I have read lots of 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 the KSMP-TV, the local Fox affiliate, a Muslim woman who had registered for a September 28 conference was asked to leave when she showed up for the meeting wearing a hijab. 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, a Christian outreach ministry to Muslims. Cynthia Khan, presenter for the conference, said that videos and material “offensive” to Muslims would be distributed. For that reason, Khan asked that Rania Elsweisy, the hijab-wearing Muslim woman, be escorted from the conference.
As a result of Ms. Elsweisy’s ejection, the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations filed a discrimination lawsuit against People of the Book Ministries.
“The only reason I was kicked out of the event was because of my religion, Islam,” said Elsweisy. “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,” according to the station’s website.
While the public discrimination suit will be worked out in civil courts, 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 here. Add to this incident a Texas megachurch that offered cars, flat-screen TVs, bikes and other prizes for attending church on Easter, and my conclusion is that Christians do 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 that Christian outreach programs should adhere to:
1. Outreach must be open and transparent to all, including those being reached. In the Minnesota example, presenters knew that their material was offensive to Muslims, and probably for self-evident 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 she ministered to.
2. Outreach must exhibit a genuine love and respect for individuals and their cultures. Demonizing the “other,” especially in the fraught relationships between the Muslim and Western worlds, may be an effective fundraising technique, but is a poor strategy for loving neighbors who may not be like us. Jesus used the “other”—a Samaritan—as example of neighborliness in his parable we call the Good Samaritan. That’s quite a difference from presenting material that is known to be offensive to another culture.
3. Outreach must be grounded in the Deuteronomic command to “love God” and to “love your neighbor.” Jesus taught that these two commandments summarized all the Law and the Prophets. In other words, all we need to know and practice as followers of Jesus is love for God and love for others.
4. 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 to reach the world must be consistent with the message we present to the world. Christians cannot trick, deceive, misrepresent or mislead others into the Kingdom of God. Neither can we buy the attention of non-Christians through games of chance, lucky numbers or attendance incentives. Jesus fed people, but he fed them after they listened all day, not to get them to listen.
5. 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, our practice and our 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.