Revisioning Outreach

For years, churches in the USA cooperated together to offer tent meetings and crusades in order to preach the gospel to their communities. Often it involved bringing in a big name evangelist such as Billy Graham, or lesser known people with regional influence. While those types of events still occur–notably Portland-based Luis Palau travels throughout Latin America to offer Neighborhood Festivals and has also done so here in Portland–I like that there has been a move away from the crusade language. In Portland, the word stirs very negative reactions among many residents because of its allusions to the warring of the Middle Ages. I would argue that it is an understandable and valid concern.

Palau’s events promote the mingling of believers with the lost in common community celebration, rather than simply passive observing until the salvation appeal at the very end, although he does preach the Gospel in his meetings. I am, in no way, knocking Billy Graham’s style. I am simply pointing out the major difference between the two, with the thought in mind that a new way of conducting evangelism is emerging which is directly dependent on ongoing community, rather than only mass marketing and immense gatherings. In actuality, it was the Billy Graham organization which laid the ground work for this kind of cooperation as it began to network with churches years in advance of their local meetings, so that new converts would be able to move right into local fellowships upon receiving Christ. They demonstrated great insight and leadership in creating this model, making it easier for Luis Palau to come along and develop the community gathering model. But therein lies the difference. In the former model, you must believe before you may belong to the community of faith. In the latter model, we see a movement toward co-mingled belonging of the lost and believers alike within the community of neighborhood celebration. This might not directly be the intent of the Palau organization, but it seems to be one of the outcomes, given that all are welcome to participate in general community.

This leads me to a few observations, along with their possible implications for children’s and family ministry.

There are new kinds of outreach which I am noticing. Many of them are on a much smaller scale and require year-around involvement of believers, rather than simply a run up to a single major event, such as the type with Reverends Palau or Graham.

1. A new kind of neighborhood group is emerging virally through the influence of Randy Frazee and his book The Connecting Church (Zondervan), and also through his current place of service, Willow Creek Church. He emphasizes small gatherings of neighbors living in proximity and sharing in a commitment of community and spiritual formation. Preferably, they will live on the same block, rather than having to commute, so that their community breathes beyond schedules meetings into their regular routines. Outreach flows out of their relationships, in fact inviting lost persons to belong before believing. It still requires commitment to the principles of the community in terms of involvement and mutual respect, but it does not require them to believe in all respects before belonging to the group. On the downside, there has been no real sense of intentionality pertaining to the spiritual formation of children within the groups. This is something I am working to address in my DMin Dissertation. Nevertheless, there is a potent aspect of outreach within this framework. For once, non-believers get to see believers as human beings, rather than simply proseletyzers from their point-of-view.

2. Arts and social justice have long been the mainstay of mainline churches. Finally, evangelicals are beginning to understand their importance. Nowhere has this trend been more visible than in the city, especially Portland, which is a haven for musicians, writers and artists of all kinds. Open-mike poetry jams and comedy nights draw crowds, along with drum circles, nature walking groups, art shows; plus dance, drama and music shows, and so on. Portland’s reputation is taking on international proportions and for good reason. Local churches which are infused into the arts scene communicate on a heart level with the culture in which they are located. I believe there is much more that we can do to tap the visceral interest which people have in the arts, in terms of offering opportunities for children, their families and the community. Whether it is skill training camps, neighborhood art shows or drama presentations, or even dance or music recitals, the arts is a wide-open opportunity to connect with the local culture in ways that invite them to be present in community with us.

Likewise, social justice is a prevalent issue concerning everything from race relations, hunger, poverty, homelessness, orphaned children/foster children, crime, gang activity, job training, and so on. Many churches in the Portland area have offered use of their facilities to help homeless people get out of the cold, at least for the short term. Others have food kitchens, skill training programs, and counseling services. So many people live on the margins. I maintain that it is to the margins of society that the church has been called to be the presence of Christ in the midst of suffering, helping people with practical needs and offering hope for the future. Given that so many families with children in the USA are living at or near poverty, it behooves the church to find creative ways to reach out to them. Still others are living in the lower-middle class, but are at risk of losing homes due to the home mortgage crisis and personal financial difficulty, thus placing them in precarious situations. We should ask ourselves, what might outreach look like which takes into account the social justice needs of our specific local communities?

3. What if our church campuses could once again become places of meaningful community gatherings? Some would argue that the times of worship, prayer and study fit that role. Others would go a step further, arguing that church is the house of God and not a place for just anybody to gather, but only those who seek to worship God. Both of these are deeply held concerns, if a bit exclusivist, keeping in mind that it is actually believers who now house the presence of God on earth through the indwelling Holy Spirit in our midst, rather than specific buildings. I would like to offer an alternative suggestion with all due respect to my dissenting friends. What if the local church facility, on some level, could provide also for the greater community good in terms of the arts, social justice, and community service? This, in no way, implies that pluralism should be allowed or beliefs watered down. It does imply that the church need not continue to be marginalized as largely irrelevent to the daily life of the community. Rather, by opening its doors, and by extension, the hearts of its people, to the local community at appropriate times, it can become a potent voice in the fabric of public discourse.

What might this look like for children’s and family ministry? Think of the possibilities. Dream big, perhaps even setting aside pre-existing limitations, just for the sake of uninhibited dreaming.

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