Outreach versus Reaching Out

A passage of scripture that has been resounding in my mind for years has been Matthew 28:19-20:

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Matthew 28:19-20 (NIV)

Jesus’ command is both sobering and compelling. As followers of Christ our mission is to both know God (“surely I am with you always”) and make Him known (“make disciples of all nations”). If we had to choose one passage to propel us through the rest of lives, Matthew 28:19-20 would be a strong contender. But today I have been thinking: Is there a difference between outreach and reaching out?

A quick perusal through the dictionary forced me to concede that in the literal sense these terms could mean the very same thing. But there is more to language than the literal word. Just as most spoken communication is non-verbal (how you say things communicates more than what you say), the mentality and perceptions of individuals can often be understood from the way they choose to communicate.

For example: Some team leaders will refer to the team as, “my team.” Of course it is their team—they’re the leader—but their word choices communicate that they recognize their position as leader as being one of ownership before partnership. A leader who recognizes their position in a team as one of partnership first will often refer to this team as, “the team,” or, “our team.” I am certainly not saying you can never refer to a team as your own (whether you’re the leader or not), but what I am saying is that over the long-term the choices an individual makes when communicating defines and solidifies their position.

To provide another example: Some church leaders and parishioners often refer to the gathering of people at their location as, “the church.” There isn’t anything inherently wrong with this, we are the church after all; however, other church leaders and parishioners will refer to this same gathering as, “the community.” The former can often communicate institution, but the latter communicates belonging. The difference is subtle but important. An employer creates an institution for people to congregate. A family creates a belonging that people are inescapably a part of. As with the first example, this is not to say a family or church cannot institute things. Nor is it inconceivable that people could consider their workplace a family. The point is that the core values of an institution are different than that of a family. And the church is the family of God.

These subtle differences are also true when using the word outreach. It becomes more difficult in church circles because outreach is a buzzword used to describe any and every effort to fulfill the great commission Jesus charged us with in the above passage from Matthew.

I have been to a lot of churches in my life. Some have been great. Some just seemed great. Still others, the writing was on the wall. I have realized that thriving churches focus on reaching out. This is not to say they ignore people once they’re in, but rather their focus is on action (“reaching”) and direction (“out”). A reaching out church recognizes that they “will always have the poor among [them]” (John 12:8 NIV). That realization creates an immediate sense of urgency that propels the church community to not invite the outside community in, but to go out to them and show them the love of Christ by meeting their felt needs.

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Matthew 25:34-40 (NIV)

This is a stark contrast to a church that focuses on outreach. The outreach church will hold programs, encourage its members to invite those on the outside, and maybe even host or participate in an outside community event. The intentions may be honourable or dishonourable, but the inevitable conclusion is that this church will at best only sustain. Their focus is on remaining inside the proverbial walls of their building and drawing people in. Holding programs, inviting others, and so on in itself is actually fine, but true followers of Christ must go beyond. In fact, the word translated “go” in Matthew 28:19 is a Greek word that means “go.” There is no hidden meaning. The word is used throughout scripture, especially in the gospels, to describe people moving from one place to the another. This is the contrast between outreach and reaching out—one compels us to physically change our location to get the job done, while the other is content having others change their location. Or more plainly, the outreach church invites outsiders to meet on its territory, the reaching out church meets outsiders on theirs.

This seems a fitting description, as well, since outreach is a noun and reaching out is a verb (well, a verb and an adverb). This is why I postulate that even though outreach and reaching out could mean the same thing from a literal point of view (one is a noun that describes the verb), each represents an ethos that over the long-term determines the choices a church makes, which further defines and solidifies their position. This position will pave the way for that church’s future: Obscurity, mediocrity, or world-changing.