When outreach crosses the line

Whatever it takes, right?  I mean, anything that gets people in church is okay, right?  Because, after all, everybody needs to hear the gospel, so the ends justifies the means, right?  Maybe not.  What are the ethics of outreach and when do we cross the line from compassion to conniving?  

I read about one church a couple of years ago which offered a prize of $10,000 to a lucky worship attender.  All you had to do was show up.  At a pre-determined point in the service, everyone would be asked to look under their seat and pull out the little card taped to it.  The lucky winner was awarded $10,000 — just for coming to church.  Is that paying people to come to church?  If so, is it wrong?

Of course, some inner city missions used to do a variation of the same thing.  Homeless people were offered a free meal, but first they had to sit through a worship service complete with hymn singing, sermon, and invitation to receive Christ.  I know this happened because I preached at those services several times.  “We’ll feed you, but first you’ve got to come to church.”  

Years ago I heard a missionary talk about the need to carefully separate caring ministries, like providing food, from evangelism.  Hungry people would do anything to get food, including tell Christian missionaries they had accepted Christ.  My missionary friend said, “We don’t want to make ‘rice Christians’ out of people.” Good insight and maybe we need to apply it to our own US outreach strategies.  

Have you heard of outreach strategies that cross an ethical line?  What were they and why did you think they were unethical?  Have you ever crossed that line, and what made you realize you had?  I’m interested in hearing your stories.  Should be an interesting topic.

5 thoughts on “When outreach crosses the line”

  1. Chuck, a church in our area in NC offered chances to win $100. The more times you attended worship during the time of the promotion, the more chances you got to win.

    I don’t think we do anyone a favor by using bait and switch tactics or soft-pedaling the demands of the gospel. I preached on this last year in a sermon called “Truth in Advertising,” which is what Jesus practiced. He minced no words about what discipleship costs. If you’re interested, I can send/post? the whole sermon.

    I really appreciate your thoughts on the small church as an abbey church. I have long thought that the small church at its best is a kind of monastic community that practices a gospel way of life. It intersects with the community around it and answers the call of Christ to serve there. It welcomes people into the church, but it is honest that this is a way of life.

    (“Truth in Advertising” is going into a book that I am working on called Gideon’s Army and Other Good News Sermons for a Small Church, but I’m not sure this is the place to tell you and other readers about it. My mama taught me not to toot my own horn, and sometimes I have a hard time discerning whether I’m tooting the horn or letting light shine.)

    Blessings to you and all you readers out there!
    Mary Todd in NC

  2. Mary,
    Thanks for your comment. You are welcome to post the sermon here, if you would like. Or, if you have a link to it online somewhere else, post the link. Either way it sounds like something we need to hear. Thanks for your comments on the abbey church concept. I’m still working on that, but I find it seems to strike a chord with many. Glad to have you on the blog and thanks for dropping by.

  3. Hope this helps! Mary

    Truth in Advertising
    A Sermon on Luke 14:25-35
    By Mary Harris Todd, Pastor
    Morton Memorial Presbyterian Church
    Sunday, September 9, 2007

    Sometimes crowds did seek Jesus out and follow him around. There were times when Jesus did meet their need for inspiring teaching, healing, or just dinner. Jesus was certainly open and inviting.

    But there were other times when Jesus discouraged people who wanted to follow, as in Luke 9 when a man said, “I’ll follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to the folks at home.” Jesus’ reply? “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Jesus had just gotten through telling the disciples earlier in the chapter that “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” Repeatedly Jesus told them that he himself was headed for betrayal and death.

    Jesus could discourage potential followers, as in Luke 12, when he remarked, “Do you think I’ve come to bring peace? I have come to bring division. Households will be divided, father against son, son against father,” and Jesus went on in that vein.

    As in Luke 18 when Jesus told a wealthy man to sell all he owned and give it to the poor, and then he could come follow Jesus.

    And then there’s today’s lesson where Jesus sounds like he’s trying to run the crowd away! These are some of the harshest, toughest words Jesus ever uttered:

    “If you don’t hate your family, and even your own life, you cannot be my disciple.
    “If you don’t carry the cross, you cannot be my disciple.
    “If you don’t give up everything you own, you cannot be my disciple.
    “Count the cost, folks, you will pay a price if you come this way with me.”

    This doesn’t sound like good PR at all! These people were like fish that wanted to be caught, a pastor’s dream, and here Jesus turned around and threw up a warning!

    Put succinctly, Jesus wanted people to understand the truth about what they were getting into with him. He didn’t mean literally feel hatred for your family and loathing for yourself. He meant that love for him and loyalty to him comes first, above every other love and every other loyalty. Jesus meant that they would have to accept the reality of struggle and suffering just as he did. If not shouldering up and dying on a literal cross, they would have to shoulder other burdens for his sake, and the sake of other people, and the sake of the kingdom. Jesus meant that they would have to give up being attached to things in order to be fully attached to him.

    One way I thought of to put this is that Jesus was practicing truth in advertising. No soft-pedaling for him. No bait and switch for him. No hiding the costs in the fine print. Jesus wanted people to know exactly what being his disciple was going to cost them.

    Yesterday I decided to see what I could find on the internet about truth in advertising. What I was really looking for was a short, sweet description of what that is according to the law. So I typed “truth in advertising” into a search engine to see what would come up. I almost couldn’t believe what I saw. Lo and behold, the first hit on the list, the very first search result, was of a firm called “Truth Advertising.” This is a group that does advertising campaigns for churches, and in particular, mass mailings in the client church’s geographic area.

    I decided to look around on the Truth Advertising web site, and it had many, many articles, tips, hints on how to market your church. One article was titled, “How to Make Your Church Advertising Work Harder.” It was a list of ten important things to remember. The first thing it said was, “People get saved only for selfish reasons. [And] if people only get saved because they have a need, a want, some problem, or some fear, then you should show them, right in your ad, how you and your church can help them get what they want.”

    On down in that section it said, “God will turn them into altruistic thinkers—i.e. people who are generous with others—after they come and get saved.” Other articles on the site declared that people come for what your church will do for them. What’s more, you need to use the same key words in church ads that secular advertisers use, words like, “You, New, Proven, Breakthrough, Special, Guaranteed, Discover, Introducing, Miracle, Forever, How to, Easy, At Last, Free, Secrets.” I can’t help thinking of what a cynical view of humanity that is! Surely there must still be at least a few people that visit a church because they are searching for God!

    But the web site itself used a similar appeal in trying to get church leaders to use the ad service. In big letters on many pages it said, “We do all the work for you.” Makes it sound easy!

    There were also plenty of testimonials from pastors and other leaders that had used the direct mailing service, and they sounded like this: “Your card definitely did the trick! We had over 600 people turn out for our Easter egg hunt and carnival. We gave away over 100 Bibles and ran out of prizes for games, paint for hair, and crafts for the kids…The following Sunday we had more folks come than ever before, and then on Easter Sunday we had even more than that. It was an incredibly successful Easter. Thanks so much!” I couldn’t help wondering where the cross of Good Friday was in all that! (All from http://www.truthadvertising.org.)

    What church wouldn’t be happy to receive more people? Craving enthusiastic crowds, or wanting a few more folks at least. The idea is that good churches ought to inevitably get larger, offer more and more programs to meet people’s needs, and perhaps even become a megachurch. Or, if it can’t be a big church, at least keep it alive. Not wanting to scare anybody away, churches have few or even no expectations of people who want to officially join. It’s like what often happens when one is trying to recruit volunteers to help with something, “It won’t take much time. It won’t be hard. It won’t cost much.”

    But is that the truth about the Christian life? Not according to Jesus. Not according to a great deal of scripture. Being a disciple is not the same thing as having a name on a roll. It is demanding. For disciples, God comes first. Christian faith is not about getting, it’s about giving. It’s not about being served. It’s about serving. Answering the call of Christ is more important than accumulating things.

    And if the truth be told, in our hearts we do hope for more from members than simply being occasional spectators. We hope worship will be important to them, that they’ll come, and that they’ll listen for God’s call to serve in the church and beyond. We do hope that they’ll make a commitment to the flock itself and love the people. And we do hope that they will commit their money to this ministry. That’s honest. Commitment costs.

    Now of course it’s true that disciples of Jesus Christ do receive wonderful blessings. He does heal. He does answer meaninglessness and loneliness. He does give life its point. Even death has a meaning through Christ. He himself is eternal life with God!

    But it’s also true that Jesus Christ demands our soul, our life, our all. Faith isn’t an add-on to life. It’s the heart of life. Church isn’t another activity or club. If the church wants to be truthful in our advertising, discipleship is a way of life walking with Jesus, in the community that is his body. Christ has the first claim on us. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who died for his anti-Hitler activity, wrote that when Christ calls us to follow him, he is calling us to come and die.

    Leonard Sweet who teaches at Drew Divinity School in New Jersey writes, “How desperately we need to redefine what it means to have a successful church. Is success to be tallied on the tote-board of baptisms, budgets, buses and buildings?” Or is success to be measured instead by “how much the church gives itself away in sacrificial self-surrender…on behalf of the weak, the weary, the forlorn and forgotten…Should the church be measured instead, in a world of darkness and despair, not by how much it concerns itself with how to get people into church, but how to send people out of the church to serve?” (In Ruth A. Tucker, Left Behind in a MegachurchWorld. Grand Rapids: Baker. 2006, p. 65.)

    We don’t do people a favor by telling them that discipleship is easy, and that it won’t take much time and effort and prayer.

    In her book Christianity for the Rest of Us, Diana Butler Bass tells stories from many congregations around the country, including this one from Phinney Ridge Lutheran Church in Seattle, Washington. Diana interviewed a woman there whom she calls Joan Henderson in the book. Joan described how when she first arrived at Phinney Ridge, all she wanted was to get her children baptized so that they could attend a Catholic school that required that all its students be baptized. She planned to “get the children done” so to speak, and then get out. “I didn’t want to be changed,” she told Diana. “I wasn’t looking for community.” But Phinney Ridge insisted that the family go through a lengthy process of Christian formation before they could be baptized. The discipleship training process included Bible study and a series of worship services designed to draw people closer to God through Christ. At any point along the way, Joan could have stopped.

    But somewhere along the way, she realized that Christ was calling her. He was speaking to her. She saw the light of Christ in the patient, ongoing practice of faith of the people there. She experienced an awakening. “I didn’t even know it was dark;” she told Diana, “it had been so dark, I couldn’t believe there was any light.” It took being found for Joan even to realize that she had been lost. She went from being a wanderer to being a Christian pilgrim. (Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco. 2006, pp. 224-225.)

    So how can we practice truth in advertising here? How can we be honest about the cost of faith as well as its blessings?

    Have we ourselves counted the cost? Let’s look at our own discipleship, our own practice. How much do we feel a need to be successful by somebody else’s definition, not Christ’s? This church may never have the numbers and the trappings of success. Can we accept that? To what extent are we willing to suffer and to die as a congregation, to surrender everything to Jesus? Goal: following Jesus. Goal: hear and answer his call. Goal: take up the cross for the sake of others.

    No we can’t do a slick, seductive advertising campaign. We can’t offer “something for everyone.” But there is light here—oh, that somebody like Joan could see the light in this fellowship. Imagine if the walls of this church had been transparent last Saturday. What would the world have seen? It would have seen a community of faith rejoicing with one of its daughters on her wedding day. It would have seen the community praying for her and her new husband. It would have seen the community reminding them both of the powerful presence of Christ in their lives, and blessing them, and showing its love in simple, gentle ways, like helping the guests park their cars, welcoming them into a place they’d never been before, serving them and being friendly to them at the tables at the reception.

    Friends, your light shines every day when you try to do what disciples do. Yes, we still need to keep inviting people to come to worship God. But maybe we also need to find ways to invite others to come along in all the everyday ways we try to do what disciples do, whether it’s delivering meals, or sending a team to the Alzheimer’s Memory Walk, or helping build a handicap ramp, or doing something else that reaches out to neighbors in need. Simple acts of caring and mercy.

    Help us, Lord! We want to be your body here. Help us accept the cost. We want to be your hands and feet. We want to give you everything. Help us. Help us live the truth and tell the truth about what that means. AMEN.

  4. I didn’t realize that it took money to lead people to Jesus? I suppose it could cost a little bit…

    bible: $10, coffee: $2, relationship that affects eternity: priceless

    anywho, i linked the article to http://www.newchurchreport.com to share it with others along with the other thoughful blogs and articles from others.

  5. There is an ethical line regarding evangelism, but I don’t think any of the examples given crosses it. Deception, manipulation, and coercion cross the ethical line. However, there is another line regarding evangelism: the line of shame, being ashamed of the message of the cross. Concerning this line, the missionary’s example, as expressed in the above article, is questionable. The issue is not separating “mission” (e.g., feeding the poor) from “evangelism” (e.g., telling the poor about Jesus) and there is no compelling reason to make this separation; the issue is separating “membership” (the concept of somebody belonging to an identifiable community) from evangelism. If a man sits down to eat with me and permits me to speak, as a disciple of Christ, I am obligated to tell him about Jesus. He may freely choose to remain a member of that community willing to receive “mission”, but unwilling to receive “message” from me. In turn, I may or may not consider him a “member” of my faith community, and I may or may not feed him again, but I will not be ashamed to tell him the message of the cross. [To guess how the readers of this blog understand the words “mission”, “evangelism”, and “member” is a real crapshoot. Many current discussions of “mission” and “evangelism” are between parties who define and feel very differently about these words.]

    Mark Currie
    Moscow, Russia

Comments are closed.