In the course of my consulting and speaking at evangelism training workshops, I’ve encountered many churches that have very active outreach and community service programs:
- After school tutoring
- Shut in or Prisoner Visitation
- Habitat for Humanity work projects
- Medical outreaches for the community
- Participating in Crop Walks for Hunger Relief
- Food pantries, clinics, shelters for the homeless
These are just examples, and I am sure you can add hundreds more from your local community.
The questions I ask and we kick around in friendly discussion:
- Is that outreach?
- Is that evangelism?
- Is that home missions?
- Is that simply good deeds?
- Is that missional outreach?
- Is that marketing in disguise?
- Is that a demonstration of God’s love?
Real Simply: Is neighborhood outreach evangelism?
A cup of cold water vs. word of life
What is clear is that we have blurred the line between evangelism and outreach.
Discussions I’ve had bounce all over the map.
In some corners of the church, community service is evangelism because it demonstrates the gospel.
No explanation needed.
Other corners argue this not evangelism because it doesn’t verbally share the truth of the gospel. It’s simply social action.
Depends on how you define your terms.
Acts of Christian service and charity, social outreach to your community are good and noble efforts. Many are propelled theologically by the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46), giving a cup of cold water to the least of these.
Yet what separates your Christian service from that of the local Rotary club?
What makes your acts of compassion different from my atheist friend who does community service through the Peace Corps?
How does the recipient know the difference?
How do the recipients of your outreach interpret or give meaning to your outreach?
Meaning is not always clear
My friends in Panama tell me this story.
Panama Olympian Irving Saladino won the first ever gold medal for this country during the 2008 Summer Olympics in Bejing.
The last medal won was 60 years ago and it was bronze.
During his jumps, nationally televised in Panama around 6.30 am, the nation was at a virtual standstill.
People were watching it in groups at friend’s houses. Taxi drivers had pulled over to side of the road to listen to the radio. Everyone it seemed, went to work late.
On his two or three jumps, he wore one red shoe and one blue shoe, reflecting the national team colors. However, on his next to last jump, he changed his shoes to a gold color.
The commentators and “man on the street” interviews all got excited:
- “He’s going for the gold”
- “He’s put on his lucky shoes”
- “He’s telling us this will be the gold medal jump.”
They were applying meaning to the color change of shoes.
That jump turned out to be the gold medal winning jump.
The country erupted in celebration. Facebook photos from my friends show lots of celebrations, cheering, and national happiness. People on the street celebrated by blowing their car horns in celebration. Crowds formed spontaneously on the street. National productivity of the workforce shut down for the day as Panama won its first ever gold medal.
The meaning of the shoes?
When asked by a reporter about what he was trying to communicate with his shoes, Saladino mentioned
that the laces in his red and blue pair got tangled up and he didn’t have the time to fix it.
He put on his gold colored backup shoes so he wouldn’t be disqualified for being late to the starting line.
Very different meaning than what the nation watching on live television thought.
People gave it meaning based on their hopes, dreams, and worldview.
Meaning is given if not provided
Bring that back to your church’s outreach.
What might your recipients think about your outreach?
How can they tell that it is a “Cup of Cold Water given in My Name?”
In a post Wrestling with the Definition of Evangelism I mention:
Just this week, the dental assistant told me that it feels good to help people.
I asked her “Why?” No immediate answer, but enough to have her reflect.
She’s unchurched. She didn’t know why people had black spots on their heads last Wednesday [for Ash Wednesday].
She could serve the poor, work for the Peace Corp, or any of the national volunteer mobilization organizations. She simply feels good. that altruistic motive propels many people.
But to the recipient, what separates her good service from that of the church? How does the recipient know it is “In My Name?”
In my experience, meaning is naturally given if not supplied by the giver.
Outreach in partnership with Evangelism
John Stott asks the question in Christian Mission in the Modern World.
Is social action (thanks to Timmy Brister for summary)
- A Means to evangelism
- A Manifestation of evangelism
- A Partner of Evangelism
Mark Dever has an interesting piece in Christianity Today, also points out what “What Evangelism Isn’t.” (adapted from his book The Gospel and Personal Evangelism). Evangelism is not social action or public involvement (”They commend the gospel, but they share it with no one.”)
In What is Evangelism? I mention:
During a health outreach our church did for its neighborhood, one unchurched person commented, “I don’t like to listen to sermons, today I saw one.”
Our service to the community was interpreted as we wanted – a tangible demonstration of the love of Christ that we have for our neighborhood.
It’s a witness to the world thru actions.
Yet that interpretation came about because we gathered all the volunteers at the beginning and I explained to them why we as a church are doing this outreach.
We are serving because God first loved us and we want to demonstrate that to the community.
Good works demonstrate our faith.
Yet without any overt or clear explanation that our actions are propelled by God’s grace, what makes our good deed any different than what the local Lions club does or what good corporate citizens provide through their charitable foundations?
It’s not an either/or proposition for me. Both social action and explanation via words are necessary forms of sharing.
Deeds are love demonstrated, but a further explanation of the gospel is necessary to give meaning to our actions. Otherwise, our actions are ripe for misinterpretation.
Practically what does this mean?
Many churches are actively engaged in good works in their community.
Yet can their members explain their personal faith along the way?
Can churches train their members to grow comfortable talking about their faith with the people they are serving?
What if, as part of the planning for outreach events, the church provided a training opportunity about talking about your faith?
What if, as part of praying for the outreaches, the church also prayed that conversations about Jesus would happen?
What if, as part of serving the community, the people were able to provide meaning of their service by talking about their personal relationship with Christ?
Let me ask you this?
Think about your church’s outreach.
In what ways can your church provide meaning to the recipients through the verbal sharing of your faith?
I invite your comments and reflections below.