Saturday, June 27, 2009

Using Critical Tension for Outreach

This past week I have been reading term papers from students of my doctoral class in Bangalore. I always enjoy reading these papers as it gives me insight on culture and, of course, allows me the opportunity to learn about the different ministries my students are involved with.

Many of the project papers are well researched as I push students to study their people groups in the context of their history, family, socio-economics, networks and religion. A typical paper gives me a lot of “what people are like,” but many times does not tell me “why they do what they do.” Rare is the paper that actually creates a new strategy on how to reach people with the Gospel beyond, what I call, standard program methods (programs that are meant to attract people through film, picnics, seminars, etc.). The church seems to be stuck in the attractional model of ministry rather than using the findings of their research to creatively looking for ways to meet the needs of the people they are working with.

In their research students also do a good job in identifying critical tensions within culture, i.e., alcoholism, poverty, depression, loneliness, materialism, interpersonal problems or family tension with husband/wife, children/parents. However, rather than working with these critical tensions that student/church/church worker can use as a means to develop relationships, they usually ignore them completely and revert back to standard ministry programs.

Many years ago I met a guy in Cleveland who has a campus ministry at a local university. Unlike the big organizational campus ministries, his is kind of a “mom-and-pop” ministry that he and his wife started where they actually interact on a personal level with foreign students, primarily, though not exclusively, with Chinese students studying in the U.S. What Tom has done is not just identifying the critical tension of people who live in a strange land, but seeks ways to befriend those who are lonely, displaced and need a helping hand. Yes, they do have standard method programs like pizza parties and movie nights, but these programs are a part of the relationship building process, not their main outreach. Tom and his wife live in Chinatown, they know the culture, the on-going struggles of family tensions, the feelings of isolation and the barriers of language. Through personal involvement, their ministry deals with critical tension as a bridge to build relationships and, ultimately, sharing the love of Christ.

The key to any effective ministry is not just knowing ABOUT people, but how to apply that knowledge to meet their needs. Christ is often revealed through critical tension. We are not called to solve the tensions but allowing those tensions to reveal the One who has answers to all the questions of humanity.