One Thing Churches Need for Successful Outreach

Every week during the school year, I get to participate in the RISE Mentoring Program, which works with the staff and students of Tucker High School to create a culture of leadership and success. For the 2014-15 school year, RISE has over 120 students who have voluntarily chosen to make better choices, set goals, learn to lead, resolve conflict in healthy ways, etc. A dozen volunteers from 5 different local churches have been given an hour and a half every week during the school day to mentor, befriend, teach, and train these students. This week the Principal and Asst Principal even asked the RISE team to host the students for a 3.5 hour mega-session!

Some might call this effort a “successful” outreach ministry. And, after being at this program for the third school year now, I think we are aware of the key resource that has made this work. And as I reflect on other healthy community-based initiatives, I am beginning to think that it may be the key resource that any church needs if they are going to develop sustainable and successful outreach initiatives.

To understand the value and power of this key resource, though, I think a word needs to be said first about the way we, as churches, tend to start the conversation about outreach.

I have often heard and said things like the following: 

"We've got this huge property that goes unused every week, we need to brainstorm all the ways we could utilize it to reach out to our neighbors!"

"We've got this amazing kitchen. Let's get the missions team together to pray about how could we use this to serve others in this city?"

"We've got all this empty space in this beautiful building going virtually untouched Monday through Saturday, let's dream up ways to make it available to the community!"

As much as I appreciate the eager spirit that prompts me and others to express things like this, I am beginning to think that they miss the one resource that matters most.

At first, my discomfort with the above statements was the fact that they only refer to physical resources rather than human ones. I felt we needed to think more about the gifts, energies, passions, talents, etc. of the people that make up the church and how to leverage those assets to reach out and serve others. Though this may be true, I am starting to see that it is still not paying attention to the key resource.

I suggest that this key resource is relationship - authentic relationships with neighbors. I am guessing that if we started there and kept that at the center, it would completely transform what we talk about when we talk about outreach.

You see, when we focus what we have and how we can use it for others, we are usually having a conversation amongst ourselves about others. It is the church talking to the church about what the church has and can do for or to other people. And we call it outreach, which is probably an appropriate word for this method and may just be part of the problem - i.e. We are located in here extending something out there to them. 

What if, instead, we started this process by building authentic relationships with our neighbors and let that lead wherever it leads?

What if the prepositions changed from to/for and became with?

If we stopped doing “outreach,” and started doing relationships, what might we discover that we can’t discover when we are only listening to each other talk about what we have and can do for the needs that we assume are present in the community?

What has made RISE work is that it did not start with insiders talking about what could be done for outsiders. RISE began with a relationship with a principal who had a heart for kids. It began not as a to/for, it began as a with. Over coffee one fall afternoon, two ministers and a principal sat down and to begin building a relationship. From that time physical and human resources have been needed, desperately needed (seriously, send us stuff!!). 

But the physical and human resources we need and have needed have only been important in as much as they followed the relationship.

So, my working hypothesis is that the one key resource churches need for successful outreach is to stop thinking about outreach and start building authentic relationships with our neighbors.