Do we have a good handle on what “outreach” means?

Do we know what outreach is? I know we think we know, but as I hear church people talk, I get the feeling that we don’t really have a good handle on what it is to reach out.

First off, I’ll admit that outreach is a funny word. Back when I was in college, we had a group called Mission Outreach. A student from Germany complained that there wasn’t a good word in German to express “outreach”; the same is true for Spanish. And I think many of us have trouble with the concept behind the word even if we have a general idea what the word means.

Churches mistakenly think that outreach is:

  • Trying to attract outsiders through improved buildings, special seeker services, and effective programs at the church’s site. This attractional model is very nice for us because it allows us to stay in a safe place while asking outsiders to step out of their comfort zone. Buildings, services, and programs are a nice complement to outreach, but they aren’t outreach.
  • Recruiting existing Christians to attend our church. Whether they be people who just moved to town or disgruntled members from other congregations, we often get excited when such people place membership with us. These new members come in already knowing how to “do church”; they are typically proclaimed to be a great addition to our church family. They are a great addition; any business prefers new employees to have experience and training. But let’s keep in mind that this isn’t outreach. The Kingdom isn’t growing; what was added to our numbers was subtracted somewhere else.
  • Performing service projects around town. This comes closer to being outreach. It definitely achieves the “out-” part of the word, which is an essential part of outreach. Like the things mentioned in my first point, service projects make a great complement to outreach and can be a vital first step in outreach. But if we don’t reach the point of telling people about Jesus, we haven’t really reached out. We’ve just handed out.

Outreach involves Christians helping those who don’t know Christ come to know Christ. It requires that we go out: out of our building, out of our comfort zones, outside of ourselves. And it involves a conscious, coordinated effort to achieve the goal of making disciples; that’s where the “-reach” part of the word comes in.

We go out to bring others in… not just in to us, but in to a relationship with God. If we aren’t doing those things (going out, reaching others), then we aren’t doing outreach.

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