Yesterday, I was waiting for a train at a distant train station when I found myself cornered by a stranger who wanted to talk. We got on the same train, so the conversation continued for about another hour until he got off. From what I could tell, though he professed some weak church affiliation, he was completely unsaved. It is possible that I will never see him again. However, since we are almost neighbors, no doubt we will bump into each other from time to time.
As I got off the train, it suddenly struck me that most of the people I knew and grew up with in evangelical churches in both the US and Japan would have felt it their duty to have shared Christ–or at least broached the subject–with him during such a long train trip. It is how I was brought up and taught, and how many other were brought up and taught as well. It also occurred to me that if I had done so with him during our train trip, not only would he have gotten off the train still unsaved, but he would remain unsaved, and from now on he would steer clear of me whenever he saw me coming down the street.
There is a thing called gospel hardness. This is when people have heard the gospel message preached too often when they were neither expecting it nor were willing to welcome it. With such people, while under the proper circumstances they might have been willing to receive the gospel message before, they become inured to it. Their hearts become hardened, sometimes to the point where even if they had no other choice in the world, they would nevertheless reject the gospel message out of hand. The have been victimized too often by what I would call drive-by evangelists–people who want to get another notch on their belt, but who have no personal interest in others except as subjects for conversion.
This is the problem with relationship or friendship evangelism: You have to a relationship with others, you have to be friends with them, before they will give you permission to share the gospel with them. However, what is often taught as relationship or friendship evangelism is no different or better than door-to-door sales. Indeed, the most popular evangelism program in the US uses the same techniques employed by encyclopaedia salesmen. This is not relationship or friendship evangelism: It is hucksterism. The power of the Word of God is so great that sometimes even a huckster can lead people to Christ. However, there is often a high price to be paid for such tactics. The church already has a reputation for being uncaring (never mind that this reputation is for the most part false and unfair). When a person acts as a huckster, peddling the gospel without personal concern or care for others, it reinforces that reputation. The huckster becomes the face of the church, and people’s hearts become hardened to the good news that will bring them eternal life.
There are no easy answers to this dilemma. However, it is clear that if you want to engage in friendship evangelism, you have to first become a friend.