The Friendship Gap

Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus answered them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:29-32)

It was a wet autumn evening in Belfast as I sat in my car outside the home of my then girlfriend (now wife), waiting for her to return from spending the weekend with her parents in County Armagh. My phone ping’d as a text message came through: “Got delayed. I’ll be with you in 15mins,” it read. With nothing better to do, I decided to scroll through the contact list on my mobile. I’m one of those weird, obsessive individuals who is uncomfortable with digital clutter – the kind who struggle with anything but essential folders, symmetrically-arranged on my desktop, and who unashamedly remove themselves from Whatsapp groups the second they have served their purpose – so I thought the next quarter of an hour might offer me a welcome opportunity to refine my iPhone 4 of any contact fodder (i.e. “5-a-side Mark” who organised the weekly kickabout I stopped going to three years ago, or the U.K. number of a friend who had recently moved to Thailand). As I fastidiously scrolled through the list, an inconvenient truth struck me: Out of a contact directory of nearly two hundred names, all but a couple were Christian – and one of those was the New Century Chinese takeaway I frequent on Saturday evenings!

How had this happened? I was a staff member of a large church, I preached regularly in churches around the country, I knew Greek and Hebrew, and I considered myself to be someone who took evangelism seriously. After all, I had done evangelistic mission trips every summer for the past six years! I could stand behind a lectern and preach evangelistically to an audience for strangers, or even go onto the streets and “do evangelism” by giving out gospel literature, apprehending passers-by in spiritual conversation whether they wished to or not. Yet somehow my entire social network – the people I would go for coffee with, or shared a changing room with before and after a soccer game at the weekend – the people I had real relationship with had inconspicuously become monolithically Christian.

No matter what our knowledge, experience, gifting, or enthusiasm when it comes to sharing the Gospel may be, it is going to be almost impossible to do any kind of effective evangelism if, in reality, we simply don’t know or are not in significant relationships with people who do not share our worldview. The Lord, of course, can graciously use our sporadic missional efforts in things like open-air preaching or door-to-door literature distribution. Yet, if I am honest about my own experience, these types of momentary, “sacrificial” ventures where often more about appeasing my own evangelistic conscience than they were about a genuine love for lost people. Indeed, more often in the history of Christianity, the most effective strategy for Gospel witness has not been the charge of the Gospel light brigade in sporadic evangelistic “campaigns”, but the consistent and curious public witness of individual believers prepared to both display and discuss the Christian hope within them among friends, family members and colleagues whom they sought meaningful relationship with (cf. Matt 5:16; 1 Pt. 2:12; 3:15).

Of course, the antecedent to this type of evangelism is the expectation that each of us actually have meaningful relationships with non-Christians. Why not take a moment – either now or later today – to scroll through your mobile contacts, or make a list of your closest and most consistent relationships in order to appraise just how coherent our own lives are with this biblical expectation? This is not an exercise designed to guilt-trip, but simply a fresh, private opportunity to evaluate just what sort of relationships we really have with people who don’t know Jesus. If your honest assessment is anything like mine was that night in my car, you may be experiencing what we at Solas are calling the “Friendship Gap” in evangelism. Simply put, our evangelism is stalling because we aren’t invested enough in healthy relationships with those outside the Christian community.

Undoubtedly, there are many reasons motivating why we might be experiencing Friendship Gap, and we must personally consider what the influences might be for our own lives. Perhaps two of the most universal determinants, however, involve what we, first, might identify as a specious theology of Christian distinction and, second, the practical problem of a Christian-saturated social infrastructure which may or may not be a product of this fallacious theology. Let’s consider the theological challenge first.

The New Testament is very clear about the anti-Christian spirit or mindset at work within our fallen world (cf. 1 John 2:16; 5:19), as well as the importance of Christian believers remaining distinct in their thinking and morals from this spirit, both for their own flourishing and as a faithful witness to the world of the beauty and truth of God’s better story. The Old Testament account of the nation of Israel is a cautionary tale to the power of the world over God’s people. Israel was chosen to play the unique role in history as God’s instrument of “light to the Gentiles” (Isaiah 49:6), illuminating the pagan nations they lived among to the truth and superiority of Yahweh via their ethics and practices. Yet, all too often, the tide of influence flowed in the opposite direction and the people of Israel, to their detriment, found themselves adopting the values and worldview of these nations. As sobering a warning as Israel is to the power of worldly influence, we should not conclude – as some Christians have mistakenly supposed – that there is, in reality, only danger, and nothing of heavenly value in healthy mutual relationship with non-Christians, and that the only surefire way to ensure the maintenance of our faith is to, in effect, socially distance ourselves from any meaningful non-Christian contexts. This erroneous theology of godly distinction was precisely the prism through which the Pharisees and theologians of Jesus’s day interpreted his investing time and interest in “tax collectors and sinners”. For them, godliness was about separation from such people. Consequently, they simply could not reconcile their self-aggrandising notions of holiness with Jesus’s genuine love for non-believers and concluded that the holiest human the world has ever known, God incarnate no less, must himself be a sinful fraud. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Far from Jesus’s active engagement with unbelievers being an evidence of spiritual compromise, it was, in fact, a tangible reflection of God’s incalculable love for those He longed to make His children. Contrary to the perceived need to guard oneself from being contaminated by the darkness a rebellious world, Jesus knew that the Light that he, and his followers after him, carried into that world and put on display, was a light that no darkness could overcome (John 1:5) – a light that, as the Gospel narratives bear witness, bore an unyielding power to positively contaminate any person’s heart with the very life and love of Almighty God. It is on this very basis, equipped with the same divine power, that Christ commands his followers to hold up that same light in today’s world through purposeful and consistent friendly engagement with unbelievers.

A second major contributing factor to the Friendship Gap in evangelism is the practical challenge of, often unconsciously, allowing our social lives and relationships to orbit almost exclusively within a Christian solar system. By this, I have in mind things like church-based exercise groups (5-a-side, badminton etc.), Christian book or movie clubs, or the proclivity to only invite believing friends round for dinner or coffee. Indeed, in our largest university in Belfast, we have not simply Christian, but denominationally-specific student halls of residence, each with their own active social, devotional and recreational activities, meaning that a Christian undergraduate can spend their entire degree bubbled together with their believing peers, running the risk of being practically inoculated from any need to spend meaningful time with coursemates who do not share their worldview.

Admittedly, these challenges are not always the product of the aforementioned fallacious theology of avoiding worldly influences (though for some Christian parents of students certainly they are!) Often, the Friendship Gap occurs unintentionally, simply as a result of our natural human propensity to prefer the comfort of socialising with people who share our values and thinking, or as an upshot of being so busy with “Christian” activities that we have no time or space for anything or anyone else (a particular problem for those in so-called “full time Christian ministry”!) Yet this is a far cry from the incarnational foundation of the Gospel: the story of the God who so loved the world that he actively laid down his rights and privileges and, at incalculable cost to himself, stepped meaningfully into the lives of those who did not believe, and would ultimately reject him. Jesus is all the precedent we will ever need to bridge the Friendship Gap!

So if, in all honesty, our personal evangelism is haemorrhaging momentum due to the basic problem of the Friendship Gap, what can be done about it? Let me conclude by offering some suggestions that might help in bridging this particular gap.

First, pray for tangible opportunities to build strong relationship with people who do not share your faith. The Lord delights to answer these kinds of prayers and it is amazing how many “coincidences” happen the more we pray. Ask God to bring people to your mind that you could (re)connect with, or to make you attentive to people in work or other contexts who might deeply value someone taking a genuine interest in them. Often in these areas we simply are hindered by a lack of imagination about who, or what, or where we could cultivate the Christian value of being a great friend, so invite God’s help in this.

Second, try to prioritise taking opportunities to build healthy relationships with non-believers. Prayer will certainly sensitise our hearts and minds to the importance of opportunities. But, more often than not, the Lord will not magically do all the work for us. He wants us to take the responsibility and risk of trying things that will connect us with others. This could mean making a phone call or sending a Facebook message to someone you’ve lost contact with. It might involve inviting a work colleague for a drink or to your home for dinner. It may even mean deliberately choosing not to join the church society for recreation, social activity, or community service and, instead, enjoy these opportunities within contexts where you will be mixing with non-Christians. If that seems intimidating, why not ask a Christian friend to join you and do it together? Simply remember that there are lots of fascinating people out there who have many of the same interests and experiences that you do. What they don’t have is Jesus. And who is to say that God may not have given you the interest and skillsets that you have precisely because it will connect you with similar people whom their heavenly Father is calling home? Try something.

Third, appreciate that you are going to need to be sacrificial and generous with your time, patience and interest with people. I once had someone I worked with in a charity tell me how delighted they were that I had joined as a volunteer because I was a Christian, and the last partner they had occasionally used foul/blasphemous language and only ever talked about Gaelic football and the parties that they attended at the weekends. If we’re really going to bridge the Friendship Gap, we are going to have transcend our personal interests, political persuasions or worldview and value others as image-bearers of God, not on the basis of what we get out of the relationship. This means that we invest in people not as some evangelistic project (which they will sense almost immediately!) but on the basis of their inestimable value as an individual willed into existence by God; that even if their interests or how they might think or choose to live differs significantly from our own, we do not relate to them on this basis but, rather, enter into what they care about because we value them. This is not always easy to do, but there is every precedent for it in how God relates to us. So ask for the Lord’s help and, for the Lord’s sake, be the best possible friend you can be.

Finally, don’t give up! Remember that so much of the dynamics good friendship evangelism depend upon the qualities and art of any good friendship. Invest consistently and sacrificially in truly getting to know the other person; ask good questions that express genuine interest and move the relationship beyond the superficial; be trustworthy with information; forgive generously; and let your light shine before them, always being ready when the opportunity arises to give reasons for the hope within you.

C.S. Lewis in his autobiography Surprised by Joy (2015:122) wrote: “Many thousands of people have had the experience of finding the first friend, and it is none less a wonder; as great a wonder… as first love, or even greater.” What a privilege to be that friend in the life of another person. And how that wonder must be magnified infinitesimally when, in the dynamics of blossoming friendship, we have the divine privilege of introducing that person to the Friend who sticks closer than any brother.