Month: November 2013

The Ethics of Outreach

‘No Muslim Parking’ Sign Angers US MuslimsI have read lots of articles on church outreach in my thirty years of ministry. I’ve even written a few myself. However, I have never read an article on the ethics of outreach. Maybe it’s time for a look at the ethics of outreach. Here’s why.

In Hibbing, Minnesota, according to the KSMP-TV, the local Fox affiliate, a Muslim woman who had registered for a September 28 conference was asked to leave when she showed up for the meeting wearing a hijab. Previously the women’s conference advertising had stated, “All women are invited,” according to the station.

Ironically, the event organizers were People of the Book Ministries, a Christian outreach ministry to Muslims. Cynthia Khan, presenter for the conference, said that videos and material “offensive” to Muslims would be distributed. For that reason Khan asked that Rania Elsweisy, the hijab-wearing Muslim woman, be escorted from the conference.

As a result of Ms. Elsweisy’s ejection, the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations filed a discrimination lawsuit against People of the Book Ministries.

“The only reason I was kicked out of the event was because of my religion, Islam,” said Elsweisy. “It is truly hurtful to be treated like you are lesser than somebody or that you don’t qualify to be talked to and treated equally as others,” according to the station’s website.

While the public discrimination suit will be worked out in civil courts, there is something ironic about a Christian ministry ejecting a member of the very group they claim to be trying to reach.

While I do not question the intentions of People of the Book, I do take issue with the ethics, or lack of ethics, involved here. Add to this incident a Texas megachurch that offered cars, flat-screen TVs, bikes, and other prizes for attending church on Easter, and my conclusion is that Christians do have an ethical problem with some forms of outreach.

All of this brings up the question, “Is there an ethical standard for Christian outreach programs and ministries?” Let me suggest five ethical standards that Christian outreach programs should adhere to:

1. Outreach must be open and transparent to all, including those being reached. In the Minnesota example, presenters knew that their material was offensive to Muslims, and probably for self-evident reasons, did not want Muslims present. However, Christians must ask themselves if our attitudes, strategies, and materials aimed toward those we are trying to reach are hostile, demeaning, or degrading, should we use them at all. Lottie Moon, a Southern Baptist missionary to China in the late 19th and early 20th centuries lobbied to have the label “heathen” dropped when referring to the Chinese people she ministered to.

2. Outreach must exhibit a genuine love and respect for individuals and their cultures. Demonizing the “other,” especially in the fraught relationships between the Muslim and Western worlds, may be an effective fundraising technique but is a poor strategy for loving neighbors who may not be like us. Jesus used the “other” — a Samaritan — as example of neighborliness in his parable we call the Good Samaritan. That’s quite a difference from presenting material that is known to be offensive to another culture.

3. Outreach must be grounded in the Deuteronomic command to “love God” and to “love your neighbor.” Jesus taught that these two commandments summarized all the Law and the Prophets. In other words, all we need to know and practice as followers of Jesus is love for God and love for others.

4. Outreach ends do not justify unscrupulous means. Evangelism methodologies continue to struggle with the idea that Christians must do “whatever it takes” to reach the world for Christ. However, the means we use to reach the world must be consistent with the message we present to the world. Christians cannot trick, deceive, misrepresent or mislead others into the Kingdom of God. Neither can we buy the attention of non-Christians through games of chance, lucky numbers, or attendance incentives. Jesus fed people, but he fed them after they listened all day, not to get them to listen.

5. Finally, although this is the first ethical principle, outreach must be modeled on the Trinitarian action of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The theology of the Triune God must inform our purpose, our practice, and our presence to those who do not know the good news of God. Trinitarian outreach is characterized by love, self-giving, incarnation, sacrifice, humility, patience, winsomeness, and hospitality.

Pastors and church leaders are assailed weekly with the news that church attendance is declining, baptisms are at all-time lows, and young adults are leaving the church in droves. That news, distressing as it may be, cannot become the pretext for desperate and unethical outreach strategies that discredit the Gospel and further damage the reputation of the Church of Jesus Christ.

Why We Still Need (Some) Monocultural Churches

Immigrant children at Ellis Island. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Multicultural churches are all the rage these days. Conferences are packed with pastors learning how to start multicultural churches, or how to turn the churches they pastor into one. That long-overdue trend is welcomed because God is the God of diversity. In light of God’s call to reconciliation, churches ought to reflect the diversity of their neighborhoods.

But, we still need monocultural churches, particularly among newly-arrived immigrant populations. Here are six reasons why.

1. Monocultural churches can provide a safe haven for minorities within a dominant majority culture. After the Civil War ended in 1865, emancipated African Americans left their former white masters’ churches to form black congregations. The rich history of the American black church is one not only of worship, but as the hub of the African American community. For minority populations, especially newly-arrived immigrant populations, monocultural churches can provide this same safe haven today.

2. Monocultural churches allow for minority perspectives to develop and be heard. On a national scale, American Christianity was shocked into reality with the publication of Dr. Soong-Chan Rah’s book, The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity. The subtitle should have been Freeing the Church from White Cultural Captivity, because Professor Rah writes compellingly of the “white captivity of the church.” Dr. Rah’s advocacy for other voices — voices of minorities — to be heard and respected could be realized if white churches and leaders recognize and listen to the voices from Korean, Laotian, West African, African American, and other churches whose members are in the minority in American cultural life.

3. Monocultural churches can provide a connection to home, customs, language, ritual and power structures that generations of immigrants wish to retain. The myth of the American melting pot has been debunked as Americans of all ethnicities have attempted to connect with their ancestral roots. For those in the minority, the identity fostered by language, dress, ritual, and customs is difficult to retain, but important to remember.

4. Monocultural churches can become points of transition, assisting newcomers to America as they navigate their new culture. When I traveled in China, I was always interested in talking to Americans who had lived and worked in China to find out what restaurants they frequented, where they shopped, and how they learned the Chinese language. The same need exists in new immigrants to this country. Those from their own countries can help new immigrants negotiate the meaning and pace of American life.

5. Monocultural churches help resist the marginalization of minority groups. The danger any minority faces is not only being assimilated into their new culture, but being absorbed and marginalized by it. Monocultural churches, like the black church, have given rise to a unique expression of the Christian faith, and established a unique place for its people in American church life. White churches and denominations must reject outreach to minority populations because they are the answer to white church or denominational decline.

6. Finally, monocultural churches do not confirm the notorious church growth teaching called the “homogeneous unit principle.” Church growth studies advocated that because people (usually white) found it easier to be with people like them, it followed that homogeneous churches would grow more quickly and easily. However, monocultural churches are not excluders, but incubators that allow potentially fragile populations to establish themselves, grow, develop a unique witness, and thrive in the rich diversity of American church life.

Of course, none of these reasons is intended to sanction prejudice, discrimination, or exclusion in any church. In the Book of Acts, the church in Jerusalem cared for its Jewish widows and its Greek widows as well.

However, before you jump on the bandwagon of exclusive multiculturalism, remember that historically monocultural churches like German Lutherans, English Baptists, Scottish Presbyterian, British Anglican, and others established themselves in colonial America. These monocultural churches became incubators for those who came to these shores seeking freedom, which included the freedom to add their past to a new American future.