Thursday, January 24, 2008

On outreach as evangelism

Often churches talk about using outreach as an evangelistic tool--that we will help those in need and then they will see the love of Christ in us and be prompted to come to church. Our growing numbers at the church food pantry contrasted with those of dwindling church membership indicate otherwise. Despite good intentions, I don't know of anyone who has come to our church as a result of the food pantry or even via the preschool. Last year we served over 4000 people at our pantry, plus countless others at the bread bank, but never do I see them on Sunday mornings, which, to me, indicates a major disconnect.

I think this Christmas season shed a little light on why and I want to share my thoughts. The revelation actually began this fall. Our church started something called "Live to Give," which aims to facilitate members helping members whether it's cooking, transportation, cleaning, companionship or otherwise, we have a list of members who need something and a list of those willing to offer themselves in service and we aim to match folks up. As a part of this ministry a young mother approached me and asked for help when her husband went on disability. She needed help with childcare. The church facilitated babysitters and help for this young mom and not long after that they stopped appearing on Sunday mornings. Further help was offered and provided for awhile, but still no return to church. One could argue that it's a scheduling issue, but I think there's something more. It seems our outreach efforts have had the opposite effect of what we wanted. We actually managed to push this family out of active church participation. Which begs the question--WHY??

Then during the Christmas season I received a call and then a visit from a family of 8 who needed clothes for the kids. Mother and daughter came in to talk with me and tell me what they needed and daughter was clearly mortified at the thought of having to be there and ask for help. She had a 'hurry up let's get this over with' attitude as we went over sizes, needs, and preferences. A double dose of mortification hit her when we needed her bra size and her mother immediately started to lift the back of daughter's shirt with me in the room and the door wide open. I hopped up, turned my back and closed the door to offer whatever privacy was possible at that point to salvage some of this poor girl's dignity. I asked a few more questions and said I'd get back with them (we didn't have a fund for such expenses and I would have to do some digging to find donors) and they thanked me profusely and left.

As I thought about this family I wanted to try and make this less mortifying for the daughter and thought that giving her some agency in the process might help her feel less alien. I called and asked if she'd like to go shopping with me to help pick out the clothes and she did! She picked out clothes for a couple sisters, timid and cautious at first, and then a little more comfortable as time went by. After getting something for everyone, we loaded up the car and I took her home. I sat and talked with the family, played with the young girls, and invited the whole family to church and invited the older girls to youth group. Everyone thanked me profusely and hugged and kissed me as I left but I never saw them again.

Again I had to ask myself why. I don't really know, to be quite honest. And I'm not sure that if I outright asked either of these families that they'd tell me the real reason for fear of offending me, or maybe they don't even fully know why themselves. But the answer I keep coming back to is shame. I keep seeing the daughter's face of "Dear God, why me?!"

It is hard to ask for help. It can be humiliating to say you can't afford to go out to dinner or to the movies, to confess you can't afford college, let alone to say you (or your parents) can't afford clothes, shoes, or underwear. In our bootstrap, individualized, bigger-is-better, have everything you want culture, need is simply not cool. And beyond being uncool, it can be painful, humiliating, marginalizing, and alienating. And under the weight of all that, as if it weren't enough, when you receive from someone else (even if it's the benevolent church) there's the fear of being known as "that family" or "that girl" "those people". It's no wonder those who receive from the church don't want to come back. Receiving aid, if not in practice at least in sentiment, is as good as wearing a scarlet letter--"P" for poor.

And in the end I think it becomes either one or the other--either we let the church provide for our material needs or we let them provide for our spiritual needs. And if you're struggling to make ends meet, the choice is obvious.

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