My first experiences in outreach were of trying to uphold the established tradition of congregational evangelism. I’m sure we’re all pretty familiar with the guilt ridden response to sermons that make us question our commitment to Christ. Those sermons are good for getting us to want to baptize our co-workers or give money to orphanages. The problem with me is that I’m not one to do things mindlessly or just because they’ve always been done. I always look at the result of our efforts and evaluate whether they should continue or not. I’d rather do nothing than do something that doesn’t work.
So, what is the established tradition? I imagine you could all sing the song if I just hummed the tune. It typically begins with some type of paper. This paper is either a "gospel tract" that has artwork from the 60’s or 70’s on it and has people engaging in ridiculously improbable conversations or it is a poorly designed flyer that the church did itself that was photocopied a little bit crooked.
The piece of paper is then carried in ritualistic fashion throughout neighborhoods and delivered to residents by a technique known as door-knocking. This usually involved standing at doors where no one was home for a couple of awkward seconds before sticking the paper in the door or illegally depositing it in the mailbox (for official post deliveries only!). When you did find someone home, they always seem to look at you like "Why did the church who’s never taken an interest in me before decide to send this college student from another area to come and talk to me?" The goal of the paper delivery was to accomplish two things: get them to come to church and get them into a Bible study.
It’s the Bible study part of the ritual that has caused me the most trouble. The ones I observed and were trained to do were little more than stacking our scriptures up against their scriptures in a head to head dual. The one with scriptures left after the smoke cleared was declared the winner and the loosing party agreed to attend church and possibly take a special bath. It seems that the bath was particularly embarrassing because those who participated in it seldom had the courage to show their face in the building again.
A year or so after the ritual, someone would say "We ought to do some outreach" and the process would commence again.
I’m being a little hard on the process and this was stated somewhat tongue in cheek, but many of you will identify clearly with the story that is pictured here. There are those in the world who were converted by this process that will defend it until the day they leave the earth. I once mocked the process in front of an individual who was converted by finding a tract in their mailbox. She spent the 30 years after her conversion leaving tracts in people’s mailboxes. I was embarrassed that I hadn’t considered that possibility, but when someone else in the room asked how many she’d converted through the last 30 years her answer was "zero".
Tomorrow we’ll look at why this process has failed and what can be done about it. Before then, why don’t your share your experiences of organized outreach with us. I’d like to hear both good and bad.