Can we find a better word for ‘outreach’?

A couple of weekends ago I went to the ‘Catching Light’ conference, a gathering of British Quakers focussing on what in other churches would be called evangelism, but Quakers call ‘outreach’.

After a fun time networking and facilitating small discussion group, I came away with the strong impression that we are collectively inarticulate in describing Quakerism. We don’t have the language to describe our own experience in ways non-Quakers can easily understand, and we are inhibited from speaking about Quakerism as a tradition beyond the individual’s understanding of it. As a tutor at the Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre, it’s my job to be articulate about Quaker thinking, and in such a climate of terminological confusion I feel I need to set out my thinking on how we speak Quaker.

Geoffrey Durham, one of the excellent keynote speakers at the conference, spoke compelling about explaining Quakerism in a way that was transparent rather than opaque. To do this, he playfully suggested we abandon the term ‘outreach’ and its odd counterpart ‘inreach’. I find these words dissatisfying in a number of ways, and I feel we already have several words at our fingertips that can do the job better: testimony, ministry and evangelism. ‘But we already have uses for the first two words’ you might say, ‘and the third one is not the sort of word Quakers should be using’. In response, I would like to propose that:

  • What most Quakers describe as ‘testimonies’ are better described as values.
  • We use ‘ministry’ in a confusingly flexible way, either assuming it to refer only to words spoken in Meeting for Worship, or using it to cover a whole host of activity.
  • Evangelical’ is seen as a negative term, synonymous with proselytising and abusive fundamentalism. It is very easy for Liberal British Quakers to talk negatively about Evangelical traditions, ignoring the fact that there are many shades of Evangelicalism, and that most of the world Quaker family is Evangelical.

I feel we can use these three words in a more meaningful way, providing us with powerful replacements for ‘outreach’ and ‘inreach’.


It is very common for Quakers to speak of the ‘testimonies’ as a list of values that Quakers share. Speaking of the testimonies in this way began relatively recently in Quaker history, appearing in print in the 1940s.

Such a list makes it easy to describe what Quakers value, but in my experience it miscommunicates Quakerism in several ways. It makes newcomers feel inadequate – ‘I don’t think I can live a simple enough life to be a Quaker’ – and suggests that our Quaker identity is found in our commitment to such values. I believe that being a Quaker is not about being good, but about being faithful. It’s not the simplicity of our homes, or the peace marches we go on that make us Quakers, it’s our faithfulness to the Spirit as discerned by the gathered Meeting.

Speaking of these values as ‘testimonies’ is also an obstacle to using ‘testimony’ in a much more authentic way, to describe living out our faith in the World. ‘Testimony’ and ‘witness’ are closely linked. When we testify, we proclaim what we have witnessed, allowing our ‘carriage and life [to] preach among all sorts of people, and to them… answering that of God in everyone; whereby in them you may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you.’

Testimony is a movement outwards, beyond the Quaker community. When our witness inspires or challenges others, ‘answering that of God’ in them, it is doing the job of outreach, but with a clear rootedness in our spiritual experience. We are communicating what we ourselves have witnessed. Whereas ‘outreach’ may be suggestive of handing someone a leaflet, ‘testimony’ offers a much more powerful word, rooted in powerful experience.


I have heard ‘ministry’ used to refer to many things, including what I’ve just described as testimony. Just as I feel ‘testimony’ is better understood when partnered with ‘witness’, so ‘ministry’ becomes a more useful word when partnered with ‘service’. When we minister to one another, we are serving one another. As ‘testimony’ is a movement outwards, ‘ministry’ is a movement inwards. I feel ministry is best described as the offering of our gifts to build up the worshipping community. Vocal ministry is one such gift (and some are more gifted at it than others), but it is not the only gift. Our ministries are as diverse as the individuals who make up our Meetings. The Apostle Paul wrote to the early church in Ephesus that ‘the gifts [Christ] gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ’ [Eph 4:11-13].

When we speak of ‘inreach’, an odd Quaker word used only as the opposite of ‘outreach’, we would do better to talk of ‘ministry’ – what we do in service to our Friends to build up the community and foster our collective growth towards spiritual maturity. ‘So with yourselves; since you are eager for spiritual gifts, strive to excel in them for building up the church’ [1 Cor 14:12].


I realise this is a difficult word for many Quakers. For those of us who have negative experiences of Evangelical churches, the word can carry a lot of baggage. I feel we should not allow such experiences to rob us of a rich and useful word.

We may also associate evangelism with aggressive proselytising. I’d like to draw a distinction between these two words. Proselytising is about self-replication. In saying that Quakers do not proselytise we are saying that the purpose of the Quaker tradition isn’t to make more Quakers. The point of a Quaker Meeting isn’t to keep itself going. I agree! I’m not interested in proselytising in the slightest. I am however very interested in evangelising.

To be an evangelist is to literally be a messenger of good news. To use this word presents us with an immediate challenge. What is the ‘good news’ of Quakerism? What is the Quaker gospel? We are challenged to articulate our individual and collective story. In what way is the Quaker tradition good news for you? In what way is the Quaker story good news for others, particularly the poor?

For me, ‘outreach’ is an insipid, opaque term, that doesn’t really communicate what we’re trying to do, either to others or ourselves. Testimony, ministry and evangelism may be trickier, less comfortable words, but I believe they are powerful tools for articulating our purpose and our methods. We just need to reclaim them.

17 thoughts on “Can we find a better word for ‘outreach’?”

  1. Excellent, Mark, thank you! Your distinction between evangelism and proselytising is very well drawn, and necessary. I like your point about ‘inreach’ and ministry, too. Someone once described my own blog as ‘my ministry’ and while I was a bit taken aback at the time, I suspect she was right: these things we do for each other as Friends are all ministry. Thank you for this – I’m wishing I’d been at the conference, now!

  2. Thank you, At the moment I feel very confident about my Quaker faith and therefore, when it seems appropriate, I mention it to others. I make a point of mentioning it when I am asked why I do or don’t do certain things which seem counter cultural. I don’t say that I do things because I am a Quaker, I say I am moved to do these things because something deep inside me leads me to live that way. So my testimony is how I live my life. Sharing our own personal experiences is such a powerful thing. Yesterday, a friend turned up at meeting as a result of a conversation I had with her. Evangelical is a loaded word but that is what I am! I want to share my good news.

  3. I’d agree the word outreach is a problematic word due to it not being a commonly used word in general English, and that we need a better word to describe what we’re trying to do – but perhaps before we look for a better word, we need to collectively agree on what it is we’re actually trying to do, and more to the point, who it is we’re trying to do it to!

    All the while I’ve been a Quaker, I think the biggest problem with most of our outreach efforts and material has been not that it is solely focused on speaking to people like us, but that it is solely focused on speaking *to* us – almost all of our posters over the years have used language and imagery straight out of our own internal writings, following our own internal jargon and pushing the buttons which speak to our own internal mores – we obsess about the Silence, and we obsess about the Light; whilst I appreciate the silence of a Quaker meeting, that’s not what I go to one for; if I just want silence there are plenty of places I can go to at plenty of times to get it. And Light is the jargon word we use because we don’t want to use the word God (or the words Holy Spirit), but as a replacement word whilst it works well for us, I’d venture that most people on the street would not immediately understand it to mean it how we’re using it.

    So who is it that we’re trying to reach out to? Or evangelise to? Or proselytise to? I’d agree one of the problems Liberal British Quakerism[tm] has got itself into is a paralysed state of wanting to appear to be all things to all people, which has had the outcome of appearing to be nothing to nobody – and we need to get out of that space pretty quickly if we’re to survive as both an organisation and as a distinct expression of faith.

    But I’d disagree with your chosen alternative of suggesting a reclamation of the words testimony, ministry, and evangelism. Reclaiming words has a long and noble history in the context of protest and struggle, but are we in a position of protesting and struggling ourselves, for our own situation? I know you come from a very Christian perspective, and those words speak very meaningfully to Christians – but is it Christians we want, or need, to speak to? If we organisationally choose to reclaim those words, I think we’ll indeed speak to Christians, but then what we might need to do is think further about what it is we’re trying to say to them that is an alternative to what the mainstream Christian churches say to them.

    But also, if we choose to reclaim those words, we have to acknowledge that we’ll no longer be speaking to the people who aren’t Christians – either because they’ve rejected it, or because they never wanted to go along that path in the first place. Would that be the outcome we’re after?

    1. Thanks for your comments Simon, and engaging with my post. I agree entirely that we need to know what we’re trying to do, and our anxiety about being universally inclusive as far as world-view/theology goes is working against that. I feel the answer lies in us engaging with our Quaker tradition, although I know there are others who would disagree.

      Geoffrey talked about the problem of Quakers talking to Quakers. He showed us the posters he felt worked well – ‘I’m a…, a…, and a Quaker’, as he felt they told a story unique to each person, and didn’t use any jargon. He showed us the ‘Beginning in stillness, my faith becomes actino’, and said that they didn’t tell a story (it was the same words for each picture) and they used Quaker language that didn’t mean much to non-Quakers. I think it’s ok for Quakers to have a particular language that you’re inducted into when you become part of the community, but that’s not the language we should be using to communicate with the non-Quaker world.

      I would say that evangelism is a tricky word for other Christian churches too, as many Christians think that’s about telling people about Jesus so they will intellectually ascent to certain doctrines. But is this what the early Church understood by the concept? I’m under no illusion that British Friends will happily start talking about evangelism, but I do wish Quakers would stop using it as a term or derision. I also think it’s ok to use Christian terminology in a Quaker way, even amongst non-Christian Quakers, as that’s the tradition we’ve inherited, and we can’t understand our Quaker ancestors without it.

      1. “He showed us the ‘Beginning in stillness, my faith becomes action’, and said that they didn’t tell a story (it was the same words for each picture)”

        Sounds like they used bad pictures. The picture could’ve told the story, if it was a picture of a protester, someone working in a soup kitchen, or someone doing job skills training with homeless folks, etc. There are things our faith calls us to do that can be conveyed in a photo.

      1. I’d say the word’s presence in a lot of books doesn’t automatically follow that the folks stopping off for a lar-tay from the bus stop on their way to work use it in their common speech as often as they use the word ‘internet’ – and if they are using it, are they using it to mean the same thing we mean when we use it?

  4. Why not Extension, which was the term used before we got involved with Outreach? This is a good Quaker term from yesteryear that describes adequately what this is all about. I was very sad when the name was changed some years ago. I think all the suggestions above are not acceptable for a host of plausible reasons.

    1. Thanks for your comment Derrick. I didn’t know that Extension was the previous term for Outreach. The question Extension raises for me is what are we extending?

      Although I don’t think my description of testimony or ministry is particularly controversial, I do acknowledge that evangelism will be a problematic term for many Quakers. However, I do believe the question it raises – ‘what is the good news of Quakerism?’ – is a very vaild one, and one we should be attempting to answer corporately.

  5. I’m a fan of Quakerism ala the 1790s, which was all about running businesses, honestly and meticulously (fixed pricing, no slaves).

    The most effective way to spread the good news within Quakerism is to role model best practices in a business sense, meaning creating friendly working conditions with an emphasis on equality over hierarchy, and rotating roles (management by rotation), socially responsible undertakings.

    Quakers who just want to sit around and talk about “Spirit” and “God” but not do any real business, are not inspiring to me. They sound more like run of the mill Protestants and/or Christians more generally and as such are not all that respectable (in my humble opinion).

    1. Thanks for your comment Kirby. Another way of putting it might be ‘talk is cheap’ or ‘faith without works is dead’! Putting our faith into action is certainly a non-negotiable, although what that action entails may look different for each person. I’ve met a wonderful Catholic nun whose action was to pray, have cups of tea with people and talk about God.

      I think we should be careful about talking down other Christian groups. I’ve noticed it’s something Quakers find very easy to do. I know many ‘run of the mill Protestants’ who are living Light-filled lives. I’d rather people were enamoured by our faithfulness than our respectability. Respectable in whose eyes? The Pharisees were respectable.

      1. You’re very right to warn against talking down other groups gratuitously. As a Food Not Bombs co-organizer, I thank the Episcopalians especially for giving us a roost (a kitchen to cook in), including during Occupy Portland (I was one of the ringleaders). The Quakers helped out too of course (thanks in part to me, a weighty Friend).

        The word I prefer to both “outreach” and “evangelizing” is “advertising”. Why? Because (A) it has a business-like connotation and Quakerism is all about doing business (ethically) and (B) we already know advertising has the potential to be smarmy, as in deceptive and cheap.

        That’s why I embrace it, as it comes less front-loaded with some “I’m a goody two-shoes Angel” spin, like “evangelical” does to my ears. I wouldn’t name a sports team “Good Guys” or “White Knights” either — it just sounds too childish.

        So for me it’s more about branding and differentiating Quakerism from other brands of spiritual practice, more about friendly competition in a free marketplace, keeping one another honest. I’m challenging Unitarians as welcome rivals, more than I’m wishing to sound like a broken record.

  6. I am so with you Mark about Quakers talking down other Churches. This descends even to using that awful phrase ‘happy clappy’ which is profoundly arrogant, deeply bigoted and insulting to a vast number of Christians who have an outwardly joyful expression in their Worship. It also just writes off our Quaker brethren in the Pastoral tradition. Let’s face it, some of our Meetings are, well, on the solemn side.

    Some very interesting stuff has been written about ‘ethical evangelism.’

    ‘Ethical evangelism takes time: we witness to the love of God, and we wait patiently for the other to discover—or better, to be discovered by—that love for themselves.’ (That is beautiful stuff)

    (from which is a review of Gavin Stone’s book Doing Evangelism Ethically)

    One of he best definition of evangelism I have come across (and ‘evangelism’ is the word I favour, (though Quakers run out of the room shrieking when I use it) is ….

    ‘Evangelism is awakening each other to the God who is already there.’ (Leonard Sweet)

    A book I am exploring is ‘The Mystic Way of Evangelism. A Contemplative Vision.’ by Elaine A Heath

    A taster …. ‘Evangelism is intrinsically relational, the outcome of love for neighbour, for to love our neighbour is to share the love of God holistically. The proper context for evangelism is authentic Christian community, where the expression of loving community is the greatest apologetic for the gospel.

    The essence of Evangelism is the Spirit-led and empowered ministry of sharing the Love of God (in words and deeds). If there is no Divine Source then whether we call it evangelism or outreach or extension or whatever is a merely technical discussion. If God is absent then probably the best word would be ‘recruitment.’

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