Reflections on Church “Outreach”

Whenever I hear someone organizing an “outreach program” for a church, trying to “attract newcomers” using methods like music and/or drama and/or celebrities and/or fun games and/or variety show, or something like that, I cringe hard. Ironically, I used to be in that camp in favor of designing some kind of packaging and sugarcoating for the gospel. But in the quest for us to make the church “relevant,” the worst thing that can happen to us if we actually succeed…… we fail to see that God is always relevant, the gospel is always relevant, yet we end up drawing people to the church but away from God.

This viral video about how we package our Sunday worship services illustrate this same point:

This morning, Dr. Paul Yin shared with us a passage from Luke 7:36-50 in which a prostitute came to a Pharisee’s house where Jesus was a guest, and she wiped Jesus’ feet with her tears and with her hair. Then Dr. Yin asked us a question: why did the woman sit next to Jesus and not the Pharisee?

I’m afraid that the church is increasingly like that Pharisee. We target people with programs, but the really broken people in the world do not want to sit next to us. It reminds me of a story told in the book “What’s So Amazing About Grace” by Philip Yancey:

A prostitute came to me in wretched straits, homeless, sick, unable to buy food for her two-year-old daughter. Through sobs and tears, she told me she had been renting out her daughter – two years old! – to men interested in kinky sex. She made more renting out her daughter for an hour than she could earn on her own in a night. She had to do it, she said, to support her own drug habit. I could hardly bear hearing her sordid story. For one thing, it made me legally liable – I’m required to report cases of child abuse. I had no idea what to say about this woman. At last I asked if she had ever thought of going to a church for help. I will never forget the look of pure, naive shock that crossed her face. “Church!” she cried. “Why would I ever go there? I was already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse.”

Unfortunately, the church is not attracting this kind of “newcomer,” to say the least. In fact, we’re perhaps repelling them.

In Luke 7:47, Jesus explained that the prostitute was able to come to Jesus because she is able to experience God’s grace and forgiveness and she’s able to have a relationship of love with Him. I’m reminded that Jesus’ last discourse with Peter was about whether Peter loves Jesus (John 21:15-17). When people see us, do they see God being loved by us, or do they see us selling religion?

We need to reflect what we’re really communicating through our “outreach.” I want to end with my favorite lines from the lyrics of a song called “In Jesus’ Name” by Randy Stonehill:

If only He was all the world could see
They would clamor at our door
Find the life they hunger for

Dr. Paul Yin: ACR-82 Survey