Connecting with Culture
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Jesus was famously called ‘a friend of sinners’ (Luke 7:34). He crossed every social divide. But today, many of us don’t have any close friends, be that inside the church, in our workplaces, or on our streets.
So, how do we practise friendship well, like Jesus and the early church did, as a witness to our lonely and fragmented world?
That’s the question this blog series explores. Over four articles, our contributors – Sheridan Voysey, Chloe Lynch, Corin Pilling, and Phil Knox – will have a conversation, responding to each other’s reflections as they ‘triple listen’ to wisdom from the Word of God, the world, and one another. The goal? To help our friendships flourish as whole-life disciples, wherever we are, whoever we are, and whatever we do.
The series also accompanies our Wisdom Lab: Friendship on the Frontline event, at which each of the authors will deliver a TED-style talk and bring together evidence-based insights and theological wisdom, making space for honest dialogue to inspire us to practise friendship in a more fruitful way.
In our first blog post, Sheridan Voysey helped us listen to our culture through Zara and Jez’s stories, so we can understand why deep friendships are so hard to sustain. In our second blog post, Chloe Lynch explored the centrality of friendship in the Scriptures and God’s mission in the world, helping us imagine what should be going on for Zara and Jez. In the third blog post, Corin Pilling cast a vision to create a healing response bearing fruit in forming communities of care in everyday life. In this, our final instalment, Phil Knox – Evangelism and Missiology Senior Specialist for the Evangelical Alliance – will help us think about how to communicate the good news of Jesus in a way that makes sense to friends on our frontlines.
I’m going to begin by addressing the elephant in the room. What is an evangelist doing talking about friendship? Is this another message about making friends with non-Christians to save them and make them believe? Can’t we just be friends?
I want to be explicit from the outset. We do not become friends with people to convert them. We make friends because we are made in the image of the relational God, who made friendship for us. As Chloe masterfully unpacked, Jesus models and mandates that we are to love one another as friends, in self-sacrificial relationship. These are the reasons we give ourselves to our friends. Great friendships are high on cost and commitment, low on premeditated agendas. Friendship for friendship’s sake is godly.
But, something happens in friendship that is good news for the good news. When practising Christians were asked about their relationship with the person who introduced them to Jesus, 44% described a friend. As a missiologist, I ask hundreds of people each year about their journey to faith. There is almost always a friend involved. Evangelism is not the reason we make friends, but friends have been catalytic in introducing people to Jesus since he walked by the sea of Galilee (see John 1:46).
So what is the dynamic here, and how can we understand it better? A starting point would be to refer back to Sheridan’s helpful definition of a friend: one who I can talk to, depend on, grow with, and enjoy. But this definition needs three further practical ingredients to make it fly.
The practices, rhythms, and activities that Corin explored – of lament, gratitude, and play – lean into these three elements. Eating, playing, and reading Winnie the Pooh (!) together provide the context for growth and enjoyment of each other. The tangible activities that we suggest to one another matter. We need canvases for friendship masterpieces to be painted.
When we enjoy one another’s company and talk in a way that develops dependable trust, a shared sense of journey emerges. That’s when we begin to grow with the other. In close friendship, we find that we begin to become like our friends, and love the same things. When one friend is a Christian, this opens the possibility for faith to be shared.
Faith in Jesus, at its best, is not a lifestyle choice. It is not like appreciating a certain style of music or supporting a football team. To believe in Jesus is to put him at the very centre of your being. It is the lens through which we see the world, or as C. S. Lewis more articulately described, ‘I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else.’
Suffice to say, when we spend enough time in the presence of others, and are vulnerable enough, faith will become part of the conversation. The Christian faith has a contagious quality about it. For 2000 years, the gospel has spread from one friend to another.
But practically, how can we be authentic friends who share our contagious faith well, without being overbearing or overzealous? I have always found this framework helpful…
Great evangelism with friends is the gradual drawing together of three stories: God’s story, your story, and their story.
The good news is so beautiful. I love the analogy of comparing it to a diamond. When you hold a diamond to the light, you turn it slowly to appreciate its majesty. As you do, you see different facets and features to it. So it is with the gospel. Many of us have only ever heard the Christian message through one particular lens. That perspective may well be true, but what if we turned the diamond to consider the good news in terms of friendship? It might go something like this…
It doesn’t matter who you are, what you have done, where you are from, how broken, religious, messed up, or perfect you are; you can know and be known by the Author of your story and the inventor of friendship. And his deepest desire is to know you and welcome you home.
God’s hand of friendship is outstretched to you. Will you take it?
If you tracked the story of your relationship with God, whatever your starting point is, he is ‘all in’. Do not be in any doubt: you are loved – firmly, unswervingly, unconditionally, fiercely, and relentlessly.
But in friendship terms, we all know we have not been the best of friends to God. Enemies of distraction, our selfishness, and self-centredness drive wedges between us; and we feel, almost tangibly, a distance between us and our maker. We experience a dim reflection of this ultimate relationship in our friendships, marriages, and families, but they fall short of completing us. There is a painful disconnect between us. Like star-crossed lovers, distant relations, or long-lost friends, the gap seems irreconcilable. But God did not give up.
Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends (John 15:13).
The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the definitive moment in history. It is also the game changing moment for friendship. He exemplifies what it looks like for us and enables it to happen with God. As his arms are outstretched in self-sacrifice on a cruel wooden cross, Jesus is the epitome of true friendship. As his soul cries, ‘It is finished,’ Jesus absorbs the power of our sin and selfishness, meaning that reconciliation and relationship are possible with the king of the universe. And when crucifixion cannot contain him, when death defeated dare not destroy him, his resurrection invites us to a new life, free from our frailties and failings, and relationships reborn.
Friendship with God is not just for religious people; it is for everyone. And it really matters. Just as the quality and quantity of our physical lives are increased by how good our relationships are, if you want the best possible life now and the absolute assurance of a life beyond the grave, a relationship with God is not just a nice addition for some, but the one connection that you need above all others.
Your acceptance of his friendship offer is the single most important decision you could ever make. It is forgiveness for your past, his presence in your present, and hope for the future.
I have often felt like I haven’t got a story. As a teenager I would attend youth events where a volunteer would share a dramatic story of conversion from drugs, gangs, and prison. My adolescence was more projects, hugs, and sausage rolls than sex, drugs, and rock and roll. But the truth is that if you are friends with God, you have a story to tell.
Sharing your story should also not just talk about the moment you became a Christian. This moment is important, but as I talk to my not-yet-Christian friends, they want to know how following Jesus makes a difference to my life now. When I have considered my story, I have found some of the following questions helpful:
When were the times I knew God was real?
What would my life be like without Jesus in it?
How does faith give me a way of understanding the world?
When have I known God to be close?
1 Peter 3:15 encourages us to always be prepared to give a reason for the hope that we have. I think a significant component of this is sharing our story. Most of us could be more effective at this.
At our worst, when we treat people like projects, the mission becomes to discharge our responsibility by ‘giving them the gospel’. At its best, sharing faith with friends is a long conversation that does as much listening as it does talking, and the more we listen, the more we often perceive where God is already at work in their lives. When we are vulnerable with one another, we get to know one another’s stories. They hear our wrestles, challenges, even doubts, and we hear their worldview, events that have shaped them, and questions of life, and vice-versa. As we do so, there may emerge some connection points between their story and the good news of the gospel.
For example, my friend Adam grew up constantly seeking ‘the next high’. As I turned the diamond, good news for him was life in all its fullness and forgiveness for his past. He became a Christian after 10 years of friendship. My wife Dani grew up with a challenging relationship with her dad. The good news for her was found in the father to the fatherless. My friend Richard has everything the world has to offer, but is rushed off his feet with virtually no margin. The good news for him is that Jesus is rest for his soul. May we listen better to people’s lives. But our heart here is important. We are not fact-finding to hone our gospel presentation; instead, we are interested in our friends’ lives because we were created for friendship.
In friendship, we get to journey and grow together – hopefully over many years. As we do, may we make it our primary goal to be the best of friends. But may we also hold this in tension with the knowledge that if our friends are going to encounter Jesus, it will most likely be through us… and so we also seek to gently draw the stories of friendship and faith together.
So what might this look like for Zara and Jez, who we’ve journeyed with across this whole series? How might we advise them in light of these perspectives? How might we begin to answer the questions Sheridan posed for them in the first article?
We would assure Jez that his friendship with Daniel should be pursued for friendship’s sake and that even if there seemed no chance of him becoming a Christian, he should still be his friend. This is part of Jez’s mission, and a way of being fruitful on his frontline. We might encourage him that we need depth and vulnerability in at least some of our friendships and he should explore opening up to Daniel and see if this is reciprocated. Finally, we might reassure Jez that he can relax into his friendship and enjoy it. They may well grow together, but every encounter does not have to contain a conversation about faith, or even a ‘deep and meaningful’.
With Zara, it’s hard to find much fault with her efforts to make friends. We must just encourage her to keep going and praying that she is able to find others she can connect with. It is a useful reminder to all of us that if we struggle with friendships, we are not alone. We’re all affected by the cultural forces that oppose our flourishing in this area. We could encourage her to take Corin’s advice in creating spaces and contexts to get to know people, investing those three key elements of time, presence, and vulnerability.
For both of them, as followers of Jesus on their frontlines, Jez and Zara need to hold in tension their co-mandate to be the best of friends and make disciples.
The scene set by Sheridan, describing the relational poverty in our nation, shows that this is an urgent conversation, not just for Christians, but for everyone. What would it look like for the church to lead the way in this area? For the theological reasons Chloe set out, and with the benefit of the rules of life explored by Corin, we as followers of Jesus should be the best friends in the world. Our society, our neighbours, and our communities need us to be salt and light in this area.
Sadly as I have researched this subject matter over the last few years, I have found that friendship is the most important and yet least talked about relationship in the church. We talk much about leadership, marriage, and family, but a fraction of the many churches I know have ever explored teaching on friendship. And yet if we did, not only would we be better equipped for life and faith, we’d probably be better at making disciples.
Evangelical Alliance research from 2021 tells us that the number one reason why Christians don’t share their faith with their friends is simply that they don’t have enough significant relationships with people who aren’t Christians. 46% of Christians do not know a non-Christian well enough to invite them to a church gathering.
This Friendship on the Frontline conversation has highlighted the pressure that our relationships are under, but also the deep need for them in our world. What could it look like if we not only increased the volume of our conversation in this area, but made friendship a priority in the church and society? My suspicion and hope is that we would be a more united church, more disciples of Jesus, fewer isolated leaders, and fewer lonely people.
Evangelism and Missiology Senior Specialist, Evangelical Alliance
The Best of Friends by Phil Knox (IVP, 2022): An exploration of the scientists, sages, sociologists, and Scriptures into why friendship is so good for us, the pressures it is under, and a Christlike vision for how we relate to one another as friends in today’s world.
Evangelism in a Sceptical World by Sam Chan (Zondervan, 2018): A helpful discussion of the worldviews in contemporary Western society with practical gems of how to engage in relational conversation about faith.
The Gospel Comes with a House Key by Rosaria Butterfield (Crossway, 2018): Hospitality is central to time, presence, and vulnerability, and this book is a masterclass in how we open our homes and hearts, holding the tension described in this article.
Living His Story by Hannah Steele (SPCK, 2020): Storytelling is at the heart of great evangelism and Hannah does a superb job of helping us live and tell our own story in the context of friendship.
 C. S. Lewis, ‘They Asked for A Paper,’ in Is Theology Poetry? (London: Geoffrey Bless, 1962), 164–165.