Welcoming the Stranger, Part III: What is outreach, anyways?

A conversation among some members of Grace has prompted me to reflect on the meaning of outreach. What do we mean by that term? What is the relationship of outreach to our overall ministry and mission? Often, we tend to think of it as something we do, out there, by supporting programs in foreign countries, or over there, in the local service agencies we support. But that’s the wrong way to think about.

As L. Gregory Jones and Benjamin McNutt write:

Too often we Christians tend to think of the church’s service efforts as outreach (emphasis on “out”) — the extra activities we do in addition to being regular, everyday Christians who worship the triune God in communities of discipleship.

Thankfully the New Testament reminds us that the early church believed provision for the widow and the orphan, the sick and the poor, was not simply an extension of the church’s mission but at its core.

Are worship, coffee hour, even Christian formation part of our outreach efforts? Should they be? A couple of months ago, a piece written by Mike Rinehart, Bishop of the Gulf Coast Synod of the ELCA, made the rounds. Reflecting on decline among mainline denominations, Rinehart called for a new focus on outsiders. He wrote:

So here’s the plan. New policy. Every decision, every single decision made by staff, council and every committee is made on behalf of those not yet here. Every sermon choice, every hymn, song and musical choice, every building and grounds choice, every spending choice is made with outsiders in mind.

When we become a church for the world, the outsider, when the pain of staying the same (and dying of irrelevance) for those already here exceeds the pain of changing (and sacrificing old ways) for those not yet here, we will be the church for which God incarnate came to this earth and gave his life.

In his view, everything we do in a church is or should be about outreach, in the sense that our focus should not be on ourselves, but on those beyond the doors of our buildings.

Today, I read an article about the closure of Hull House, the famous settlement house founded by Jane Addams. An article in The Nation attributes its demise to its reliance on government funding. With the cutbacks of the last decades, it simply couldn’t make ends meet, or raise enough private money to balance its budget.

But government funded social service was not how Hull House began. It started out as a place where, in an age of enormous economic inequality, people of different classes lived together, and came together to work and socialize.

Louise Knight, the author of the article, wonders whether there is something in the Settlement House model that deserves reviving:

Today, we have all kinds of nonprofits, including non-residential settlement houses, foundations, religious organizations, and research, government and university programs focused on solving (or sometimes studying) particular social injustices. To inform us of these efforts we can turn to a rich array of magazines, newspapers, websites, books, TV and radio shows, and documentaries. Thus we have a situation in which specialists are doing the work while the rest of us read and listen to words upon words about what they are doing. But learning about these entirely worthwhile efforts does not transform us because we encounter them only through our minds. Our bodies stay in our chairs.We make no human connections, except at an imaginary remove.

Addams was so successful in raising private dollars to fund all of Hull House’s work because of her skill in connecting donors to the life of Hull House. Donors were often there as guests at dinner, as volunteers, as attendees at lectures, concerts, and plays (mostly involving people from the neighborhood). Not all nonprofits can offer their donors such opportunities for connection, and others could but do not encourage it.

Is the original settlement house method—having every day citizens of one socio-economic class live among those of another—a legacy that we should bring back to life? We may or may not need to such places, though I admit I would like to see the model tried again. But we could benefit from finding new ways, in Addams’s words, to come together “on the common road.”

It seems to me that in the first paragraph quoted above, she is describing the way we often think of outreach in churches:

Thus we have a situation in which specialists are doing the work while the rest of us read and listen to words upon words about what they are doing. But learning about these entirely worthwhile efforts does not transform us because we encounter them only through our minds. Our bodies stay in our chairs.We make no human connections, except at an imaginary remove.

But in fact, our churches, especially urban churches, are places where people of diverse backgrounds and socioeconomic status come together regularly to worship and to share together in the life of the body of Christ. We are places where a millionaire might kneel next to a homeless person at the altar rail, or share coffee and community at coffee hour. Being more intentional about that is outreach, too.

 

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