An American friend once dismissed this whole approach to evangelism as “friendship evangelism.” That’s when I realized I was a naive Australian who had unknowingly stumbled into an American minefield—one that distinguishes “friendship” evangelism from “proclamation” evangelism. The theory of “friendship” evangelism is to make friends with non-Christians, with the hope of one day telling them about Jesus. I’m okay with this. But the criticism from some circles is that, in practice, this day never arrives. The theory of “proclamation” evangelism is that the essence of evangelism is to tell someone the gospel. Until that happens, we have not truly evangelized. I’m also okay with this. But the criticism from some circles is that, in practice, this is way harder than it sounds. It’s easy to do with strangers, but not with friends. So this day also never arrives.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting we just make friends and never tell them about Jesus. I’m suggesting that unless we make friends, we have no one to tell about Jesus. Even better, I’m suggesting we do friends (plural) evangelism, where many Christian friends—not just me—are telling my non-Christian friends about Jesus. My friends will be more likely to believe precisely because they now have many Christian friends who also believe in Jesus.
The Gospel Isn’t a Tribal Badge Marker
One of the flip sides to the power of community is that certain beliefs can become “tribal badge markers.”
Let’s say I’m an Oakland Raiders fan. I might wear a Raiders jersey as a “tribal badge marker.” This identifies me as a card-carrying, loyal Raiders fan. It signals to other Raiders fans that we are of the same tribe. In return, I will receive affirmation, belonging, status, security, and lots of high fives from other members of my tribe.
Unfortunately, as we become more and more polarized in our culture wars, certain beliefs also function as tribal badge markers. Your tribe—red or blue, left or right, progressive or conservative—will adopt certain stances on immigration, law and order, health, education, environment, and guns that are essentially tribal badge markers. It’s no longer only about the facts, evidence, or truth; it’s about what your tribe believes.
Thus, if you choose an alternative belief on, let’s say, immigration, this is like swapping your Raiders jersey for a Broncos jersey. Your original tribe will shame, expel, or punish you.8 You will feel you no longer belong. You will change tribes. But what usually happens is the opposite. You will never change your views on immigration, no matter what evidence you’re presented with, simply so you can be loyal to your tribe.
For evangelism, this means at least two things. First, we should try to avoid playing the “culture wars” game. The gospel should not be a tribal badge marker for one side against another side. We should not make it an “us versus them” thing.9 If it becomes that, our friend will refuse to believe the gospel because it will mean they are disloyal to their tribe. They will double down on their nonbelief.10
Evangelism should be a process in which we point to our shared common humanity, one in which we share enough humility to admit that we are all broken, no matter which tribe we belong to. And one in which we share a common human need for Jesus to rescue us.11 The gospel of Jesus Christ should transcend every culture war.
If we merge our universes and get our Christian friends to become friends with our non-Christian friends, then we become members of the same tribe. The gospel will become one of many things that our tribe can happily believe.
Chan, Sam, and Ed Stetzer. 2020. How to Talk about Jesus (without Being That Guy): Personal Evangelism in a Skeptical World. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
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