112. Eternity-changing friendships pt. 1

            Evangelism was a frequent topic in the evangelical millieu I grew up in.  In our current church alone, since I arrived, we’ve had six or seven classes on how to lead people to Christ. One is running right now.  All of the methods I’ve learned over the years have been solid.  They made sense and were based on a desire to share the greatest gift ever given – salvation from our sins and an eternal connection with God.

            And yet, having said all this, I have to admit another fact. It’s becoming rare today to hear actual stories of people outside the church being converted to Christ. Whereas one reads in the book of Acts of many being saved in this city or in that territory, it’s become an unusual  exception in many American churches.

            A number of reasons have been given for this. Our culture has been slowly shifting away from its more Christianized foundations for a number of years now. Churches have ceased to be a central part of the community. There’s greater religious diversity in our country, we’ve become more decadent, and so on. My purpose today is not to analyze the multiple reasons for this decline, although they’re worth considering.  Today I will focus on one factor. Unlike in the past, most evangelism is no longer taking place within the church building itself. That’s because far few unbelievers even darken the door of organized religion.  The primary avenue new believers travel to get to Christ is through building outside relationships with believers, usually over extended time periods. It’s not the professional evangelist who’s winning the most people to Jesus, it’s the friend.

            The friend.  That would be me. And you. Me and you outside the church – in our homes, in our neighborhoods, at school, at work, in the community.  In other words, you and I connecting with unbelievers in their territory, not within the safe confines of our church buildings.  We have to go to them where they’re available, not wait for them to come to us on our terms.  Yet, unfortunately, as far as I can tell, most of us are not especially effective  at building and maintaining these types of friendships.  This leads to our first question:

Why is it hard for us to build friendships which open the door to sharing Christ?

1.    It’s hard to build door-opening friendships because we don’t particularly desire them

While most of us have friends here and there, how many of us spend regular time with them for the purpose of enjoying and deepening the relationship? This hardly happens, even the church, where friendships are usually limited to Sunday morning chats or quick discussions after a board meeting.  These contacts, though useful, lack the time and intent necessary to get much past the superficial acquaintance phase. Real friendship takes time and effort, but many of us don’t want to make that commitment. We work hard and then we want to go home and rest – eat supper, pick up the kids, watch tv, and catch up on dirty dishes. Hanging out with friends requires a lot more effort, and tomorrow comes early. Which leads to the second reason.

2.    It’s hard to build door-opening friendships because we’re too busy

America is a fast-paced, schedule-crammed country. If you’re not busy it’s almost as if something’s wrong with you. And in many marriages, both partners work. Just keeping up is hard. Friendship, on the other hand, takes time; slowed down relaxed time, where we’re not always looking over our shoulder at the clock. It’s unpredictable. Topics come up which may last longer than planned. It’s hard to find this sort of space and the relaxed spirit to make the most of it.

3.    It’s hard to build door-opening friendships because others aren’t particularly looking for them either

For the reasons mentioned above, our attempts to gain time with others for friendship may not be entirely welcome.  It’s nothing personal, but they too are already overbooked. Perhaps you’ve noticed, even most neighbors don’t neighbor much.

4.    It’s hard to build door-opening friendships because of the social media

Social media certainly has its advantages. Through Facebook, e-mail, texting, and so on we can make a significant number of contacts during a given week. The question is, how effective are these contacts? When it comes to significant interaction and bonding, it’s harder to do from a digital distance –  just not the same as an hour spent face to face. So much nuance, depth, and continuity is often lost in the ethereal realm.

5.    It’s hard to build door-opening friendships when unbelievers are wary of Christians

It’s been said that many unbelievers don’t enjoy conversations with believers because of how they’re approached. The unbeliever feels looked down on or lectured or cornered by the believer’s evangelistic agenda. It’s not a true conversation; it’s a sales pitch.  How many of us enjoy sales pitches? This leads to the next point

6.    It’s hard to build door-opening friendships because believers aren’t beginning as real friends

I’m not suggesting that we can become best buddies with every person, but it’s important that the other is more than just an evangelistic opportunity, or, to be more crass – a target. The friend part needs to come first. They need to sense that they’re a person we truly care about, whether or not they’re interested in Christ; that they’re loved as they are. For some of us, this will mean a change in our life values; learning to value actual friendship more for its own sake. This foundation opens the door to trust and honest interaction.

7.    It’s hard to build door-opening friendships because we lack a proper sense of timing

If it’s important to share our faith, it’s equally important to have a sense of how much the other person is ready to receive. If we’ve not taken time to build trust, they’ll resist opening up about more important matters in their lives. And if we haven’t gotten to know them in more significant ways, they’ll be wary about discussing their spiritual state in an open manner.  Each person is different and while it doesn’t hurt to nudge them to consider Christ, it’s usually counterproductive to try and push too hard.  

8.    It’s hard to build door-opening friendships because we don’t pray enough for the salvation of others

Prayer for others is a huge part of evangelism, yet too often it’s a sort of erratic afterthought in the midst of our busy days.  

9.    It’s hard to build door-opening friendships because we don’t love them enough

Love is the bottom line when it comes to sharing Christ with others. Do we really care if they find Christ; if they go to Heaven or not? Or does their eternal state fit in the “I’ll get to it if I can” category while we run around attending to everything else? Real love gets the proper priority.

10.  It’s hard to build door-opening friendships because we’re not that convinced about heaven and hell

Heaven and hell can seem like mythical matters to us; like preacher overkill on a Sunday morning.  But if they’re real places, they matter more than anything else in this life. If they’re real, our unsaved friends are in a precarious position.

            Next week we’ll consider some positive suggestions for building door-opening friendships.