Very well-meaning Christians of a congregation in San Francisco, whose yearly hunger ministry budget is over 4 million dollars, go on television and radio every Thanksgiving and Christmas to encourage people to help the homeless have a festive holiday.
They ask themselves, “If I were homeless what would be something that I would want?” The answer is, of course, a turkey. They collect funds and give out thousands and thousands of frozen turkeys to the homeless.
The rub is that the homeless do not have ovens. This is the folly of thinking that we can imagine what other people need or want.
Well-meaning congregations across the country discover that their really great ideas to help others or to get people in the door is “frozen-turkey evangelism.”
Sometimes these attempts serve only to remind the neighborhood that the congregation is out of touch with the very people and communities the congregation is trying to do outreach among.
I wish that I could say that when it comes to evangelism ELCA congregations are better at listening and being truly useful to the communities around them. But, Lutherans often get both stewardship and evangelism backward.
Have you ever felt like your congregation’s evangelism is about getting more people to come to “our church” so that we can continue doing or paying for what is important or worshipful to “us”?
Or, perhaps that stewardship is getting “others” to pay their fair share, so that “we” can continue doing or paying for what is important, moving or worshipful to “us”?
Evangelism ought to be about sharing, inviting and becoming a community that feels worshipful to “others.”
Stewardship ought to be about “us” opening our own pocketbooks so that we can be truly welcoming of “others” and see visitors as guests rather than potential contributors.
If we thought of stewardship like a gym membership, it would mean that we are required to pay not only our own portion, but a bit more to enable others to get a free trial membership.
A radically inclusive church is not simply one that welcomes all, it must also be accessible, listen, confess its limitations and, most importantly, change when it acts too “members only.”
Having said this, I also want to say that worship should be for whoever is in the room. Often congregations try to change their worship style to encourage new populations or groups to become a part of their ministry.
This sometimes works, but again it comes from the idea that we can figure out what others want.
Sure, it would be silly to expect new people or communities to become a part of your congregation and be unwilling to sing or pray in ways that felt worshipful to the newcomers.
But asking the community and population what feels worshipful to them or what the congregation would need to do for them to join in worship will be more effective and will be less likely to offend the group you’re trying to reach.
After time passes and no one from the group you worked so hard to invite shows up to worship, ask yourselves, “Were we just projecting our own needs on other people? How can we do a better job of listening?”
Sometimes our worst evangelism moments come when we try too hard to evangelize outside our walls and neglect those who have been in the pews all along.
Evangelism must not be limited to the outside, it must also take place inside the church each Sunday morning.
A sermon written for a 20-something audience and delivered to a room full of people with gray hair is bad stewardship.
Let us strive to serve both those within and outside of our congregations, and when it turns out that we have frozen-turkey evangelism, may we have the courage to listen more.
Megan M. Rohrer is an ELCA pastor called by five congregations, who has served as a missionary to the homeless in San Francisco since 2002.