I thought I was to do Chapel…

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I woke up yesterday thinking I was helping in chapel at the Seminary.  I took my alb.  I did not know the prayers or the readings.  I arrived at the Sem extra early.  I try to find the dean of the chapel or the preacher for the day.  I cannot find either.  My anxiety rises a bit.

I walk into my first class.  A friend is sitting there dressed in his clerical collar too.  “Are you helping with chapel also?”  “No, I am leading morning prayer.  Are you helping with chapel?”  “Uh…”  I come to find out that the Monday I am helping with chapel is January 17.  Ha!  I think it is time to read email a little more carefully.

Reading a bit more carefully.  That is a novel idea (no pun intended).  I feel like I have read more in the last weeks than I did all of my seminary career before this time.  Read, and read carefully.

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When outreach is Bad

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I have been reflecting deeply on my vicarage year.  There was an interaction early in my time there that I have been focusing on greatly.  It was a conversation I was having which lead to the shockingly amazed question, “you don’t think we should be inviting people to church?!”  I said, “No, it is not for us to worry about at this time.”  This person I was talking to seems to echo what many in our Synod, and the church in general, think the primary mission of church is.  However, outreach is not evangelism, and outreach is sometimes bad.

William Willimon tells a great story in his work The Instrusive Word about a church and its outreach.  It was Willimon’s church.  They were stagnant.  They thought a healthy outreach program would do them good.  So they set about to do it.  Two old women went out one Saturday, but they made a wrong turn.  Willimon, and the outreach crew, had specifically given them a nice, safe, area to outreach in.  But, they took a wrong turn.  They wound up in the bad part of town.  As Willimon says, “they evangelized to the wrong people,” and Verleen showed up at church with the women.  Verleen turned the nice, white, middle/upper class church on its head with her crass jokes and language, and life that was completely incongruous to their own.  In this case, outreach was bad.  Willimon would not say so.  But, the underlying truth of this matter was that the church was not trusting the Lord, therefore outreach was bad.  Willimon says, this church was trying to be more “discerning” than the Lord.  Blessed be the name of the Lord that Verleen was found.

When all external, and even internal, markers of a church, as people see them, have failed or are inadequate the logical step nowadays seems to be outreach.  This is the case for Willimon’s church.  This is also the case for many of our Lutheran churches.  In these cases outreach is bad.  When outreach is the last, desperate, act of a church, individual or institutional, to “stay-alive,” “grow,” “fill-the-pews,” “meet the budget,” (there are other reasons) I am asserting outreach is bad.  Because, what are you outreaching them into?

Outreach is organic and un-helpable on account of faith in my opinion.  And by faith I mean a total embodiment of the Gospel.  Now, this manifests itself in certain, and various ways, but what I mean might be simply put like this: praying as a family, or group, in a public venue, i.e. before a meal in a restaurant.  Or, as an individual at work asserting that as a Christian you are not pleased with the jokes, or views on marriage being talked about.  Now, these are minor examples, some of the lessers I might say, but still an important point.  If a church “outreaching” were asked, “why do you go to church there?” or “why are you doing this?” they better have a way better answer than, “my church programmed this,” or “I don’t know. I needed community service hours.”

Now, the opposite is the case too.  Outreach is good, but often neglected by those peoples and churches that might best be doing outreach.  However, at the time of the conversation I was having, we were not one of those churches.  This might erupted into a “good church/bad church” sort of debate.  Was my vicarage church bad? No.  By no means.  Was it the most spiritually mature and trusting of God?  No.  We might be tempted to say, “no church is.”  But, this is just not true.  There are many churches that are ready for outreach.  But because of trends in synod, and church in general, outreach like Confirmation, and Marriage Counseling have become desperate acts.

We throw a last ditch effort at people in hopes that something sticks. We have failed as families and churches to catechize from birth.  We throw confirmation for two or three years in hopes of making Lutherans.  We throw 6 weeks of counseling at people in hopes of making Christian marriages.  We throw outreach at communities in hopes of making churches.  In all these cases I would assert the actions are bad, not simply that they are less than ideal.  This is not a call to stop synodical outreach.  It is a thought that hopefully leads to reflection.  Perhaps your congregation might be the best congregation to do outreach.  Perhaps it might not be.  Blessed be the name of the Lord.