I have read many articles on church outreach in my 30 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, Minn., according to a report by KSMP-TV, a Muslim woman who had registered for a conference was asked to leave when she showed up wearing a hijab – a veil worn to cover one’s head and chest as a symbol of modesty.
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 (POBLO), a Christian outreach ministry to Muslims.
Cynthia Khan, the conference presenter, said that videos and material “offensive” to Muslims would be distributed.
For that reason, Rania Elsweisy, the hijab-wearing Muslim woman, was escorted from the conference.
“The only reason I was kicked out of the event was because of my religion, Islam. 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,” Elsweisy said, according to the KSMP report.
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.
Add to this incident a Texas mega-church that offered cars, flat-screen TVs, bikes and other prizes for attending church on Easter a few years ago, and I conclude that Christians 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 to which Christian outreach programs should adhere.
- Outreach must be open and transparent to all, including those being reached.
In Minnesota, presenters knew their material was offensive to Muslims and, for obvious 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 to whom she ministered for this reason.
- Outreach must exhibit a genuine love and respect for individuals and their cultures.
Demonizing the “other” may be an effective fundraising technique, but it is a poor strategy for loving neighbors who may not be like us.
Jesus used the “other” as an example of neighborliness in what we call “the parable of the good Samaritan” (see Luke 10:25-37). That’s quite a difference from presenting material known to be offensive to another culture.
- Outreach must be grounded in the command to “love God” and to “love your neighbor” (Deuteronomy 6:5).
Jesus taught that these two commandments summarized all the law and the prophets (see Matthew 5:17-20). In other words, all we need to know and practice as followers of Jesus is love for God and others.
- 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 must be consistent with the message we present to the world.
Christians cannot misrepresent or mislead others into the Kingdom of God. Neither can we buy the attention of non-Christians through attendance incentives.
Jesus fed people, but he fed them after they listened all day, not to get them to listen (see Matthew 14:13-21 and 15:29-39). He also rejected the temptation to feed the masses to gain their support (see Matthew 4:3-4).
- 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, practice and 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.
Chuck Warnock is pastor of Chatham Baptist Church in Chatham, Virginia.