Why the Church needs to stop reaching out

'5/365 - Reach Out {Explored}' photo (c) 2011, Susana Fernandez - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/

I was reading through my Facebook feed recently and saw that someone liked an interview with Jennifer Knapp. It was a person I do not generally associate with being LGBT affirming, so I was surprised to see an interview with a gay Christian where she spoke openly about her faith and orientation on their page.

As I read what they had to say, I gained a bit of understanding. They posted the article so that “Christians can minister to those in the gay community.”

I often hear (and have said myself) that the Church needs to reach out to those in the LGBT community. You may also hear that the Church needs to reach out to liberals. And agnostics. And atheists. And any number of “others.”

But here’s the thing.

They’re already there.

Whatever group it is that we think we need to reach out to, they are already attending your church. They’re sitting beside you in the seats. They’re taking communion with you. They’re holding your babies in the nursery. They’re singing on the worship team. They are all around you.

We have to stop thinking of groups as being outside of our churches. They might be outside of what your church teaches, but they are still inside of your church. No matter how small your congregation, some “other” is a part of it.

We also need to be wary of focusing on groups, because that can cause us to become lazy with our words. If we’re “reaching out” to gays, we might not be as careful with the crude caricature of an effeminate man from the pulpit. If we’re “reaching out” to atheists, we might be tempted to make a sweeping generalization about a lack of faith in our small group. If we’re “reaching out” to liberals, we might go ahead and make the Obama joke during sharing time.

Whenever we’re consumed with “reaching out,” we’re potentially neglecting those who are already among us.

Perhaps instead of reaching out, we should begin by embracing those we see around us. Jesus said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love  one another.”

Rather than looking for opportunities to find groups of people to minister to, perhaps we can focus on loving the individuals right with us. Take time to get to know them. Share a meal together. Play a board game together. Create together.

Let’s treat the people that we go to church with as our mission field. Because it’s by loving them that we best reflect Christ.

By loving the individuals that we see each day, we begin to reach out.

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Is there a group that you’re tempted to “reach out” to? Is there someone closer that you could get to know better?

  • Holly

    yes Alise! That “reaching out” of which you speak? It only serves to create the mistaken concept of “us” and “them.” We are all broken before a holy God, no matter our “label.” God cut those tags off when we were stirred together in the womb.

    • http://www.alise-write.com Alise Wright

      Exactly. This divide is so damaging. I know that this desire to reach out comes from a good place, but from my perspective, it indicates an inherent flaw in our thinking. I’ve had to change my own thoughts, so I know it’s possible!

  • Dawn Paoletta

    Great thoughts and accurate. Having grown up in a liberal home and coming to faith in Christ LATE in life. I am especially aware of this as it plays out in the church and real world. ALise, you have articulated well what I think causes many to stumble and fall away. The us and them mentality never really endeared anyone to Him…or to one another.

    • http://www.alise-write.com Alise Wright

      Right? When people become projects (and I think reaching out indicates a project mindset), it just hurts. Not intentionally, but nevertheless.

  • http://www.inamirrordimly.com/ Ed_Cyzewski

    Great points Alise. And by the same token, I’ve been thinking for the past year or two that even the language of reaching our or outreach is basically admitting defeat since we aren’t actually dwelling among the people we’re trying to “reach.” If we’re living among people, we can just share life together rather than trying to reach them and pull them over to where we are. If we go first, it’s all so much easier to connect and understand one another.

    • http://somuchshoutingsomuchlaughter.com/ suzannah | the smitten word

      exactly! that is why i still embrace the word missional. the communal life you describe is still not the narrative when we think/talk of evangelism, ministry, or “outreach.”

      (great discussion/post, alise.)

    • http://www.alise-write.com Alise Wright

      Well said. Sharing – that’s a good word.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sarahnmoon Sarah Moon

    I love this! I think so many people don’t realize that there ARE gay Christians, feminist Christians, skeptical Christians, lower-class Christians, etc. It’s hurtful when people talk about you like you’re someone outside the faith that needs to be reached and you’re like “Hello? Been here my whole life!” (speak as a feminist Christian

    • http://www.alise-write.com Alise Wright

      Yup. I definitely had to rethink the way that I used language when I realized that I was being completely alienating to the very people that I was wanting to form relationships with. Gah!

  • MamaPsalmist

    I am really disappointed that you would encourage reaching out to liberals. There are hundreds of thousands of Christians who will vote liberally this election. Traditionally, Christians have voted with the democratic party. The party serving the poor. The party concerned with taking care of the earth. The party who believes in the dignity of each man.

    If I am a liberal, I do not need you to minister to me. I need you to stop being condescending, arrogant, and rude. Like every other person. Your tone is your ministry.
    http://mamapsalmist.com/2012/09/30/570/

    • http://www.alise-write.com Alise Wright

      First of all, I’m completely liberal. All the way. So I’ve been on the receiving end of “reaching out” to liberals.

      But more importantly than that, the whole point of this post was to say that the idea of reaching out is flawed because all of these groups already exist within the church. So your claims that I’m being “condescending, arrogant, and rude” are absolutely unfounded. I would encourage you to read more carefully before judging someone’s motives.

    • http://www.inamirrordimly.com/ Ed_Cyzewski

      I think clue #1 would be the post’s title: “Why We Need to Stop Reaching Out”… :)

    • Revsimmy

      Erm…MamaPsalmist did you actually read the post? The whole post? If so, you’ve got me a bit confused.

    • Heather

      Hmmmm, If I could say in defense of MamaPsalmist, as a person who just stumbled upon this blog for the first time and was unknowing of the leanings of Alise, there was a part of my heart that sank at the “reaching out to the liberals” part because it is such a tender place for me. And it looks as though Mama has much hurt from our conservative brothers and sisters. I know I do. I think an additional reading of the post and a little understanding will do a lot.
      Humbly

  • http://sarahaskins.com Sarah Askins

    This is so true! I think that this “reaching out” extends far beyond the confines of the pew. Anyone that we place in the position of the other, we can see as a potential convert to our views.

    We are seeing so many people leave the church because once we have “reached out,” they don’t feel as loved as when they were the object of our attentions. We need to love better.

    • http://www.alise-write.com Alise Wright

      How true. Sometimes that outreach can be more damaging because it highlights how we think they’re not “on the inside.” And it really can hurt those who are quietly inside & now feel even more disenfranchised.

  • http://tellmewhytheworldisweird.blogspot.com/ perfectnumber628

    This is really insightful- I’m going to link to it from my blog. ^_^ The language of “reaching out” to some group can create an “us vs them” mentality- as if members of that group are so different from the church.

    • http://www.alise-write.com Alise Wright

      Thanks for the link – I appreciate it!

  • http://twitter.com/muchl8r Jake Lee

    I couldn’t agree more. I sometimes wonder whatever happened to the notion of overlapping communities. I belong to several different “groups” based on my geography, interests etc. and because of those relationships, inviting my friends to examine my relationship with the Lord is so much easier than deciding that I want to “go after” someone I don’t know. Maybe I’m just being lazy and I’m going for low-hanging fruit…

    • http://www.alise-write.com Alise Wright

      Ha! I was talking to someone on Twitter & saying that sometimes I just like to get to know people because they’re interesting to me – God doesn’t even factor into it! ;-D

  • http://aredemptionofhope.blogspot.com Ally C

    Hey Alise. As i said on FB, i love your thoughts here. i’ve come to dislike the phrase “minister to” for similar reasons– too often it feels like i’ve become a project, just someone to save. i had a discussion with my mentor about this idea and she said that we shouldn’t use “minister” as a verb, it should be a noun– not “minister to” but rather, “do ministry with.” i like that, i feel like it affirms my worth and dignity. i don’t want to be anybody’s project. Be my friend, not my [expletive] savior.

    • http://www.alise-write.com Alise Wright

      Exactly. I want to be a part of what you’re doing – not be a project. Good thoughts.

  • http://twitter.com/bethanykj BethanyKeeley-Jonker

    I liked this post a lot Alise. If we always think of people with differences from however we identify as targets for “outreach” we’ll never think of them as neighbors and friends.

    I think we should be careful to continue the admirable impulse to learn more about people’s experiences different from our own. A better construction might be: “this article made me wonder how we could be more welcoming to ___”

    • http://www.alise-write.com Alise Wright

      I think you’re right. Meeting new people is a good thing. And I think the idea of being more welcoming is good even without worrying about the blank. Just “how can we be more welcoming” is a good question on its own.

  • http://dlmayfield.wordpress.com/ D.L. Mayfield

    i like the main points, but i still believe there are too many barriers for many to ever step inside of a church. they aren’t all there, sitting next to us. i think this might be painting the picture as a bit rosier than it actually is. this type of thinking could easily lead us to be content to live life with simply whomever is around us. but we are always attracted to people who think/look/live just like us, and this can be dangerous.

    • http://www.alise-write.com Alise Wright

      You make a good point. I do think there’s a danger in only being with those who are just like us. But I sometimes think that when we seek out people who are different for the purpose of outreach or ministry, we assume that they need something from us, rather than seeing what we can learn from them. I think that if we’re reaching out, it’s often to make them like us anyway, and I don’t know if that’s the best motivation.

      Ultimately, I want to be around people who seem like they like people. Too often, I don’t know that churches express that they even like people who are already in the club, so I don’t know how reaching out to someone who is clearly on the outside can be very effective.

      Does that make sense?

  • Tara_pohlkottepress

    oooh. holy moly do i agree. if we “are” the church, all of us, collective, there should be none outside of us. what we aren’t doing well then, is loving ourselves as a full body and are only administering to parts of it. i have strong reactions against phrases like “out-reaches” because of the tone it implied and for the reasons you mention. I love that you said we should “embrace” those around us. skin to skin. broken to broken.

  • http://bohemianbowmans.com/ Jessica

    Well said.

  • AbbyKNorman

    Yeah, I was in a group who wanted to “reach out” to “feminnists” which was weird because not only was I one, I assumed others were too….

  • http://ear-sword-miracle.blogspot.com/ Miles O’Neal

    Love the one you’re with. There’s a good theme song for most of the Church most days. If God calls you to some other group, by all means get up and god. But otherwise, just love whoever’s around. God will show you what you need to do or say if it’s out of the “normal”, just as he did with Jesus. Otherwise… just love.

  • Kim

    Great breakdown, Alise. We so have to examine all we say and do. So with you in this frustration and effort to restate or the most basic of messages we as the church send to ourselves and to all people.

  • pastordt

    Love this, Alise. I’ve been convicted by that verse over and over again. For my money, the truest evangelism starts with how we treat one another in the community we’re a part of. If we’re willing to risk being vulnerable, if we care for those who are struggling, if we mind our tongues and say kind words about others, if we have a small group that wants to offer service to the non-profits in the broader community and we do it together, with grace and humor – that’s how the message of grace gets spread most effectively. Thanks so much for these good words.

  • http://rawfaithrealworld.wordpress.com/ RawFaith

    At one of the churches I worked at we had a welcome to the church meeting that happened often to greet new people. One time the pastor made some crack about gays blah blah blah… and I could tell there was a gay woman sitting right in front of him. When I asked him what he was thinking his response was “we don’t have any of THOSE people in our church.” It’s very true that in any church you’ll find a crazy variety of people. The sad thing is that churches often create an environment where people don’t feel safe to share their real hearts or their struggles because of the very things you were writing about.

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  • Pat

    Unfortunately, some of those “others” sitting in our congregations feel intimidated to let their otherness be known because of the treatment they’ll receive. Unfortunately, we’re all fine as long as we don’t know the truth about someone’s lifestyle, opinion, past life, etc. As soon as it becomes public, things change and people change. All of a sudden the person that was previously welcome, all of a sudden isn’t as welcome. But you’re right, we do need to stop assuming that the “other” is already in our midst. When we begin to minister to them, maybe more “others” will come as they hear about how welcoming the Church is.

    This post also raises a question: just how many of us are sitting in congregations not sharing a real part of ourselves because of fear of rejection? How authentic are our churches?

  • Susan St. Laurent

    I love this.

  • Val

    As a bisexual agnostic/atheist former Christian who still attends church regularly, I’d have to say this is pretty spot-on.

  • http://www.facebook.com/steve.martin.10485 Steve Martin

    People within and outside of the church are hurting and broken. Only Christ and His gospel of forgiveness can give us what we need. If we can share this in some way with those around us, then we are giving them what they (we) truly need. That restoring Word. This isn’t easy to do in age where we won’t be thanked for it, and oftentimes we’ll get kicked in the teeth for our efforts.

    Thanks.

    - theoldadam.com

  • http://www.facebook.com/rebekah.schulzjackson Rebekah Schulz-Jackson

    Preach it!

    Sometimes it seems like Christian leaders are easily caught up with the pursuit of “butts in pews”, when I think what would really get people’s attention is if Christians figured out how to actually get along with each other! Who wants to join a party that can’t stop fighting? Not much of a party…

  • Sara Sherrell

    Great, thought provoking post. Of course we will have a far greater impact if we focus our time on caring for and about those around us on a daily basis. Thanks for this website. I nautical discovered it and I really like it. I will be checking it out more soon! Blessings to you.

  • Pam M.

    I have been saying this for a long time (but mostly to myself and a few close friends, because nobody else seems to want to hear it). There are always so many ‘outreaches’, but there are even so many more people WITHIN the church, yes…sitting right next to us, talking to our teens, playing with our babies, etc…. who are in need of healing, counseling, or just someone to listen to them, to get to know them better and to become a real, true, loving friend.

    Excellent post. Kudos to you for putting this out here. :)

  • http://stopdropandblog.com/ Jenna

    Thank you.

  • http://steadilyskippingstones.com/ skippingstones

    “By loving the individuals that we see each day, we begin to reach out.” – great words! What runs through my mind is that by “reaching out”, what a lot of people mean is “change”. That seems to be code for fixing something that’s wrong with another person. Maybe that’s just my interpretation, or just what I’ve witnessed, I don’t know. But I do know that by loving your neighbor – doing all those things you suggested – we would be truly reaching out, and not just reaching out, but pulling those people in, to ourselves and to Christ.

  • http://twitter.com/janedoeghost Jane Doe

    I LOVE this!!! I don’t believe in necessarily “reaching out” but by living by example. That’s the best form of leadership.