name tags and "maps" of the church building to help newcomers find an appropriate class for their age.

A small "orchestra" had been assembled to help with the music that Sabbath, and early on Giller introduced as his guest the vice mayor of Tucson. The Par able Players, a drama group from the church, performed a sketch depicting how easily rumors spread in daily life, along with a second presentation entitled "The Heart of the Matter."

"The real reason for going to church," Giller told the worshipers in his sermon, "is to learn to know God as a true friend, . . . and to straighten out distorted concepts of God." He provided opportunities for children to interact with him, and the response of many who attended was positive. "Time just flew," one guest remembered. "When you first invited me, I thought sitting in church from 9:30 to noon would be long and boring."

Giller found that opportunities such as Friend Day create a flow of interested individuals for him and his church to minister to. It was a vital element in the growth of his previous church in Buffalo, New York, where attendance soared in two years from 75 to 175. Other pastors have used variations of the concept. The Monterey Peninsula church in California is located in an area with many military installations, so it planned an observance of Armed Forces Day. The Redondo Beach church and several others in southern California have invited the police officers from their community, with their families, for a special "thank you" Sabbath for their role in maintaining peace and safety.

The gospel commission of Matthew 28:16-20 is a command to all believers in Christ. But parallel passages always condition it. When He first sends out the twelve they are told: "Do not go among the Gen tiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel," their own kin and neighbors (Matt. 10:5, 6, NIV) Later, even when many of His disciples have begun to reach those out side their own community, He states that their witnessing should be first to "Jerusalem" and then to "Judea," and only then to "Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8, NIV). This concept of going first to those that the believer already knows and rubs shoulders with in every day life is central to friendship evangelism. Other terms also have been used recently to denote the concept: "lifestyle witnessing," "relational evangelism," or "networking."

Thus friendship evangelism is the bed rock of all evangelism. It is "where the rubber meets the road" for all church growth strategies. Yet it is often the most ignored element of the church's outreach.

People in evangelism

Does your local church have a systematic strategy to encourage and support members in "working their networks" through casual, everyday opportunities for witness? In experimenting with this approach you must educate church members in some basic concepts beyond skills in Bible study and verbal witnessing. These include (1) how to relate to secular people in love and compassion, (2) how to listen to their perceived needs, and (3) how to share faith in a way that it makes sense.

Such training can come through seminars and classes, but the bulk of your members may not attend. A less formal setting to educate church members in friendship evangelism is PIE: People In Evangelism. PIE consists of a monthly meeting. (Sometimes it is helpful to ask each Sabbath school class, committee, choir and other member groups to send one or two representatives.) The meeting begins with going around the circle and asking individuals to describe some opportunity they have had to share their faith in the context of their work, community activities, etc. As stories are related, the pastor interjects questions and observations that provide guidance in improving the effectiveness of each witness. The pastor may also suggest appropriate literature or resource materials. This is a "tutorial" or "coaching" approach to training. In order to make the meetings more attractive, fresh-baked pie is served. Each meeting closes with a significant time of prayer.

Please note: friendship evangelism does not replace Bible studies, home Bible fellowship, or Revelation seminars. Friendship evangelism leads to Bible studies. If, in each local congregation, the majority of members practice friendship evangelism while 10 or 20 percent be come active in lay Bible ministry or other witnessing programs, a real evangelism explosion would ensue! In fact, if a church begins to use friendship evangelism but does not have one or more lay evangelism "action groups" functioning, it will not realize the harvest and may even conclude that friendship evangelism is ineffective.

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1 The Unchurched American 10 Years Later
(Princeton Religion Research Center, 1989), p. 5.

2 Patterns of SDA Church Growth in North
America (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews
University Press, 1976), p. 40. This is corroborated in
a more recent research by Kermit Netteburg et al.,
The North American Division Marketing Program,
Volume 1 (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Institute of
Church Ministry, Andrews University, 1986), p.
54.

3 Netteburg, pp. 49, 59, 60. See also Michael
J. Coyner, "Why People Join: Research Into the
Motivations and Events Which Lead Persons to
Join Local Churches" (D.Min. diss., Andrews
University, 1980), pp. 51-54.


4 Jan Mathews, Mid-America Outlook, April
1992, p. 17.

5 Stephen Payne, North Pacific Union Gleaner,
June 3, 1991, p. 11.

 

 

 

 

Friendship evangelism: two examples

Friendship '87 is perhaps the largest experiment
ever in friendship evangelism. In 1986 William McNeil,
then a minister in the Northeastern Conference of Sev
enth-day Adventists, initiated the project that encour
aged church members to invite friends, relatives, work
associates, neighbors, and acquaintances to small group
meetings, midweek meetings, Sabbath school, or wor
ship.

"Many members are amazed when they discover
that the most winnable people are their friends and
relatives," says McNeil. "We wanted them to get
involved in making friends without feeling that they must
give a Bible study." The objective was to prepare people
for later invitation to soul- winning activities by "making
10 phone calls . . . making 10 friendly visits . . .. giving
10 tracts in the Friendship Series . . ." and encouraging
attendance at 10 church-sponsored programs. Nonmember
acquaintances who had experienced about 40 such
contacts were dubbed "Golden Friends" in order to highlight
the fact that these were people who should be especially
receptive to hearing the Adventist message and an
imitation to join the church. The strategic goal was to
mobilize the 28,000 Northeastern members to make and
mature 1 million such contacts over an 18-month period,

Congregations were asked to appoint a number of
team leaders and these were invited to conference train
ing events. They were supplied with goal charts, training
packages, and other consciousness-raising materials;
Pastors and church boards were encouraged to schedule
special Sabbaths called Friend Days, and other events
suitable for church members to invite their nonmember
friends to. In Sabbath school classes, members wrote
down lists of names they would contact, and then each
week they would share their contact experiences.

Results? Statistical reports show that for 1 986 through
1988, the Northeastern Conference averaged 1,715 bap
tisms per year as compared to 1,086 in 1985. Friendship
evangelism does not replace public meetings, Revelation
seminars, and small groups, but it certainly enhances
their impact.

Re-Creation Unlimited (RU), an independent ministry
based in the U.S. Northwest, is engaged in friend
ship evangelism of a different model. Each summer
about 300 volunteers staff projects in a dozen or more
state parks and federal forests. They serve the govern
ment agencies that manage the parks as unpaid "activi
ties coordinators" — posts that were held by full-time
government employees prior to budget cutting in the
early 1980s. RU volunteers lead hikes, present history
and nature lectures, organize campfire programs, teach
classes on subjects as diverse as crafts and stress control,
supervise volleyball games, and conduct nondenominational
worships on both Saturday and Sunday morn
ings. And they generally make themselves available to
chat, listen, and be friendly to families on vacation. Last
summer this brought them into contact with more than
40,000 people; occasionally in programs attended by
several hundred people, but usually in small groups and
one-on-one conversations.

Because RU volunteers work under government aus
pices, their witness must be nonverbal or entirely private
and at the behest of the other person. RU's policy book
says that "it does not use public facilities as forum to urge
or captivate an audience for any religious purposes or to
announce dogma as though endorsed by that government
agency," and "specifically disclaims that the agency it is
volunteer ing for in that location sponsors" the worships
conducted by RU. "The affluent middle class is often
non-responsive :to Christianity," says Fred Ramsey, ah
ordained Adventist minister who founded and directs RU.
"I searched for a common experience shared by Christians
and non-Christians, where Christians could demonstrate
what it could be like to/associate with others, perhaps in
the very way that Jesus Christ would if He were here on
earth." Leisure time, especially summer vacations, pro
vides that opportunity, but the Christian volunteer is
clearly on the "turf of the non-Christian and must
minister within those secular terms.

An intensive training lab equips RU volunteers with
listening and conversational skills that help them to
"incarnate the lifestyle of Jesus in today's generation
... so that their vocation becomes a vehicle to share
their personal faith." Much of their ministry is very
personal—just extending hospitality and neighborliness
in the campgrounds. "But some of the campers get so
close to us," says RU volunteer David Goymer, "they shed
tears when they have to leave to go home."

But does real sharing of the gospel occur? Paul and
Marguerite Flemming tell of a typical contact. A woman
in one of their group hikes became quite talkative, and
discovered a mutual interest in natural foods. They shared
a copy of a book on the preventive health practices of
Adventists entitled Six More Years, and when the woman
returned it, she asked, "What church do you folk attend?"
The Flemmings answered briefly. The hiker then volun
teered, "When I get back to Seattle, I am looking for your
church. I want to attend there."

Vacationers and park employees have joined the church
as a result of this ministry of friendship evangelism.

 

 

 

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