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Rethinking Parish Outreach
Over the last decade or so, I have come to understand God’s mission in the world – and therefore our mission as the church – is fundamentally about the quality of our relationships with God, each other, and all creation. That theology is not original to me. The Bible begins in Genesis with God, humanity, and creation in perfect relationship each with the other, and it ends in Revelation as the heavenly city reunites with the earthly city, thereby restoring God, humanity, and all creation to that same perfection of relationship. Between those bookend visions of the fully realized kingdom of God, and recognizing that such reconciled relationships are not usually present in the world in which we live, the rest of the Bible is the story of God working in the world to return kingdom of God relationships to all creation in the here and now. That’s what we mean when we talk about the “kingdom of God breaking in” and “experiences of the kingdom of God in our lives today.” The Book of Common Prayer acknowledges this when it says that the mission of the church is “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” And in recent years, this mission of reconciliation has found its way into how I think about parish outreach. In Episcopal churches, the word “outreach” is often used interchangeably for the events and programs through which we offer help to those without food, housing, medical care, and the like; and the ways we seek to connect with people who do not already belong to a church. Our mission of reconciliation applies equally to both kinds of outreach, but for our purposes here, we’re just going to look at how it affects parish outreach in the first sense: that of helping people who lack a necessity of life. Food ministries are a good example. There is no doubt that feeding the hungry is a good and Christian thing to do. Our Rethinking Parish Outreach – Moving Toward Relationship question is can we rethink the ways in which we do it so that it also specifically advances our mission of working with God to build and reconcile human relationships? Take a stereotypical soup kitchen. Good people stand behind long spoons and put scoops of food on plates that shuffle by in a long line. At the end of the line, the beneficiaries of the gift go into a large room and sit, usually pretty quietly, and eat. The people behind the long spoons talk and eat with each other in a circle in the kitchen, or at their own table in the big room, clean the place up, and everyone goes home. (Please remember, I’m talking stereotypes here.) Now let’s do what many of you have already done: work to turn the soup kitchen into something more like a genuine community meal. Care is taken to fix meals that are both healthy and delicious. Grace is always offered. The food is served either family or buffet style (everybody using the long spoon for themselves). No parishioner is allowed to work in any capacity at the meal unless they get a plate, go through the line, and sit down at a table full of guests to eat and talk. (No kitchen circles or church tables.) Someone comes around to ask guests if they have any prayer requests and – this is important – asks them to please pray for the concerns of parishioners as well, standing ready with a list of such requests. When the scheduled day for the meal falls on a holiday, the parish doesn’t cancel it, but instead prepares something special for it. Guests are always personally invited to other events, programs, or worship that the parish has coming up soon. Flyers on the tables reinforce that invitation. Members are made available for prayer or conversation. Guests are invited to help put the tables away, or bring a dessert next time if they like. The point is obvious. Soup kitchens are good things for hungry people, but a community meal like the one described invites conversation, respect, and reconciled human relationships across boundaries otherwise rarely crossed. This kind of outreach offers at least the opportunity for the kingdom of God to break in and for relationships to develop that heal and reconcile. One last thought: imagine that right after the meal, or the next Sunday for ten minutes during coffee hour, members of the congregation who took part in the community meal share with at least one other person a moment during the experience in which they experienced a glimpse of the Kingdom; a moment of God’s beauty, grace, or challenge. What might God do in those people and that congregation through such a spiritual practice of relationship building, reconciliation, and reflection? The soup-kitchen-to-community-meal is a helpful example because the differences between the two can be so clearly described. But I am convinced that every kind of outreach – be it helping people short on necessities or connecting with people who do not yet know God – can be reimagined to include intentional movement toward building new and reconciled relationships between our congregations and the people we encounter. From Twelve Step groups, parish picnics, and food pantries to Oktoberfests and Town Festival booths; pet blessings to Christmas Pageants; prayer walks to sewing groups; and in everything else we do, churches are rethinking how to reach out in fresh ways that work alongside God in bringing in the Kingdom of God little bit by little bit. If I can help your congregation think about this a little more for your particular context, please contact me, the Rev. Brad Purdom). I’d love to come visit.