May 12, 2018

Redefining Outreach

The heads and heartstrings of many Episcopalians are being tugged toward action for racial reconciliation, social justice, addressing poverty, or determining how our congregations can be more obvious participants in the Jesus Movement. Marching in demonstrations is one thing, but how do we, as faith communities, start to bring about unity and peace?

Traditionally, we categorize such efforts as “outreach ministry,” hoping we make a positive difference to those who need it. We jump to do things for the poor. We give money, buy and wrap Christmas presents for the Angel Tree, invite needy neighbors to hot meals we prepare. Beautiful acts of charity.

After many years of doing so, some wonder, “Why don’t those people come to worship?” Some sigh and conclude, “Well, they just must want the food and clothes we hand out.”

Rather than doing “to” or “for” those people, what if we approached outreach through the lens of Luke 10: 1-12. This is where Jesus sends out 70 disciples into towns and villages, telling them to depend on the hospitality of the locals for their food, shelter and other needs.

Author, priest and congregational development professor Dwight J. Zscheile suggests this approach helps us lose the paternal/maternal serving programs and instead develop true relationships with our neighbors. In Chapter 5 of People of the Way; Renewing Episcopal Identity, Zscheile writes:

We are called to a bold confidence in Christ, but its basis must shift dramatically from that of the establishment mode. …we are invited to join up with God’s ongoing movement in the neighborhood, trusting that the Spirit is at work in the life of our neighbors, that we meet God there, and that by going with empty hands as learners we will experience God’s peace. We must go as Christ came to us – as guests, in a posture of humility and dependence.”

This likely redefines outreach ministry. Rather than preparing food and opening our doors, we walk out of our church empty-handed, and join in the life of our neighbors. We sit with them at the local community center, sipping the same coffee being served. We listen. We wait for an invitation to join them again, or to participate in planting a community garden. Or participate in a neighborhood carry-in to celebrate the 100[1] birthday of a community matriarch. Everyone carries in. Everyone eats each other’s food. You get the idea.

Zscheile concludes this chapter with some great discussion questions, including:

  1. Share a story of a time when you received or depended upon the hospitality of strangers. What did it feel like?
  2. What happened there?Has your church ever gone into its surrounding community to share the peace with neighbors without carrying baggage or resources? What might it mean to do so? (People of the Way; Renewing Episcopal Identity, Dwight J. Zscheile, 2012)

Relationships change the terminology from “those people” to first names. Instead of being willing to accept people on our turf and terms, we experience and respect each other’s cultures, norms and treasurers.

Has your faith community sought the hospitality of neighbors? Please share your relationship-building experiences with us!

  • 1. th