This week I want to follow-up on last week’s word about the difference between outreach and connection – and the difference that difference makes.
I don’t want my scruples about outreach to make it seem I am opposed to evangelism. If it wasn’t for evangelism, I wouldn’t be a Christian. But if I’m honest, I didn’t become a Christian because of someone reaching out to me (many had done that before) but because someone connected with me. Someone saw me, listened to me, walked with me. I am not dismissing what is commonly called outreach but I am prioritizing connection.
Perhaps the crucial limitation of how churches do outreach is that it is one-directional. We welcome others into our circle. We impart what we know to those who do not know. We give our answers to questions we think others should be asking – whether they are asking or not! Or even worse perhaps we update our website, hang out our sign, unlock the doors, turn on the lights – and wait for people to come.
Connection opens us to change. Theologian Miroslav Volf compares it to what happens when we embrace someone. First we open our arms. We makes ourselves momentarily vulnerable and invite a response in kind. Second, we wait for the Other to interpret our action and respond by entering our embrace. We can’t demand a response. All we can do is invite. We can’t force it. Third is the actual embrace (what I’m calling the connection) where one invites and the other responds and both fold their arms around each other.
Volf emphasizes that when such an embrace happens both parties are changed. The embrace transports us to a different type of relationship than we had before we embraced. A connection is made. If you want to avoid change then don’t offer to embrace. Keep your arms folded. Keep everyone at arm’s length – perhaps with a gospel tract in your hand!
My suspicion is that churches prefer to fail at outreach rather than risk connection because we are afraid of being changed. When we connect with another in a mutual embrace, we open a door to unexpected and unpredictable change. Connection begins a journey toward an unmapped future.
I am convinced that many if not most of the anxieties that churches think outreach will address (declining numbers, absent young people, cultural irrelevance, etc) will be better addressed by focusing on connection. When we start deeply connecting with God and our world – with God in our world – outreach will begin to be about something more significant that creating a world in our image.
My deepest prayers for North Suburban are that we will become a well-connected congregation. Deeply connected with the life and teaching of Jesus, with the work of divine Spirit, with the heritage of our Anabaptist ancestors, with our Christian and non-Christian neighbors, with the cries of the poor and the cries of the planet – with the freedom dreams of God.