Inreach or Outreach: That is One of Many Questions

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Originally published January 2003.

“Scott Thumma, a professor with Hartford Seminary’s Institute for Religion Research in Connecticut, says that the current trend in megachurches is to ‘create a whole alternative environment for (church) members where they walk into a garden of paradise of sorts.  They’re taking everyday life and saying, “We can duplicate it here.”  Schools, restaurants, after-school activities–they are duplicating and baptizing everyday life.’ (Los Angeles Times, May 17, 2001)

“This may sound really cool to Christians, but I wonder what the surrounding community thinks about a 500,000 square-foot ‘garden of paradise’ moving into their neighborhood.  Don’t you think someone might wonder why the church needs a coffee bar when Starbucks is already around the corner?

Do non-Christian neighbors really think a church with a gymnasium, coffeehouse, food court, library, bookstore, and rock-climbing wall is for them, or for the comfort and security of its members, whom they see invading their community?

 

“What sort of message does a megachurch complex such as this give to a community?  How much of this $100 million expenditure, under the guise of ‘outreach,’ is really just a form of ‘inreach’?”

This is from John Fisher’s newest book, Fearless Faith.   My church is in the early stages of a long building program so this quote caught me from that viewpoint.  It also hit me from a ministry standpoint.  How much of what we do is really “inreach” as a way of keeping our youth safe?  Is what we are doing under the guise of outreach to the lost really duplicating something which is “cool” and making it “Christian” and hopefully will grow one’s faith?

I recently read an article about a church offering “Christian yoga” classes.  According to the founder, Emily Cobb, a minister’s wife, this is not a postmodern blurring of religions but “We wanted to open the doors to people who were afraid.  We care about calling it Christian yoga because we wanted Christians to feel OK.”  (Charlotte Observer, January 6, 2003) Are some of the outreaches we do because we want Christians to feel OK?

Whether something we plan is inreach or outreach is a fine line.  Undoubtedly, our intentions are good.  But this fine line has the danger of putting a Christian label on such things which have nothing to do with the Christian faith.  Without clarity, our teens may learn, “I’m a Christian because I attend the after-school Bible club.”  Or “I’m a Christian because I only skate during Christian night.”

Along that same scary line of thinking, by having our teens attend the Christian music-only skate night are we asking them to take a stand against the culture by not allowing them to go to a regular skate night?  Are we asking our teens to “make a stand” against the culture but the stand is nothing more than a behavior?   Like going to a party and not drinking or not going to the homecoming dance but going to the church party instead.  If that is so, the lost are not seeing the power of taking a stand because they could care less if someone went to a dance or not.  Taking a stand is more than a behavior code.

Time magazine has picked up on this movement with their recent article, “The New Funday School” (Time, December 16, 2002).  The article contains accounts of churches wooing the “Nickelodeon generation” with video games like Bible Grand Slam and lessons based on The Gospel According to the Simpsons.  There are other accounts in the article of teens being wooed by Christian skateparks and Christian adventure camps.  The article even mentions that the youth minister is the fastest- growing staff position in American churches.  Thankfully the article didn’t mention the Christian karaoke movement.

Everything in the article sounded exciting, quality and creative.  It is a place you would want your own children to be taught in.  Surely, some of the stuff is what you are striving (or dreaming) to do in your position for your youth group.  You would think that youth would really learn and retain the knowledge.  One watches The Simpsons everyday so why not tie it into faith teaching.  But this question is nagging inside of me: What of this is really inreach under the guise of outreach?  Are we just using The Simpsons as a way to retain our youth?  Is that Christian skatepark for non-Christians to go to or for a safe place for Christians to go to?  It is such a fine and often inadvertent line.

Again from John Fisher’s Fearless Faith, “The more acceptable Christian thing to do now on Halloween is to close up the house and have an alternative party for our kids at church.  The party usually has a harvest or biblical character theme–no ghosts or goblins allowed.  Though I understand how this safer alternative came to be, I wonder whether a blanket boycott is the only way to handle this controversial holiday.  Is this just one more time when we as Christians isolate ourselves from the rest of our culture for religious reasons apparent only to us?  Have we really thought through what our dark houses are saying to the rest of the block while we’re off having our alternative party?  I can hear the neighborhood kids shuffling by our house saying, ‘Don’t go there, they don’t give anything.’  Is this what we want to be known for in the community–a dark house on the one night you can be guaranteed neighbors will visit?”  That last sentence disturbs me because I want my house in my neighborhood to be a shining light of witness.  That is the least I can do for my neighbors.

If these thoughts bothers you like they bother me, we need to ask ourselves and answer some questions before we start up on our next outreach.

  • Is this a true use of God’s limitless creativity or a copy of something else?
  • If God is the Creator, what can I do that is truly creative?
  • Am I personally satisfied with what I’ve created?
  • Would a non-Christian come and be disappointed because he/she was expecting a different experience and received a poor re-run of The David Letterman Show?
  • What sort of mark can be made in the world by something original?  What sort of mark can be made in the world by copying it?
  • Are we addressing real needs or spending time, energy, and money trying to imitate something?
  • Does the vision of your church truly want outreach or inreach?
  • Is taking a stand defined as a behavior code?  Is the behavior code meaningless to those who the stand is for?
  • What is this event/outreach doing to build biblical beliefs?  Is this trying to mold actions?  Is the Bible part a throw in?
  • Can people tell where the culture stops and Christianity begins?  Can people tell where Christianity stops and the culture begins?
  • Is what you have created safe but God is saying in that small voice, “I’m out there where the lost are?”
  • What is this Christian subculture for?