At my church we just ran a big community event. Big for us: a few hundred local people came along.
So it might seem strange for me to be saying this: but here in Sydney one of our biggest problems in trying to do mission is ‘events’.
For many people, when you say ‘mission’ or ‘outreach’ they think ‘event’. It’s just assumed that that’s what you’re talking about.
In my beloved Sydney Anglican diocese, some of our senior figures have been planning a new outreach campaign. It’s called Jesus Brings. I haven’t heard the details of it, but I’ll bet you anything you like that it’ll revolve around – you guessed it – events.
And as such – I’m going to make a prediction here – it will be just as ineffective as the last Sydney campaign was – which also revolved around events.
My team means well. We really do care about reaching Sydney. But we just haven’t got the foggiest about how to do it. So we simply keep on doing what we’ve always done: more events. Never mind if they’ve never worked!
A few moments’ thought will suggest a whole bunch of problems with relying on events as your main approach to outreach.
1. They’re not relational. Most of the huge amounts of time and energy involved in running an event are spent doing non-relational organising. On the day, if new people come, there’s limited chance to get to know them. They haven’t come expecting to make friends anyway. Unless you have pretty sophisticated follow-up, you’ll end the day with no new connections.
2. They’re often anti-relational. When we do evangelistic events, we expect visitors to listen to what we have to say before we have listened to them or got to know them. In fact, we make them listen instead of us listening at all. They go home having experienced one-directional communication: they got talked at. That’s quite off-putting, sends a negative message about how much we value them as people. To put it bluntly, in any other setting we would think that behaviour rude. Yet we inflict this on our neighbours again and again.
3. Our events don’t feel like a service to the community. Mostly our events are about achieving an agenda of ours. Nobody out there is asking for them. We go out and try to get people to come onto our turf to join in what we’re doing. The end result is, we have not improved our reputation in the community, or gained any credibility ‘out there’. No one feels more positive towards us or towards Jesus in the end.
4. Events distract us from real outreach. Real outreach starts with living alongside people and giving yourself to them in costly loving relationship. It’s about being a servant to your neighbours. Finding out what it means to be a blessing and then being that. It means taking the risk of real friendship with people different from you, on their terms, on their turf. Real outreach is day-to-day, week-to-week. It’s about having an open home and a welcoming lifestyle. Hospitality. Neighbourliness.
While we’re doing our big events, we’re not thinking about any of those things. And anyway, we’re too busy to do them. After the big event, we feel, ‘Job done. We’ve done our outreach for this term. We can go back to normal.’ And so we don’t bother with real outreach then either.
Our people don’t feel like they need to take the trouble to make relationships, because they can just put a flyer in a stranger’s letterbox instead. It’s so much safer and easier! And we can feel like we’ve ‘done’ outreach! The event gets us all off the hook.
5. Events on their own are bad theology. They don’t point to the gospel of Jesus, but rather away from it. The message entrusted to us is not about a god who drops in for a visit, makes a big impression, and then leaves again. It’s about the God who has come among us as one of us forevermore, who lived in our streets and ate at our table, who stood with us all the way to the grave. And who is still one of us, present among us.
Events have the wrong shape to help people understand the gospel. They are the wrong sort of thing. Unless they happen in a context of real, local, lifestyle outreach.
WHAT TO DO ABOUT OUR EVENTS
Cancel them all for five years. We need to radically repent of this silly, unhelpful behaviour, and give ourselves the space to learn about real mission. It’s not easy to give up an addiction – cold turkey is probably the only way to do it. We need our people to have the chance to ask the question, what are we doing about outreach? – so we can start giving some proper answers, and putting out some real challenges to ourselves. Let’s clear out the clutter of events so we can make room for new patterns that promote healthy connections with our communities.
We will never reach Sydney until we stop running events.
Then later on, if we must have events again, they can at least happen in the context of a lifestyle-outreach church community. And by then we might have more of a feel for which sort of event will help, and not hinder the mission.