Maybe we should stop 'doing outreach'


I often ask congregations to describe their ministry to me, and every one, from smallest to largest, urban to rural, usually starts with 'outreach'. They then describe being involved with a feeding or clothing program, money given to other nonprofit service organizations, or vacation Bible school for kids in the neighborhood. This usually involves a committee, even if it is only one or two people, and organized events or places where the programs occur. It also, these days, often involves frustration and exhaustion. The same people doing the same ministry over and over. Large events where relatively few people participate. The strong feeling that the church is a place that should 'do outreach', but also the sense that everyone is busy and overcommitted, and ultimately far less gets done by the few who keep giving more. So I wonder sometimes, if we should just stop. Stop trying so hard, stop doing the same things hoping for different results, and stop 'doing outreach' and start wondering instead about how following Jesus compels us to treat all of our brothers and sisters. Are these the same thing? In some ways, yes. But I am beginning to wonder if the Holy Spirit is not calling us to re-evaluate. Some thoughts...

Christians do good things. Ask faithful Christians why they follow Christ (as I frequently do) and they will inevitably say 'to become a better person' and 'to care for others'. This seems right and true. And yet, when we think about it, neither of these is uniquely Christian. Plenty of people of other faiths, and of no faith at all, care for others and strive to do good. Shocking as it may seem, 'outreach' is not, technically, in and of itself, Christian ministry.

Caring for others is following the example of Jesus. Yet of course, all throughout the Gospels, Jesus and his disciples heal the sick, raise the dead, feed the hungry. The very first Christians were concerned with caring for orphans and widows. We are certainly called to the same kinds of acts. Isn't that what 'outreach' is?

'Outreach' is out there, far away. The thing about Jesus and his disciples is that they were close enough to touch. They served their neighbors, they healed people whose names they knew or with whom they spoke. Often, 'outreach' is about packing food or sending resources and money that, while certainly needed, leaves us knowing nothing about those neighbors in need. It certainly precludes us spending time with them that is not about 'service'.

'Outreach' presumes there are no needs here. While most Christians I have met have great compassion for the needs of others, I am continually surprised that many congregations seem reluctant, even secretive, about the needs in their own communities. The priest may know who has lost their job or can't pay their medical bills or whose house is in foreclosure, but this fact is not shared with those who share a pew with them, who pray alongside of them, who receive the same bread and wine. Because it is private. Or even shameful. Because we are afraid.

We are called to be near. 'Who is my neighbor?', Jesus asks. A neighbor is 'one who is nigh', or 'one who is near'. We are called to serve our neighbors, and I think we truly have the service part down. But to me the intriguing, and truly Christian, part of this call is the neighbor part. It is being near enough to others to understand their needs, to bear their pain, to truly offer ourselves. Do we know the needs of our neighbors - at home, at church, at work, even in our families? Are we willing to ask?

Being near is scary. It used to bemuse me when I realized that wherever I go, if I ask church people what they think of when they think of 'outreach', the first thing everyone says is 'soup kitchen.' Why is this? I think part of it is the perceived distance between the average person in the average pew, and the average person in the average soup kitchen. That person therefore could not be me, so I will not have to confront the needs of the kind of people I know, or even my own needs. I can be removed from how frightening it can be to really know about the neediness of us all. 'Be not afraid,' Jesus says, and this certainly applies to our fears of the stranger, that person whose life could not seem more different than mine, and yet somehow we know they are the same.

Receiving is even scarier. Sometimes I hear people say that in serving others, they receive more than they give. But what, exactly are they receiving? There is a danger of self-righteousness here, of doing good 'works' but keeping intact the social distance between 'them' and 'us'. Jesus healed Peter's mother-in-law. Jesus' disciples cared for his wounded body on the cross, before and after he died. Christian service confronts us with the reality that there are times when each of us will be poor and vulnerable. And that we are called to be as open to being served as we are to serving. Will we let our neighbors in when it is our turn to be the needy ones?

Learning to be vulnerable enough to give and receive is ministry. One thing about 'outreach' is that it is very concrete. When asked about ministry, members of congregations can confidently say that their church serves a certain number of meals, gives a certain number of rides, goes on specific mission trips. Beyond this, it can be hard to quantify, or even qualify, what we do at church, what church is for. What if gathering in Christian community is the place where we worship God, and also a place where our members have time to really talk, listen and reflect on their own lives, on the lives of others? A school where we learn to speak truth in love, even when that truth is hard to hear. Where we learn that all are neighbors by truly being neighbors, willing to share each others' burdens.

Serving others does not need to be organized. Engaging with our faith such that it stirs up our compassion, generosity, and courage to be vulnerable is certainly the work of the church. How this happens may not be. It seems that in our congregational life, at least as much energy is put towards the organization and scheduling of 'outreach' programs, the recruitment of volunteers, and the promotion of service, than is actually spent doing the work to which we have been called. Maybe the church is not the place to create the programs (which are often duplicated, in much better ways, by other organizations) but the place to ground ourselves in our Christian faith such that we feel the call to serve. And maybe every type of service does not have to be done in groups or programs. Sometimes feeding the hungry is as simple as buying or preparing a meal. Sometimes visiting the sick is just that. These are no less ministry for not being organized in the name of the church, or any other organization.

'If you love me, feed my sheep.' There are so very many ways to feed others, and to be fed. There are infinite places and ways to serve others, and be served. But there is only one place to learn what the words of Jesus mean. Maybe church should be more of a religious community for forming disciples and less of an organization to do good work. And maybe we will start to see that those people out there, who are hungry and homeless, are also in here, with us, part of 'us'. And maybe our communities will grow until we really are all neighbors, all of us, whatever our condition. Which will still mean, of course, that we are called to give and receive as Christian disciples. But there may not be any more 'out' to reach.