Catherine A. Caimano: Rethinking 'outreach'

The problem with 'outreach' is that it is 'out there,' and often presumes that we have no needs 'in here,' writes a denominational leader. But we are called to be near, to serve our neighbor both far away and in the next pew.

Whenever I ask congregations to tell me about their ministry, they almost always start by talking about “outreach.” Whether the parish is large or small, rural or urban, members tell me how they give out food and clothes, donate money to nonprofits and conduct Vacation Bible School for neighborhood kids. They tell me about their committees -- even the ones that have only one or two members -- and the many events and programs they manage.

But more and more these days, they also talk about frustration and exhaustion. It’s the same people doing the same ministry over and over, they say, the same programs and large events staffed by the same handful of volunteers. They believe deeply that the church should “do outreach,” but everyone is busy and overcommitted. The result? Much less gets done by the few who keep giving more.

Sometimes I wonder whether we should just stop. Stop trying so hard. Stop doing the same things hoping for different results. Stop “doing outreach” -- at least as we now envision it. More precisely, I wonder whether we should take a step back and rethink our understanding of “outreach” and how it fits within the context of church and ministry.

The problem with “outreach” is that it is “out there,” somewhere far away. Jesus and his disciples, however, in their ministry, were close enough to touch. They served their neighbors; they healed people whose names they knew or with whom they spoke.

For us, “outreach” is too often about packing food or sending resources and money to others. To be sure, such help is needed, but rarely are we asked to actually know and be with those neighbors in need. Though we might spend time with them as part of our “service,” we are never truly with them. Not really.

“Outreach” too often presumes that we have no needs “in here.” Although most Christians I’ve met have great compassion for others, they -- we -- are often reluctant to know about, are even secretive about, the needs in our own communities. The priest might know who has lost a job or can’t pay the medical bills or whose house is in foreclosure, but not many other people do. Not those who share a pew with them, who pray alongside them, who receive the same bread and wine.

Because those matters are private. Because we are ashamed. Because we are afraid.

As we seek to serve the needs of others, of those outside our congregations, maybe we should also try to do better at knowing and sharing the needs of those within. We are called to be near. “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus was asked. A neighbor is “one who is nigh,” one who is near.

We are called to serve our neighbors. We are called to be near enough to others to understand their needs, to bear their pain, to truly offer ourselves. Do we know the needs of our neighbors -- at home, at church, at work, even in our families? Are we willing to ask?

Being near, however, is scary. Whenever I ask church people what comes to mind when they hear the word “outreach,” the first thing everyone says is “soup kitchen.” Why? Because the average person in the average pew is far away from the average person in the average soup kitchen.

That person in the soup kitchen could never be me. Therefore, I never have to confront the needs of the kind of people I know, or even my own needs. I don’t have to know how needy we all are.

“Be not afraid,” Jesus said. We don’t have to fear the stranger, that person whose life could not seem more different from my own.

Receiving is even scarier. Christian service confronts us with the reality that each of us will likely be poor and vulnerable sometime. We are called to be as open to being served as we are to serving.

Learning to be vulnerable enough to give and receive is ministry. It’s not a ministry that can be easily quantified -- like the number of meals served or mission trips completed -- but it is one that is at the heart of what church is for.

The Christian community is not only a place where we worship God but also a place where members take the time to really talk, listen and reflect on their own lives and on the lives of others. It is a school where we learn to speak truth in love. It’s where we learn, by being neighbors, that all are neighbors, willing to share each other’s burdens. It’s where we learn to erase the boundary between “out there” and “in here.”

Caring for our neighbors, whether in the next pew or far away, doesn’t always require organized programs. In fact, in many congregations today, more energy is expended organizing and scheduling “outreach” programs than in actually doing the work of ministry. Sometimes feeding the hungry is as simple as buying or preparing a meal. Sometimes visiting the sick is just that. These are no less ministry for not being organized in the name of the church, or any other organization.

“If you love me, feed my sheep.” There are many ways to feed others and to be fed. There are infinite places and ways to serve others and to be served. But there is only one place to learn what the words of Jesus mean.

Church is not just another organization to do “good work.” It is a religious community for forming disciples. If we do better at that task, then maybe we will start to see that people “out there” who are hungry and homeless are also “in here,” with us, part of us.

And maybe our communities will grow until we really are all neighbors, all of us, whatever our condition. As Christian disciples, we will still be called to give and receive. But there may not be any more “out” to reach.