[Editor’s Note: Dr. Ant Greenahm is Associate Professor of Missions and Islamic Studies at Southeastern. A specialist on the Middle East, he is author of Muslim Conversions to Christ: An Investigation of Palestinian Converts Living in the Holy Land (WICU, 2011), and co-author (with David Black and Allan Bevere) of The Questioning God: An Inquiry for Muslims, Jews, and Christians (Areopagus, 2012). He is also passionate about helping students see the breadth of the Great Commission. To that end, he writes below about the nature of friendship in the Great Commission. This is the first post in a three-part series. Come back next Monday for part two.]
I end this brief series with suggestions on how to move friendliness in the direction of true, Great Commission friendship. Doing what’s right must go hand-in-hand with stopping what’s wrong. I’ve explored the limitations of activity-based friendship and the inadequacy of friendliness in previous posts. And here I have one more friendship inhibitor to consider before I close. It’s the enduring tendency to categorize people.
Miriam Adeney provides telling insights on categorization at the end of a discussion on overseas missions:
We Americans tend to view people in other countries in three categories. They are exotic. They are problems to solve. Or they are good business contacts.
We bring these views into the way we promote mission. Exotic? We make other peoples into an adventure. But they are not exotic, they are sinners, just like us.
Problems? We present internationals as spiritually, physically, and socially needy. But they are not only needy. They are also made in the image of God, with a great deal to give as well as receive.
Business contacts? Internationals are not machines to be treated pragmatically. They are whole persons, as complex and common as we are.
Her focus is on outsiders, but Adeney’s insights apply here in the US too. And if you’ll allow me to slip into a personal mode, I’ve experienced each of her three categories myself.
I’m certainly exotic. As soon as I open my mouth, I’m asked where I’m from (South Africa) and get the friendly assurance, “I love your accent!” I don’t mind this at all, but there are times when folks seem more interested in hearing me talk than listening to what I have to say. I also admit I can be a problem (ask my wife!). However, what if my annoying suggestions that we do things differently proves useful, with some tweaking and deeper consideration? Third, I provide my skills and resources (and you provide yours) to benefit the Seminary as a whole. In other words, much of our interaction in an institutional context is business-related. Business though it is, the Seminary’s imperative to further the Great Commission is ultimately God’s business. And this means that doing Great Commission business must transcend utilitarian pragmatism.
Such pragmatism may be seen when two Christian men express interest in South Africa on separate occasions, get answers from me they say are helpful, then ignore me the next time I see them. Or when a young woman shares lunch with me and her prospective student husband, spends an evening in our home once he is accepted, but now lacks the courtesy to greet me when she passes by. In the same vein, I was saddened when I bumped into “Ricky” at the ETS meeting in Baltimore last year. He asked if I remembered him. Of course I did—we mentored him and his wife, in our home, for over a year. Unfortunately though, his uncertainty rightly shows our culture’s doubt that a long-term friendship might emerge from a past set of activities, regardless of how meaningful they were at the time. So, let’s not leave people in the dust once the business is done!
Finally, here are a few ideas on how we can do better. As before, Jesus is our example. In addition to being with his disciples, over time and across a range of activities, Jesus told his disciples they were his confidants, not his servants, and as such, his friends (John 15:15). As his friends, he would love them by laying down his life for them, but they were to love each other the same way (John 15:12–14). In other words, doing Great Commission friendship (i.e. truly making disciples) means being a vulnerable, sacrificial friend, like Jesus, to others. Ultimately, this enduring demand is always higher than anything we can attain. But we can take a stab at it in the following ways:
- Focus on a few. Jesus did. His closest relationship was with just three disciples. I think this is a good guideline; you can’t have deep friendships with everybody.
- Be deliberate in establishing close relationships. Eva and I did this with “Dick and Karla.” It started with a few shared meals right before they took a trip to the Middle East. But we agreed we shouldn’t throw the relationship away once the activity was done. And so, seven years later, we are still spending quality time with each other, pretty much on a monthly basis.
- Finally, ask Jesus, the Friend of Sinners, to help you as you put his way of discipleship into practice.
 Miriam Adeney, “The Myth of the Blank Slate: A Check List for Short-Term Missions,” in Effective Engagement in Short-Term Missions: Doing It Right! ed. Robert J. Priest (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2008), 144.