How to Keep Your Friends Out of Church
Offhand, there are five or six friends in Japan that come to mind. Things didn't work out. After a series of good conversations, rounds of Badminton, or delicious dinners, they moved on.
Evangelistic efforts didn't produce lasting fruit.
Friendship was there. But a compelling reason to come to Christ, maybe not.
The Holy Spirit uncovered a significant weakness in my evangelistic efforts this week through a friend's advice. It's quite an ironic time.
Not the best timing, either. If you want to invite a friend to a physical Sunday service, that is. The age of sending live-stream links to friends is upon us.
Or maybe not.
Misuse of the word
The modern usage of the word "Church" matters. It is subtly shifting Christian and non-Christian perspectives. This usage is significant enough to derail effective evangelism. It's happened to me.
Notice the common usage of "Church" in phrases like this:
(Insert relevant first part) + go to Church.
Merriam-Webster's definitions are telling. My paraphrase, the Church is:
- A building
- The clergy
- A body or organization of believers
- A public worship service
- The clerical profession
These days it requires a conscious effort and explanation to distinguish what the Church truly is.
To be clear, we're not talking about a building in the suburbs or two services during the week. Based on typical usage, the oh-so-subtle temptation is to consider the invitation to visit a worship service is, in-fact, inviting them to Church.
We must see evangelism apart from the culturally reinforced paradigm if we're going to complete the Great Commission.
It's little wonder taking someone we care about to visit a building, "the Clergy," or an alliance of believers isn't working.
Evangelism occasionally morphs into mass friend solicitation. Once an unsuspecting victim accepts, this unprepared friend is subjected to a first-time safari in the unfamiliar culture of a "Sunday worship service." Or much worse, the invitation is just a re-introduction to the kind of community they have long decided isn't worth their time.
Taking a friend, alone, to a vaguely welcoming place filled with strangers isn't working. Not for me, at least. Hopefully, you have more success in that arena than I have.
Important relational ground-work must create a foundation for that visit first.
The Tale of Mr. Yuki and Ms. Yuki
The names are changed but meet Yuki Tanaka, a former male and female friend of mine. Not in the gender-fluid sense. These friends, strangely enough, had the same first name and family name. They are entirely unrelated and have never met.
In Japanese, it is possible to have the same phonetic name but different kanji for those sounds. Same sound, but different names. It's like multiple spellings for the same name.
One was a lovely female English teacher, and the other a curious university student.
Excited to make a new friend and encouraged by being the first person to explain the gospel to them, I jumped right in.
"Oh, you're free Thursday at 8:00 pm? Let's get dinner somewhere!"
"I see, no problem. We can reschedule."
"Thanks, see you soon!"
The language barrier, that's a thing.
With Mr. Yuki, it was more of an issue than Ms. Yuki. Even so, we talked on and off for a few months. The gospel, prayer, "Jesus loves you," and scripture came up more than once.
I was also glad for the opportunities when my more bilingual friends would translate our conversations.
We swapped stories. Cultural oddities and differences were gladly shared. I introduced prayer and offered them a blessing at the end of some of our meetings.
Bible studies happened on-and-off in Mr. Yuki's case as well.
"You like this. Do you like that? Cool."
Back and forth. Hip-hop, Hawaii, Sushi, you name it.
It was a series of meetings.
Both were my friends in separate years for about 6 months.
"Ah, you're busy? Let's reschedule in a month?"
"Sorry to hear that work has been so crazy lately. I'm praying for you."
Working schedules are, uh... demanding in Japan. Mr. Yuki had multiple part time jobs. And Ms. Yuki, teaching in Japan, had a completely full calendar year-round with school-related duties.
End of transmission– Cue the blinking cursor on a computer terminal.
I made the same significant error in reaching each of them.
We met on a prayer walk
Fast forward to my other friend Nelson. (Name also changed.)
I only followed up with this particular friend after our initial meeting once or twice.
We met him outside on a prayer walk in my neighborhood, a week or two after he first arrived in Japan. He started coming to Church, even with only a single invitation.
Praise God Nelson is preparing for Baptism on Easter in a few weeks!
What happened? Why did Nelson join our community, while Mr. and Ms. Yuki didn't make it to any community event?
God did the work. But, I'll admit for several reasons, I probably cooperated with Him and the Church better in Nelson's case.
Notice the usage of the word We, in the case of reaching out to Nelson.
Pairs show up, filled up.
"After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to go." Luke 10:1 - ESV
"We," in the disciple's case, was two by two. It's the prescribed biblical strategy for evangelism.
More going out in pairs.
Pairs must show up committed to the long haul process of working together to disciple someone. Anyone can meet in a group two times. I met with both Yuki's in group settings multiple times. But the groups were inconsistent; relationships need to be formed on a deep level. It didn't happen.
It is much less than ideal to go alone, and better to meet in groups occasionally.
But it's life-altering when two influential Christians pray together for their friend and then meet together consistently over time to reach them.
That's the definition of Church, by the way. People with the sole purpose of following Jesus that:
- Meet together
- Worship together
- Serve together
- Pray together
- Grow together
You don't need 20+ people to show Jesus off in a "big group" or an elaborate building financed by the members. Merely 2 or 3 believers gathered in Jesus' name.
Pairs of disciples take the most accessible version of the Church to the lost.
One relationship with a disciple of Christ is interesting, an oddity. The believer has strange customs, strange practices, and a trustworthy character. But one person is no indication this kind of Christ-like person is actually reproduced.
Thoughts may form in the other person's mind like:
- "Maybe it's just them, but couldn't be me."
- "They're special."
- "They are plain weird."
"For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them." Matthew 18:20 - ESV
This text is a bit misquoted when used exclusively for Jesus being present with us in prayer. After all, he does live within each believer. The immediate previous context is about asking God for "anything." Wow.
Still, the paragraph in Matthew 18 is more generally about two gathering together to redeem a brother through the active confrontation of sin. There are many brothers and sisters in our world that need to be graciously confronted about sin, and find redemption.
I'm going to quickly spin that another way.
Jesus is present, and presumably more visible to others among his gathered community, no matter how small.
It's not wrong to bring friends to a group Church gathering, but it's much more in line with scripture to go. Instead, to bring the group that looks like Jesus to friends.
Evangelism must also include this essential ingredient: love for one another.
"By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:35 - ESV
A loving relationship visibly demonstrated between believers is irresistible.
TLDR;If you want to keep your friends out of Church:
- Assert that the Church is just a building, two weekly services, or something that your pastors do.
- Insist on bringing friends to a church service who have no other significant relationships with the community.
- Practice all your evangelistic efforts entirely alone, never involve anyone else.
- Don't go out in prayed-up pairs or meet in small groups with prospective Christians.
- Keep the good news to yourself.
Have you noticed subtle or unusual usages of the word "Church"?