Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Lifestyle/Friendship Evangelism's Interpretation of Romans 1:16

There is (and has been) a lot of talk about "friendship evangelism" and "lifestyle evangelism" these days. In actuality, this debate has reappeared after a 20-year break.  Back in the mid-80's several books sparked the debate over which approach was more biblical: the "aggressive/initiative evangelism" approach of groups like Campus Crusade for Christ or the "friendship/lifestyle/relational evangelism" approach of groups like Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. Having been on the staff of CCC since 1980, I think it's pretty obvious which side of the debate I came down on back then.  Fortunately a CCC regional director by the name of Mark McCloskey wrote his excellent book, Tell it Often, Tell it Well - - which was a biblical defense of initiative evangelism - and which also maintained the relational approach as a valid option, but certainly not the only valid option (Most of the authors advocating friendship evangelism - Rebecca Manley Pippert, Joseph Aldrich, Jim Peterson, etc. - weren't so kind toward the other approach, however.)

What I find interesting - and even worrisome - is the trend in several organizations traditionally in the initiative evangelism camp to switch sides! They say that, due to the fact that we are in a post-modern world, it's the relational/friendship approach that is mainly needed. Really? Sure, absolute truth is not in vogue today, but declaring truth will always be necessary! In fact, if you take into consideration the culture of the day when Peter and Paul preached, the gospel message as outlined in 1 Cor. 15:1-4 would have been considered totally irrelevant. Imagine preaching a crucified Messiah to the Jews! End of story. Yet 3,000 converted as a result of Peter's confrontational preaching at Pentecost. Imagine the scandal of preaching about the "Lord of lords and King of kings, who died a criminal death (i.e., on a cross) and came back to life . . . to the Greek philosophers of Athens! But Acts 17:34 tells us that some men believed. And Paul makes the bold claim in Romans 1:16 that it is not our methods, our techniques or our relationships that are the power of God unto salvation. No, it's the gospel - the simple preaching of the gospel.

We see people converting right and left in the Book of Acts as a result of the bold preaching of the scandalous cross, the incredible (read: "hard to believe") resurrection . . . for the forgiveness of sins! In fact, we practically only see the gospel spreading via initiative evangelism. At best you can find only one evangelistic encounter that could be construed as falling in the friendship evangelism camp in the Book of Acts.

So, we evangelicals must be careful to be biblical about our evangelism. Is there a place for the friendship evangelism approach? Of course! Is it to become the main approach in our evangelism? I don't see how in light of the clear commands of Mark 16:15 ("Go therefore and preach the gospel to every creature."). However, it is common to hear proponents of "friendship" and "lifestyle" evangelism making claims that their approach is the only valid approach in evangelism. Those of us who are more confrontational in our approach are the objects of ridicule, scorn and jokes in many Christian circles. That's too bad.  

Frankly, I'm happy with any method as long as the basic content remains intact. But that is another point of contention because, in an effort to "not offend" or scare off the non-Christian, content unfortunately is sacrificed at times. Recently I read an evangelistic tool that was used during Rio de Janeiro's famous Carnival, and was frankly appalled. The tool focused on becoming a Christian in order to not have to wear masks (which is common at Carnival) and to experience genuine happiness (something sought after at the event). The only mention of sin and sin's consequences appeared in the sinner's prayer at the end, and even that was weak! Those who participated proudly broadcasted the results: Over 500 converted at Carnival! Did they really? If anyone converted - and I'm sure some did - it was not due to the content of that evangelistic tool, but in spite of it!

Okay, getting back to differing philosophies of evangelism, it appears we Christians will buy into anything that gets us off the hook of boldly sharing our faith with others. We put conditions on with whom we can share (those we've befriended, albeit deceptively), on how much time we've spent with that person and on what we can legitimately say to him or her. As I see it, we've basically taken God out of the picture with these man-centered emphases. If I must become a friend of someone or meet some physical/emotional need of someone in order to "earn the right to be heard," I have essentially take a sovereign God out of the equation! I am basically saying that I have the power to get that person saved! Hogwash!

Romans 1:16 paints a very different picture: "For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek."

The "lifestyle" and "friendship" evangelists - if you can even call them "evangelists" - must have a very different version of Romans 1:16 in their bibles!  Maybe we should call their version the LFEV (Lifestyle/Friendship Evangelism Version). I found this in a commentary on and thought it expressed very well the issue at hand:

Romans 1:16 (LFEV): I am ashamed of the gospel. But I’m such a neat guy, that if they really want to hear the gospel, they won’t be offended at the news that they’re sinners bound for hell because when they start to get mad, they’ll remember what a good guy I am, and who could be mad at me? My coolness is the power of God unto salvation.

I'd like to tweak the above version a bit to reflect even more accurately what I have seen regarding the content of these "evangelists," based on my experience in evangelism for over 35 years:

I am ashamed of the gospel. But if I’m such a neat guy and really try to be relevant, my non-Christian friends will want to hear what I have to say, especially if I contextualize my message by leaving out such offensive words like "sin" and "hell" when I eventually - it may take a few months or even years - get around to talking about spiritual matters with them. My coolness is the power of God unto salvation.

Okay, I think I've made my point. Oh, how we need to get biblical again about our evangelism! I recently watched a video on YouTube by the author of I'm OK -- You're Not: The Message We're Sending Unbelievers And Why We Should Stop, and the author - John Shore - actually claims that it is unloving to obey the Great Commission! Did you get that? According to the author, we violate the Great Commandment of loving our neighbor as ourselves (I thought the Great Commandment of Mark 12: 30-31 was actually composed of two commands, the first being that we must love God with all of our hearts, souls, minds and strength.) when we seek to convert them to Christianity. How? When we obey the Great Commission by telling them we're right and they're wrong, we're being unloving and actually scaring them off! But I picked up a straw man argument in the videos - 

(You can see Part 2 of this message by searching the title of this video on YouTube.) regarding our purpose in obeying the Great Commission. Is our purpose really "to convert" people, or to preach the gospel? Conversion is a supernatural work of God. We can only provide the information that God uses to convict a person of his sin, his lack of righteousness vs. God's perfect righteousness and the coming judgment. I ask, therefore, which is more loving? Giving a person the information he or she needs so that the Holy Spirit can work on him or her, or withholding it in the interest of obeying the Great Commandment - or one half of it, at least? You see, we certainly will not be loving God with all our hearts, souls, minds and strength if we don't obey Him, right? Jesus made this very clear: "If you love Me, you will keep My commandments" (John 14:15). And, as I see it, we won't be loving the other person either. If you knowingly let a person die in their sins and don't tell them how to solve their sin problem, you aren't being loving! You are being hateful - all in the interest of "saving face!" What a lie from the pit of hell - and what's worse is that it is being spread by some so-called "Christian" authors! 

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