Outreach Events and the Old Bait-and-Switch

The church gym smelled like sweat and pizza and the sharp vinyl of a giant, inflatable obstacle course.

Sumo Suits were new-ish then, all the rage, and we lined up to take our turn bumbling toward a similarly outfitted opponent.

(Remember laughing your suddenly fat BFF, at yourself, the awkward heaviness of all that plastic draped over your body?)

The place pulsed with Christian rock and the buzz of air pumping into inflatables and laughter, and what else could you really ask for? For weeks, there had been fliers, reminders. Bring your friend, bring your friends, bring your friends! And so I did, a whole vanload of high school freshman that I knew from orchestra and from class and from lunch at the cafeteria table.

When we sat down at the end of the night, a mess of sweaty bodies folded onto the floor at the back of the gym, my heart flopped wild in my chest. A couple of seniors got up to give their three-minute-testimonies, and I kept glancing at the profiles of my friends to see if they were moved by these words. By these fun-size bits of Gospel Truth.

I understood that this night with its extreme fun and its 35 greasy pizzas was about something bigger. It was about bringing in those who were outside. It was about showing them that Jesus and fun were not mutually exclusive but instead part of the same great package. And they could have it all, have it right now, this minute – absolutely free.

I remember the ride home in our minivan, listening to conversation, praying silently in my heart. I remember feeling proud that I went to such a fun church; I remember feeling wildly nervous, desperate for this to make sense to them, for them to say to me, “Actually, I’d really like to invite Jesus into my heart, like that guy talked about. Can you help me do that?”

In four years of youth group outreaches, not one of them ever did.


When they introduce the upcoming outreach at our church they use words like “non-threatening” and “fun.” There’s a slide on the screens with zany fonts and lots of colors; they mention something about giving away free TVs.

There is some statistic thrown out there about people and church; about how a very high percentage would go if they were invited. They say, “We are having an outreach!” They say, “Invite, invite, invite!” And I sit very still in my chair, knowing in my heart that I will not.

And I remember it, that desire to bring people in, to make my evangelical world accessible. I remember how much it helped to be able to offer inflatables and free pizza and sumo suits instead of just a straight-shot of Jesus Christ to the arm.

But these days, the whole thing feels a little dishonest to me. Like a sales ploy, like a bait-and-switch. You came for free food, but we have something even better to offer: eternal life!

The longer I live this life of faith, the less it resembles a pizza party or an inflatable obstacle course. It is sometimes dark, sometimes empty, sometimes trudging, your feet heavy on the road. Sometimes it feels like he isn’t here. Sometimes you have to believe anyway.

I believe that this Jesus thing is the truest thing in the world. That grace saved my life, and that when I’m sitting, looking out the window in the quiet mornings, the peace I feel is Him. I want my friends to know it, the deep-down truth of it, the life-giving stillness of it.

And I don’t think they can find all of that at an outreach event.

So, if we’re being honest, no – I will probably not invite my friends to that thing at the church with all of its hype and freebies. It’s just not my thing anymore.

Instead, I’ll invite them into my home, with its giant pile of shoes in the entryway and that fruit snack that Liam dropped out of his mouth the other day still stuck to the floor. There is a Bible and a prayer book on my kitchen table, a verse propped up on the kitchen window over a sink overflowing with dishes.

I’ll say, “Take off your shoes…or leave them on if you want, cause the floor is really crusty.” I’ll let them all the way in.

I’ll invite them into my own small, contradictory life. They will know what I believe. They will see the ways that I live it and the ways that I fail to live it. I will invite them into my knowing and my unknowing, my peace and my fear. I will choose love because I have been chosen by Love. I will choose to tell the big Truth and all the little truths of my life at the same time.

I cannot, probably, offer free TVs, but I can offer a frozen pizza. Some guilt-free babysitting, some fresh-baked cookies. A listening ear.

I won’t do the outreach, but I’ll try my best to reach – just reach – every day, toward others.

I’ll reach as far as my arms will go. I’ll grab them by the hand in the small ways that I can. I’ll hold on for dear life.

54 thoughts on “Outreach Events and the Old Bait-and-Switch

  1. Have I said before that I feel like your words are a pulse-taking? Basketball camps and bonfires, and yes, the sumo wrestling. I’ve seen real, true, good fruit from these efforts, and hurt and offense as well, and that’s hard. These are things I’m wrestling (sans sumo suit) here too, finding grace in the same, quiet home-opening and living-out-the-small-things kind of ways.

    1. Thanks so much Annie. Yes, I know that it’s complicated. I’m sure that for many people, these kinds of events are exactly the incentive that they need to finally be brave enough to invite. I get it. I really do. But when it gets gimmicky, I get a little uncomfortable.

      I don’t know. I guess I’d be much more inclined to invite people to a normal service or to some sort of service thing than I would to an “outreach.” So complicated.

  2. “I invite them into my own small, contradictory life.”. YES!! – and to our blogs, where we bare ourselves of the “Christian” burka we’ve been conditioned to wear in public religion, and we invite them to see our doubts, our failings.our reality of worship, the daily liturgy of living.

    1. Love that Genevieve. Particularly this line: “we bare ourselves of the “Christian” burka we’ve been conditioned to wear in public religion.” I’ve never heard that word – burka – but then I read it here, and then, yesterday, on our trip from MN to Chicago, I followed a car whose license place said it for a couple of hours. Felt sort of prophetic. 😉

  3. this is gorgeous and true, addie. the “attractional,” if-you-build-it-they-will-come evangelism model is a hot mess of jacked up theology and ecclesiology. God doesn’t reside within four walls on sunday.

    i had a boy/friend in college who i kept trying to bring to church with me, until he confessed that i was making him feel like a project. ten years later i still feel bad about that, because that’s not Christ’s love. your pizza and babysitting looks more like the Jesus i know. <3

    1. That’s it exactly: “if you build it they will come,” and we do and they don’t. I get increasingly uncomfortable with the glossy versions of Christianity we present. Mostly because I know how un-glossy it really feels most of the time.

  4. When we would do service work at the native american reservations north of omaha, apart from the one “evangelist” team, the rest of us were encouraged to not do so. If we were asked why we were rebuilding the old lady’s porch, it was because we wanted to help. If they asked if we were there with a church group, we were to say yes, but we are helping because it was the right thing to do. If they asked more about the church we were to give them information about the local church and pastor, but not even to encourage them to go there. And it worked.

    People don’t want to be preached to. They don’t want to be converted. They will convert when they see that there is a group of people that they want to join. Be those people, then others will join you. Not the other way around.

    1. Love that Joel. “They will convert when they see that there is a group of people they want to join. Be those people.” That is exactly it.

  5. I like what Joel said.

    And maybe it’s best for church fun events to be just that–fun. Without trying to sneak in those “serious moments.” It does seem a little contrived, looking back.

    1. I agree, Mallory. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with doing fun events, particularly when we go out into the heart of the community and provide something fun and worthwhile and needed. But it sometimes feels like there’s this sense that it’s a “wasted opportunity” if we don’t throw in a little testimony action or a quick invitation to the church. I totally disagree. I think that nothing is wasted with God, particularly not time we invest in other people.

      1. ‘But it sometimes feels like there’s this sense that it’s a “wasted opportunity” if we don’t throw in a little testimony action or a quick invitation to the church. I totally disagree. I think that nothing is wasted with God, particularly not time we invest in other people.’

        Yes! This! And it’s not just prevalent in church outreach events but in community service and “charity” work and such. I really believe that “nothing is wasted with God.”

  6. Yep.
    “I’ll let them all the way in.”
    Are you really that courageous Addie? This decision to live transparently, regardless of trustworthiness, is possibly the most radical decision that any of us “still-sinning-but-grace-receiving” believers could make. Wow. But knowing that we love a God who loves offering redemption to any willing to return to receive it makes it all ok…by “ok” what I mean is completely amazing.

    1. I don’t know how courageous I am, but I’m done with the pretending business. Being Happy Glossy Christian misses the point of the whole thing.

  7. Do we want to enter(tain) people to show them Jesus or do we want to enter their lives to show them Jesus. At some point people will realize they are not just seeking entertainment and will want more. We will be there because we have built a relationship instead of just being a seqway to a good time.

  8. Yes. This.

    I’m filled with flashbacks to youth group events and realizing my friends were more moved when I invited them to regular old youth group compared to the events. They were drawn in by the teaching, not the Murder Mysteries or month-long volleyball tournaments. I wonder whether they could sense the hopeful, at times desperate, expectation behind the various events, whether they closed out the words during the Special Message. But come on a normal Wednesday night, see how me and my friends were still the same people, and they weren’t so closed off any more. Even then, I’m not sure what the long-term impact was. I only know now I am more about relationship than I am about evangelism. Get to know me, get to know my Jesus. Take us for what you will.

    1. “Desperate expectation” — that’s exactly how I felt at those times. I agree with you Leigh…it’s those normal times when everyone’s just being themselves and they can be absorbed into the friendships.

  9. I appreciate the post, and as always your writing is quite simply beautiful. I think though that the majority are not going to invite that person into their home, their ‘real’ life. I live in an area where Christians and faith are sparse. There’s no choice but to connect…or be lonely. But the truth is that there are many areas of the United States where Christian sub culture is what people live. Nicky Gumbel from Alpha says that within 2 years of becoming a Christian, most people no longer have any non-Christian friends. They fully embrace Christianity to a point of exclusion. Our response to that? To “do outreach”. It would be amazing if we never had to “do outreach”, instead living it, but it’s our human tendency to connect with those who think like us, believe like us, act like us. Even within the church the tendency is to not rub shoulders with those whose theology and views on social justice, abortion, gay marriage differ. I apologize for the length of this – thanks for getting me thinking.

    1. No need to apologize. I think you’re right, and it’s sad. I know it was true of me once. As a Christian culture, we need to learn how to engage in normal, everyday ways.

  10. Yes, Addie. I love this challenge. The work of real life is so much harder but so much truer.

    I also think events aren’t bad in and of themselves- but why do we insist on putting Gospel presentations at all of them? Why not host an event with pizza & sumo suits as a chance for everyone to get to know each other better and have fun? Isn’t there sometimes holy work done through the simple act of laughing together in community?

    My old church has a great event for high schoolers- a bus trip to New York city- from Wisconsin- crammed into a 3 day weekend. It doesn’t take pushing- students want to invite their friends and their friends want to come. And on the trip? No programmatic bait and switch. Just relationships. Groups of teens walking around with a few adults who are intentionally loving them for a weekend. Going shopping and seeing shows and talking about life and boyfriends and sadness and meaning. If an “event” is going to be done, this is the model I like.

    1. I agree Stephanie. Our youth group had a couple of events like this. Beach nights and three day cross-country bus trips. Those were the things that I wanted to invite people to also.

    2. Hi Stephanie. Most people from the background I come from wouldn’t be seen dead in a church. I’m talking about England now. The churches in England largely seem to be about nice white suburban middle class people who have it all together, and coming from the background I do, I wouldn’t feel comfortable around people like that.

      At the same time, I am a Christian with a calling on my life; so for me there is a dichotomy. One day I hope to find a good church or a group of people who are Christians that I can attach myself to. It would be nice if more churches, in whatever communities they found themselves in, reached out to the people living around them. Not in some big ‘we are holy people’ way, just as people reaching out to other people; no strings attached, no heavy preaching, just a pizza night or whatever.

  11. This really spoke to me and was so affirming! I very much prefer the “relational” evangelism – being intentional about friendships and hospitality, but not in a “bait and switch” way. Thank you once again for sharing your insight and gifts.

  12. Marilyn wrote: “Even within the church the tendency is to not rub shoulders with those whose theology and views on social justice, abortion, gay marriage differ.”

    True, Marilyn, and I really wish it were different. I find people who are unlike me so stimulating, in a “wow, you believe THAT? I totally disagree. Tell me more” kind of way. More often than not, their responses shed an entirely new light on whatever we’re talking about, and by the end of the conversation, they’ve made me better in some way: more knowledgeable, more thoughtful, etc. It’s exhilarating.

    1. I wish it were different too. John, I love your take on this and your response to people unlike yourself. Very cool.

    2. I have the same take John! Maybe it’s growing up with healthy dinner table arguments and continuing that with my kids. It’s exhilarating, stimulating and keeps you on your toes.

  13. Addie,
    I read often and don’t comment much, but I wanted to tell you that I am right where you are… I want to be REAL. My life is not some pretty little package tied with a bow labeled “Jesus”. Its hard and its messy and its wonderful and its amazing. And that was just yesterday. I have learned the best I can do for someone else is to open my heart and say “I don’t know, but God does… let’s see what He has to say about that”. My days being able to recall scripture like I am in a bible drill ended with chemo but I now realize opening the bible together and looking together is so much more what I need and what others need. Thanks for sharing your heart for Jesus and others.
    Love you,

    1. Thanks so much for the comment Traci. This line was so beautiful and honest: “My days being able to recall scripture like I am in a bible drill ended with chemo but I now realize opening the bible together and looking together is so much more what I need.” I love that. And I love you.

  14. In some ways, reading this has lifted the guilt I feel when I don’t want to invite people to outreach events. I’m in my early 20s right now, and in my church, we are told to invite people to these events – student games nights and meals and the like. I always get the feeling that my friends must think I’m trying to trick them into becoming a Christian!! There’s so much pressure and anticipation at the end of these things. So I don’t bring them anymore.

    But then there’s the questions, “Why didn’t you bring anyone?” And the guilt when I’m aware that the leaders are disappointed in me. I so struggle with evangelical culture, and often feel shame that I am not like that. I don’t meet the expectations anymore.

    I feel a lot more comfortable just being honest with my friends – admitting that life as a Christian is not always easy, in fact – it’s often not easy! But they see that my faith still remains and that I know my God loves me regardless of my many faults… and I think that’s more effective than a quick alter call at the end of a games night.

    1. I struggle with the guilt piece too, Clare. It’s hard when the people around you put so much time and effort into events like that to be the person who doesn’t want to participate.

      I’m struggling with that too. Is the only answer to leave and find a place that does ministry in the more organic ways that resonate with me? Or is there a way to stay and be part of that community while also having the courage to say when something doesn’t sit right with me.

      I just don’t know, and I resonate with your shame of not meeting expectations. Bleh. I have zero answers for you; only my most sincere empathy. I get it, girl. I’m right there too.

  15. I love that you said “I won’t do THE outreach,” because it seems like it usually becomes that: THE outreach, THE one chance. Part of the problem, I think (and it’s my problem, too), is that we often sit in the middle of this evangelical world and try to pull people into it where we are, instead of leaving the cozy center to meet people where they are. And–woof, how do we find that place?!

    1. I agree. It does sort of take on a whole larger-than-life element.

      And yes, it’s all about meeting people where they are…which, if I’m honest, is often the same places that I’m at. Struggling through another hour of post-bedtime crankies with my kids in the front yard; working at a coffee shop; sitting next to me in a class; driving next to me in traffic. I’m learning slowly to stop breaking it up: them. us. We are all so much the same…we just forget.

  16. “The longer I live this life of faith, the less it resembles a pizza party or an inflatable obstacle course.”

    Yes. And the picture you paint of your home—very much suspended between heaven and earth—is what people are truly longing for. Whether they’re 14 or 44, they want to connect with a real person, in a place that is welcoming and unpolished—accessible in an everyday way.

    1. I think it’s the “unpolished” piece that I’m learning to make peace with. Letting people into my life means that I have to be willing to let them see that I’m not a Pinterest mom. I yell at my kids sometimes (okay a lot). I get weepy. I have been known to find blocks of cheese in the cupboards instead of the fridge.

      And with that, learning to recognize the ways that I’m failing others. To apologize instead of defend myself. Humbling, hard work, but to me, that’s all part of the reaching.

  17. Oh, my goodness, YES. Inviting others into life, as we live it – crusty floors and all. No sumo costumes needed – though I know they’re fun from time to time! I’m a big believer in youth groups having good times together, doing ministry together, worshiping together. And inviting friends into ALL of that…not just the bells and whistles. Who the heck lives in an inflatable wrestling ring anyway? Thank you for this good work – as always, Addie. As always.

  18. When I have asked small groups at my church why they are Christians, I (thankfully) have not heard the so-that-I-can-go-to-heaven” response. I have heard some other thin answers like “because my parents were” but more often I hear very deep, well thought-out answers like “because God pursued me until I gave in” or “because God showed up in the hole I had dug and hauled my ass out of there.”

    To me, thin evangelism means handing out the get-out-of-hell-free card and the secret password to get into heaven and then walking away. Thick evangelism requires a thick relationship. It requires sacrificial love. It means trusting that the Holy Spirit will do her work in a friend much better than I can … and having the humility and faith to not try and outsmart her.

    Quick story. We have a dear friend in our small group who started out on the deist end of the spectrum and has over the years journeyed as far as theist. Apparently the Holy Spirit is not in a hurry with her, and that’s fine with us.

    She tearfully mentioned a while back that she is alive today because of us. One night we were concerned about her and all impulsively jumped into a car for a short road trip to her house. We knocked on the door. No one answered.

    A year later she told us that we showed up after one failed suicide attempt and while she was planning another one … one that was going to work this time.

    And the failed one? Car in the garage. Running. Garage doors closed. Car windows open. Suicide note on the dash. Fall asleep in the back seat. Perfect, right?

    … the car ran out of gas.

    And somewhere in the pool of tears that flooded her pillow that night, she felt our love. She felt the unconditional Love of God. She decided to stay alive … just because we showed up.

    And I have discovered over the years that we often can do God’s will by just showing up … and shutting up … of sitting and listening and leaving the timing, the preaching, and the altar call up to the Spirit.

    1. This is a beautiful response – I love the idea of ‘thick’ evangelism. and just plain being there. The actions of your group show a sensitivity to the Spirit that so few of us exhibit yet seems to be at the very heart of any ‘evangelism’ that happens in the NT. Thank you for sharing this.

    2. I agree with Diana — love the story, love the “thick” vs. “thin” language. Perfect words. Thanks so much for sharing.

  19. Some churches, or a group of people, in England started to hold Christian meetings in pubs a while back! To some Christians, both in Britain and America, this would seem like the last thing to do. But God doesn’t just exist in cosy suburban middle class churches, He can be found everywhere and in every human experience, from the best experiences to the worst, from beautiful marriages to the worst bloody battlefields.

    More people probably go in pubs regularly than churches anyway, and lots of people like a pint of beer or cider or a glass of wine now and again; we need to rethink just what it is God wants from us. I don’t suggest every Christian starts meeting in a pub, but there is scope for all kinds of worship and for bringing every kind of person into Jesus’ fold. God didn’t just create terminally nice religious types who go to suburban churches and sing hymns on Sunday, he also created big mean tatooed guys who drink beer, and awkward teens and single mothers living in the projects; He created every one one of us and we all have a God-centred whole in our lives that only He can fill.

    1. Love the idea of a church in a pub. Always have. I get the feeling it’s where Jesus would be hanging out.

    2. Tim,

      A lot of the pub churches are connected to the 3DM movement of Mike Breen and a few other church planters in England. I’m fortunate to be a apart of a collective of believers which, similarly, champions small, community-centered churches that will occasionally come together for larger worship gatherings with the rest of the collective on Sundays. It’s getting back to the roots, as you mentioned. “Churches” can meet at pubs, soccer fields, music venues, coffeeshops, homes, rented schools, etc. I live in the Southeastern US, where the transition is hard due to the heavy Christianization of the culture over time, but God is definitely working in the beautiful simplicity and messy authenticity that comes when real people gather together and feel free to just talk and be themselves. It’s scary, but refreshing.

  20. In my church life, I seem to (completely unintentionally) have gone to extremes. I started off in a very closed-off cult – so no evangelism there, except for preaching on street corners to the ‘worldlies’ passing by. Hated that, and avoided it as much as possible.
    Second church – full-on evangelical, pentecostal church. Loved it, grew a lot, healed a lot, but also found myself in the ‘Christian ghetto’. Didn’t really know anyone who wasn’t a Christian, and not very many who weren’t going to my church. So when there was an event on, and the call went out to invite people to it, mostly I didn’t because firstly it made my skin crawl just thinking about having to do that, and secondly I didn’t know anyone to invite who wasn’t already going to be there!
    Third church – very traditional Anglican with a side-serving of Presbyterian. Congregation pretty much consists of old ladies, with a few kids thrown in for good measure. Haven’t heard anything resembling ‘teaching’ in the whole time I’ve been there. They don’t do evangelism because they don’t believe in it. We are to do good things for people (what the good things are or who the people are that we do them for are left to our imagination), but never actually mention anything to do with Jesus or church. As a result, this church pretty much fits the ‘dead but still living’ mould perfectly.
    So I have a problem with all of these models of evangelism. The whole hyped, glossy, exciting ‘outreach’ doesn’t sit well with me, nor does the non-evangelism of my current church. I just don’t see the point in doing good works for the sake of it – there are plenty of groups outside of the church who do that. What is our point of difference?
    But I now have a lot of non-Christian friends. I’ve had a few ‘God chats’ with some of them, but don’t push it. I don’t think I’d ever want to go back to living in the Christian ghetto again.

    1. I like where you are headed. Reminds me of a guy who hung out at the well, went to dinner parties with tax collectors, loved the ones the self-appointed gatekeepers of orthodoxy shunned …

    2. Yes, it can be hard to find a good fit. I’m there too. There are good points in all of the different traditions, but I feel the absence too. The ways that they aren’t working. Thanks for sharing a bit of your story.

      1. Perhaps Christianity needs to get back to its roots, the churches that Paul championed, where believers got together simply because they believed in Jesus; no denominations, no talk of being special, no pomposity, just simple get-togethers where people talk about Jesus and are fired up simply because they believe.

        The traditional church is failing, it just isn’t reaching out to the many and varied people there are in the world; it becomes a Christian ghetto, of rather nice people being rather nice, and not much else it seems.

        Perhaps also we need to look at the reasons for hierarchy in churches; do we really need a rigid hierarchy that in the end is just a reflection of the world’s usually unfair hierarchy? When people, who might already be at the bottom of the pecking order, see the same class structures in the churches, they probably don’t want any part of it.

        I have no solutions, just suggestions, but it seems that many Christians do not have fulfilling chuch lives; and perhaps we need to ask why.

  21. So this probably explains why I had such a hard time in church in my 20s. I liked to be out among people, living life with them. I never felt comfortable inviting people to these outreach events.

    I remember leading a small group where we met on the benches of a gas station around the corner from our house. People thought we were crazy. “How can you praise God as loud as you want there?” Well, that probably won’t go over too well. But there are lots of people there with lots of questions about life that would never set foot in a church.

    1. I love creative people who think of something like “gas station bench church.” Seriously. It’s so perfect and out-of-the-box and beautiful.

    2. Interesting point Matt. I am a Christian who has never been to church and on meeting some Christians, not all, I often found them one-dimensional. People who were not believers had far more interesting ideas and questions about life. Who says just because we are Christians that we have to be automatons, not questioning anything, but blindly accepting what some holy person says? Not me anyway!

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