Friday, January 28, 2011

Making Friends, Making Disciples -- A Review

MAKING FRIENDS, MAKING DISCIPLES: Growing Your Church through Authentic Relationships. By Lee B. Spitzer. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2010. Xiv +161 pages.


The idea of “friendship evangelism” has been with us for as long as I can remember. It’s a pretty simple concept – people are more likely to come to church if they’re invited by their friends. Sometimes, however, this principle gets turned into a manipulative program. It’s a bit like multi-level marketing. You “make friends” with the goal in mind being growing the church. If the intended “friend” (victim) doesn’t look promising, well then you drop them in and move onto a more receptive “friend.” Although Making Friends, Making Disciples does speak to the question of growing churches through friendship circles, for the most part it doesn’t fall into this trap. The key part of the subtitle is the word "authentic."  In fact, the book takes a much broader look at the importance of friendship – not just in terms of the church, but our personal lives as well. And in this day of Facebook “friends,” it pushes us to look at this friendship circle as well.

The author of this book, Lee B. Spitzer, is the Executive Minister of American Baptist Churches of New Jersey. He has had significant experience as a pastor, but in his current position has had the opportunity to work across cultural and ethnic lines, experiences that provide helpful impact to the book’s perspective. Theologically, the author would seem to come from a moderately evangelical perspective. This became evident near the end of the book when the author spoke of developing interfaith friendships, something he supports, but with two caveats – such friendships should not override the exclusivist elements of the gospel, and that it is likely problematic to bring persons of another faith into one’s closest friendship circles (Best Friends and Special Friends – that would, of course, exclude persons of another faith being one’s spouse/partner). The author’s orientation is seen also in the way the Bible is used – never heavy handed, but always present in the discussion.

Although the book has an evangelical flavor, it is not a heavy-handed one. Therefore, one need not be evangelical to find value in Making Friends, Making Disciples. The value of this book can be found not just in the insights it gives concerning drawing people into the church and sustaining relationships in the church – though that is very helpful – but one will find great assistance in examining the nature of one’s own friendships. The Appendix includes several exercises that will help the reader (and groups in the church) look at their friendship circles, which he defines as Best friends – those who are most trusted – including one’s spouse (2-3 persons); Special friends (3-5 closest friends beyond the inner circle); Social friends (7-12 persons one spends considerable time with). Finally, there are the casual friends/acquaintances – another 50-200 persons one knows by name and might either socialize with or work with. The question then becomes: how many in each circle are church friends, recognizing that if all one’s friends are church friends, the opportunity to draw in others to the faith is rather limited.

Regarding the church and friendship, the author, Spitzer notes the importance or relationships in creating a healthy church – noting that visitors can discern whether a church is for them in the first 10 minutes. With that in mind, he speaks to the kinds of things that can keep a church from being a welcoming congregation – including the way the sanctuary is set up to the reliance on meetings to sustain relationships. So, there is encouragement to “right-sizing” the sanctuary seating to having regular fellowship meals, from creation of small groups that not only meet to do business but that have strong theological foundations. I did appreciate as well the word concerning same gender relationships, which have become much more prominent. He welcomes them but notes that they need to be kept in perspective. But in relationship to the church, he notes that the days of same gender groupings maybe coming to an end, as younger people are much more comfortable gathering in cross-gender groups than same-gender groups.

A bit of wisdom that the author provides is a reminder that true friendship has to be future oriented. It has to be moving forward. In illustrating this premise, he points to the Facebook phenomenon of reconnecting with old friends from the past – usually from high school or college. Reconnecting is joyful and fun, but ultimately, after we share our memories of the good old days of yore, unless this friendship has forward movement the relationship starts to fizzle. I think all of us who have been on Facebook realize this to be true. Of course, something different can happen through social media – we can make connections with people we’ve never met, but who share common interests and commitments. This can and does at points lead to deeper friendships over time, especially if we have the opportunity to connect face-to-face at some point.

This is a book that will prove to be a quick read, provide needed wisdom for church and personal life, and yes, might even lead to growth of the church – not only in numbers but also in spirit.  I know that we always add the latter phrase, but it is important, and too often only given lip-service! 

1 comment:

A "Freakin' Angel" said...

Bob, thanks for this thoughtful and positive review!