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.

16 thoughts on “The Ethics of Outreach”

  1. Thank you for this perspective, Chuck. Back in 2001 shortly after the 9/11 incident a group of 6 Iranians showed up at our worship service. They were quietly welcomed and seated, but all were somewhat traumatized because of the recent happenings. Quietly some of the ushers even were making a plan to call 911 … but that was never needed. It worked out that these 6 men had escaped from Iran into Turkey and spent 2-3 years in a relocation camp trying to get to the USA. Ultimately each of these Muslim from birth men. None knew each other until an International Relief organization arranged for them to be transferred to Germany and then on to the US to start a new life. I had the privilege of forming a special Sunday School class for these six men and taught them the Bible for over a year. Each man was successfully integrated into the community … some in Atlanta, some across the nation. They all had “supposedly” accepted Christ prior to coming to the US, but even with diligent effort I was only able to confirm that three of them had actually done so. There are so many stories I could write about that experience. Perhaps one day I will. Jim

    1. Jim, what an extraordinary experience. I’d love to hear more about it when you get around to telling the rest of the story. Happy Thanksgiving to you and Charlotte!

    1. Thanks for taking a look at STJ. You might also enjoy my work with the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy at My work dovetails with that of Rick Love at Peace Catalyst. In my work at religious diplomacy transforming religious enemies into trusted rivals I am working toward 2014 in setting up new church movements that bring together Christian congregations and Muslim communities serving and learning about their religious traditions together. I’d love it if your church would consider being part of this for the coming year. Let me know what you think after looking at our website.

    2. John, I am very interested in what you and Rick are doing. I did my DMin dissertation at Fuller on the local church as a reconciling community. I specifically addressed racial reconciliation because Virginia has such a fraught history in that regard. I published it on Amazon as The Reconciling Community: The Missional Mending of Spiritual and Social Relationships Through Local Church Ministry. Long title, but you get the idea. I have a publisher interested in a more popular version, plus I have developed 10 criteria so that a congregation can know when it is engaging in an effective reconciliation process. I borrow from multiple disciplines such as forgiveness studies in psychology, peace building, sociology, and of course, theology. Anyway I look forward to corresponding with you and Rick.

    3. John, I noticed that on your site. I would love to talk to you more about that. Right now I’m in Nashville, TN with our daughter because our little grandson is at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital with some respiratory problems and pneumonia. Then, I’m headed to South Georgia on Monday to be with my 94 year old father who is having gallbladder surgery Wed. So, lots of family stuff going on right now, but things are looking up. Anyway, I am very interested in what you guys are doing and want to know more. Feel free to email me at, mobile is 434.203.1448, and you can call or text me. I’ll check out your site. Thanks.

  2. What does this mean for outreach for LGBT people? Or are we even worth reaching out to? Because as I look around, I see a lot of Christian churches where I’m not welcome at all. They’d kick me out just as fast as the Muslim woman, just because I’m trans.

    1. I hope it means that Christians extend respect to all, and display common courtesies to everyone. Obviously some churches are struggling to do that because of their ideologies. I am afraid it will take a lot of conversation to change hearts and minds. I like the scene in Milk where Harvey Milk encourages his friends to come out so that more people would realize that they know an LGBT person. Personal relationships make it more difficult for prejudice to exist.

  3. Hey Chuck. I love the article! We need to meet. I lead an organization called Peace Catalyst International and have worked with Muslims for almost 40 years. I have seen lots of unethical approaches over the years. I have a manuscript that should be ready for publication in early 2015 that addresses these issues. The following article gives you an idea of what the book will address.
    I hope we can meet in the near future. Keep up the good work!

  4. My wife attended the conference where Cynthia spoke. I heard her speak two days later at our church. The conference was delayed for several minutes before it started. Cynthia explained that a Muslim woman had come to disrupt the conference and then she was asked to leave. Cynthia stated that she had grown up in the Muslim culture and that some of her presentation would be offensive to Muslims (just as Jesus’ words of truth were offensive to Pharisees). Her offensive is that she exposes Mohammed for a false prophet, and to the true follower, that is worthy of a death sentence. Her actions were actions of caution, not hate, for she truly loves the Muslim people. The conference helped us understand the difficulty of bringing Jesus to the Muslim people, but it also gave us insight into ways we can win them to Christ through actions of love and concern.

  5. Good article!. If you are looking for a book length treatment of this topic, see my “The Ethics of Evangelism: A Philosophical Defense of Proselytizing and Persuasion” (IVP 2011).

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