[As you can see, this is a multi-post theme and if you might find it helpful to begin at the beginning.]
An Outer Circle Church doesn’t so sanitize their church that the unsanitary feel unwanted and unwelcome.
“People are dying in Africa because they don’t have the $3 mosquito nets that would prevent malaria, while churches argue about whether or not they need a water heater for the baptismal.” Shane Claiborne
I’m involved in several ministries that could very well be thought of as Outer Circle Churches. We worship God and preach the Bible on grossly unsanitary sidewalks among the “great unwashed.” A number of our friends consider our gatherings on the street their church. Whether or not we call it “church” that’s how they see it. I know because when I ask them if they go to a church, they often say matter-of-factly, “This is my church!”
If I press the issue, “I mean, do you ever go to a gathering on Sundays with other believers?” Invariably they say something like, “I don’t fit in regular church.” They use phrases like, “It’s too clean… too clinical… too vanilla for me.” And then they add something along the lines of, “I don’t feel comfortable around those people. They stare at me when I’m there. It’s like I’m not part of their club.”
Rather than making the rich comfortable and alienating the poor, an Outer Circle Church practices a sort of reverse order in which they create an environment in which the poor can be at home, and when the un-poor arrive they build a collaborative community among them all. Instead, in most of our churches we excuse our outrageous expenditures on impressive mansions for God by saying, “This is how people live in their homes, shop in their malls, and dance in their clubs. We have to give them something they can relate to or they won’t come in the first place and hear the gospel.”
First of all, some people have no homes, never shop in malls, or dance in clubs. What are we doing to reach those people? Furthermore, once we attract the nice clean people to our state of the art facilities and they hear our rock star worship teams and they listen to our impressive orations they are well on their way to assuming that our religion is all about them and their class of people. Besides our drive-by ministry foray into the slums during the holidays, we have very little interaction with people on the outer circle of our society. They’re not part of our club. Our Madison Avenue Church model can inadvertently instill an entitled mentality and reinforce the American generated prosperity message, which, in my opinion, is about as distant from the “narrow path” that Jesus walked and talked than any other 21st century aberration!
The church isn’t supposed to be a place where the poor come to get stuff and the rich come to dump stuff off. The poor might get fed and the rich feel good about themselves, but where is the “community” in that and where is the transformation we preach?
My friends who serve the homeless travellers in Golden Gate Park and actually call themselves “The Outer Circle” have begun to slowly coax some of their friends into their Sunday brick and mortar churches. One of those churches is comprised primarily of young educated white or Asian techies and hipsters. The un-sanitized homeless hippie travellers that are starting to come are quite different from everyone else there, yet they’ve begun to lovingly include their brothers and sisters from the street into their family and are enriched with the inclusion. Everybody wins!
I know of a church in Denver that, based on Paul’s words, “we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world,” goes by the name: “The Scum of the Earth.” They explain that they’ve chosen this obviously anti-marketing name in order to unashamedly advertise that they are a church for the outcast and the disenfranchised. They say: “Whether outcast by society (e.g., punks, skaters, ravers, homeless people…) or by the church itself, many who come can identify with the name “Scum of the Earth” since they have been previously treated as such.” You might think that they go too far to brand themselves this way and I assume that you probably won’t be taking this to your church’s board meeting this month as a proposal for a church name change, but you have to admire their Outer Circle audacity.
Am I being too hard on churches? Is your church better at reaching out to the poor than I’m portraying? Would you be willing to say on a scale of 1 to 10 how “Outer Circle” oriented your church is?
If you’re part of a church that befriends the discarded well, share an example or two of how you do it.