Invitation happens most naturally in the realm of vocation, that is, in one’s stations in life. One need not expend great amounts of money, take great pains, have great knowledge, or put oneself under great pressure in order to extend this simple Christian invitation. And yet there generally remains a great amount of anxiety in the face of discussing outreach. Why is this?
Some might point to people being introverted or shy. Others might accuse their flock or their brethren of being ashamed of Christ and the Gospel and thus not engaging in “outreach” (this charge is ultimately an accusation of unbelief, and only succeeds in troubling Israel by using guilt as a bludgeon). Yet I’ve seen shy people invite others to church (they’re quite good at it), and there is no such thing as a Christian who’s ashamed of Christ and the Gospel. So what is the real reason for the uneasiness about outreach?
The real reason has to do with a false definition of Christian good works. It has always been the tendency of man to set aside the good works and duties that God has given him to do, to invent his own works that are good in his own eyes, and then to convince himself that he is pious and godly in busying himself with his self-chosen works. The Pharisees were such men, to whom Jesus said, “You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men’” (Mt. 15:7-9, quoting Is. 29:13).
The monasteries at the time of the Reformation also yielded such men. In his treatment of the Fourth Commandment in the Large Catechism, Martin Luther contrasts the monks with a child who has honored his father and mother: “Oh, what a high price would all Carthusians, monks, and nuns pay, if in all their religious doings they could bring into God’s presence a single work done by virtue of His commandment, and be able before His face to say with joyful heart: ‘Now I know that this work is well pleasing to Thee.’ Where will these poor wretched persons hide when in the sight of God and all the world they shall blush with shame before a young child who has lived according to this commandment, and shall have to confess that with their whole life they are not worthy to give it a drink of water? And it serves them right for their devilish perversion in treading God’s commandment under foot that they must vainly torment themselves with works of their own device, and, in addition, have scorn and loss for their reward” (Large Catechism, I.118-119).
Such inventors of works continue to plague the Church, and in our day these novel works often intrude into the realm of outreach. The words “mission” and “missional” have come to connote those things that are extra holy, or the real concerns of the Christian life. The good works of the Christian’s vocations are regarded as mundane, and the Christian is taught that things like participating in a canvass, handing out tracts, tallying one’s invitations, representing the congregation in community events, or going on a mission trip are truly honorable works. Sometimes this teaching does not happen by means of direct instruction, but by implication through corporately extolling or fixating on these things. Such “missional” works quickly become long tassels and broad phylacteries at which people marvel.
Such “missional” emphasis, instead of serving Christ and the Church, causes guilt over neglecting things that it is no sin to neglect. It also leads Christians to think little of the duties of their vocations such that no one esteems the child who honors his father and mother. Am I saying it is wrong to canvass the neighborhood, attend community events, or go on a short-term mission trip? Of course not, so long as one does not think highly of oneself because of it or neglect one’s vocations. But these are not the good works that Christians need to hear about, because these works have no command of God.
What, then, are the good works that God has given Christians to do? The Small Catechism has a very fine summary of these God-given works. First, of course, there are the Ten Commandments, the works that God has given to all people to do. Then there’s the Table of Duties, which is a compilation of Scripture passages pertaining to various vocations: pastors, parishioners, civil authorities, citizens, husbands, wives, parents, children, workers, supervisors, youth, widows. Luther introduces the Table of Duties with this wonderful line: “Certain passages of scripture for various holy orders and positions, admonishing them about their duties and responsibilities.” The monks boasted of their “holy orders,” in which they busied themselves doing all manner of things that God had not told them to do, meanwhile neglecting God’s actual commandments. But nothing is “holy” except that which has God’s Word, and therefore the vocation of “child” is a true holy order: it is instituted by God and includes a God-given duty, namely the Fourth Commandment.
If Christians want to occupy themselves with good works, let them attend to their vocations and their God-given duties, no matter how plain and ordinary those duties may seem. What is glorious in the sight of man means nothing to God, and what is glorious in God’s sight often appears despicable to the sinful flesh. This is true of the crucifixion of Jesus, and thus it is true of the Christian life. Yet St. Paul writes of our ordinary works when he says, “Good works are conspicuous, and even those that are not cannot be hidden” (1 Tim. 5:25). When Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Mt. 5:16), he’s not talking about special outreach works, but the works that he proceeds to teach from the Ten Commandments.
These verses do not mean that Christians should be showy about their good works, as if the entire purpose of doing good works were for the sake of outreach. Just as beauty and family do not exist merely for the sake of outreach, so also the Christian’s good works do not exist merely for the sake of outreach. Rather, we do good works because we want to do the will of God and because we love our neighbor; besides which, since we have received the Holy Spirit, we can’t help but do good works. So we for our part heed Christ’s Word: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them” (Mt. 6:1). And we trust that, hidden though our good works may be, Christ for his part makes the world see our light (Mt. 5:13-16). He sees to it that even our hidden works are conspicuous (1 Tim. 5:25).
The world will take notice of the good works of Christians. If we were to say otherwise, then we would find ourselves saying, “A city set on a hill can be hidden,” in direct contradiction to the Word of Jesus, who says, “A city set on a hill cannot be hidden” (Mt. 5:14). The analogy of a city set on a hill is instructive. No one builds a city for the sole purpose of garnering attention. Rather, people build cities so that they will have homes and peace and the necessaries of life. A city is not for gawking at. And nevertheless, a city shining in the night draws people unto it. That is what a light does. So also our Christian works do not have outreach as their purpose, but as their inevitable result. This is a comfort for us, because it shows that our good works attract people whether or not we’re trying to attract them, and whether or not we even realize we’re doing good works.
We therefore see that there is no such thing as “good works of outreach” in contrast to regular good works. There is no special class of “outreach duties” that Christians have over and above the duties of their vocations. Even inviting people to church is not a work whose purpose is outreach. Its purpose, like that of all good works, is love of the neighbor. With this in mind, it’s fair to say that our biggest obstacle when it comes to outreach is that we talk about outreach too much. Outreach happens naturally as we attend to the things that God has given us to do within our vocations—whether we mention the word “outreach” or not.
Steadfast Lutherans will soon be publishing a book titled “Be at Leisure: A Lutheran Approach to Outreach.” The book will be available as a free PDF and in print for the cost of printing at Lulu.com. This post is chapter 9 of the book: Good Works.