In conversations about the relationship between the Church and the World, there are three closely related but distinct concepts that often get confused: Outreach, Evangelism, and Mission. Many parishes have committees with one or more these names, and the work and ministry they do often overlaps. Sometimes the name we give the committee has more to do with what was fashionable at the time it was set up than with the actual ministry of the committee.
Outreach comes from the sense of reaching out a hand to help others. Sometimes it is specifically tied to the “works of mercy” described in Matthew 25:35-36: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, and visiting the prisoner. Sometimes it is defined by something like the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. And sometimes it seems to mean everything that the church does other than worship: I have seen “outreach” applied to activities that would be more accurately called publicity, community relations, prophetic witness, and pastoral care.
Outreach also can carry with it a sense of reaching out from the center to the margins, which in turn implies that we are at the center, we are the establishment with the resources, the power, and the knowledge of God, which we are graciously willing to share with the less-fortunate folks “out there.”
Evangelism literally means good news, and specifically means preaching the Gospel, proclaiming the resurrection of Christ and the Kingdom of God, and what those mean for the liberation and reconciliation of the world. Inside the church, though, Evangelism seems to mean getting people to come to church, specifically our church, and if possible to come back and sign a pledge card. Ministries such as welcoming visitors and incorporating new members are important, but there is so much more to Evangelism than these. And “the E word” sometimes carries uncomfortable connotations of professional Evangelists in the media, with their forceful insistence that they have all the answers and that we must be one of them to avoid damnation.
Mission also has some awkward associations with the great missionary project of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and its baggage of colonialism, cultural imperialism, and “converting the heathen.” A more recent version of this condescending attitude is the “mission trip,” on which a group of first-world teenagers or adults drops into an economically disadvantaged community for a week, then comes home to post sanctimonious humble-brags on social media.
Until recently, if many churches dealt with Mission, it was to spend a lot of time crafting a mission statement: a one-sentence capsule intended to explain why we’re here and what we think we’re supposed to be doing. But Mission means sending, and theologically means the sending of God. One who is sent does not set his own mission. How does it change the way we think about it if we stop trying to craft our mission, and instead recognize that we are talking about God’s Mission, and that the Church is one of the instruments that God is using to fulfill God’s Mission. Mission is not something that the Church does; it is something that God is doing through the Church: the consummation of creation that we like to call the Kingdom of Heaven.
A brick doesn’t need a mission statement, but if a brick is willing to participate in the Builder’s mission along with mortar and wood and glass, together they can accomplish something greater than any of them individually could have imagined. If the brick insists that everything must be brick, and in fact that the bricks must be in charge of drawing the blueprints, it’s unlikely to end up with anything other than a pile of broken bricks.
Being an instrument of God’s Mission is as much about listening and watching and learning as it is about talking and doing and teaching. We are not the only tool in God’s toolbox, and we need to be humble enough not only to listen for God’s plan, but to recognize that God may be using other people and other institutions to fulfill God’s mission, and that sometimes we just need to get out of the way.
Looking at Mission from the viewpoint of God’s Mission, the question is not “What can we offer the less fortunate?’ The question is not “How do we get more people to come to church?” The question is not even, “What should we be doing?” The questions that I believe will lead us to be the Church is “What is God doing in the World? What is God doing in our neighborhood? And I wonder if we can get in on that?”