Assumptions undo outreach

assumptionsThe first time Millie (not her real name) came over to my house, she brought a bottle of wine. This surprised me a little because I had made some assumptions about her. I had assumed she was Dutch. And therefore conservative. And therefore more comfortable judging other people’s drinking than imbibing herself.

But I was wrong to assume.

As Millie and I and three other neighbors gathered around my table that evening, we shared wine and coffee and cookies and conversation. I learned that Millie and I have tennis in common; we play with some of the same people, but I play on Saturday mornings and she plays on Sunday mornings.

Which led me to another little assumption about Millie: If she plays tennis on Sunday mornings, she must not go to church.

Turns out I was wrong about that too.

assumptionsAs Millie and I were driving home from a meeting together, we were in conversation again. She mentioned how much she appreciates the pastor who is currently filling in at her church. A Lutheran church, not a Dutch Reformed church. And they have one service on Saturday nights and two on Sunday mornings. Millie might go to the Saturday service. Or maybe she goes to the later Sunday service. Or maybe she goes to the early Sunday service and plays tennis afterward. I really don’t know.

These small revelations reminded me that I had made other assumptions about Millie. She had been the first neighbor to ring my doorbell and introduce herself when I moved into the neighborhood. I loved that she had taken the initiative to welcome me, and though she seemed a little abrupt, and I wasn’t sure what to think of her, I did enjoy meeting her.

A few days later, Millie and I crossed paths while she was out for a walk. “I just couldn’t stand to be in the house any longer,” she unloaded somewhat suddenly. “I have to get out and do something!” I smiled and commented on the weather or something, but in the back of my mind I was making assumptions again. I assumed that Millie was a little crotchety. You might even say I assumed she was a “typical” old person.

Wrong again.

Another day, another conversation, and I learned that Millie’s husband had died only eight weeks earlier. I learned that they had moved to this neighborhood only a year ago, and they had thought they would enjoy a leisurely retirement together. But soon after moving, they learned he had cancer. Millie had spent the last several months tenderly caring for him, until one afternoon he quietly said her name and then stopped breathing.

I was ashamed of myself and the assumptions I had made about Millie.

When we think we know

When we think we know someone’s story, we don’t have to bother to actually get to know her. We can use all our assumptions and stereotypes as shorthand. Which is much more efficient than starting from a blank slate and having to spend s000o much time and ask soooo many questions and s l o o o o w l y grow in understanding.

The problem is, the stereotypes don’t fit.

But we keep relying on them.

Churches, this is why our attempts at “outreach”
are so often ineffective and offensive:

We think we know the story already.

But we don’t.

We have a story, a stereotype, a set of assumptions about almost everyone we want to do ministry to:

  • Poor people
  • Black people
  • People who don’t go to church
  • Mexicans
  • Millennials
  • Teens
  • Old people
  • Singles
  • Democrats

We don’t feel the need to learn anything about them—we already have all the answers. We know what they need, and we know the best way to deliver it to them, and, frankly, they should be grateful that we are showing them the right way to live. Right?


We need to humble ourselves and be willing to learn. People are complicated and full of surprises. Stereotypes are simplistic and small. And you know what happens when you assume.

Come to think of it, I still don’t know if Millie is Dutch. She looks like she might be, but I’m certainly not going to make any assumptions. Maybe it will come up in conversation someday.

But it doesn’t really matter. Because being “Dutch” can’t be shorthand any more than being “Black” or “Single” or “Unchurched” can.

Millie and I will just have to get to know each other.

10 thoughts on “Assumptions undo outreach”

    • I think it’s natural to want to apply knowledge we’ve gained in previous situations to new situations. In fact, that’s what learning is all about. The problem is when we believe our assumptions are fact without bothering to test them or question them.

  1. I enjoyed reading this Melanie, and yes I agree we do assume too much. As I have gotten older I have learned it is best to get to know someone for ourself , because what we assume can be so far off from who the person really is. It is wonderful also how your neighbor reached out to you, I love that. Thanks for sharing this. :-)

  2. Good piece, Mello. Sunday night I was talking a group of church people about the necessity of engaging their neighbors – seeking interest through common interest. One lady told me how thy had a Gems program at their church to that some young girls were involved with. She was upset, however with the the fact that the parents would not attend the church. Even when they had the father daughter dance, the farmers would not attend. She wanted to k NJ ow what they were going wrong. When I stated that maybe the parents had some experience with church that made them unwilling to attend, she said, “but it’s for their children” I stated that maybe they saw the church as a safe place for their children, but not for them. She got more agitated and repeated, “but it’s for their children!”
    I said that one of the mistakes many Christians make in outreach is determining what people need without ever asking in out from those whom we claim to be serving. I asked, “Have you ever asked the parents ‘why’ they don’t attend or have you just made assumptions about them because they are acting according to your paradigm? She admitted that they had never attempted to have a conversation with the parents.
    So yes, I agree with you. Assumptions can have a chilling effect in outreach. We must love,look, listen,and learn.

    • That’s a good example, Jason. Here’s another, but this one has a happier ending: For many years, a group of handymen from a local church has looked for ways they can help materially poor people—fixing roofs, repairing holes in walls, projects like this. Their intentions are always good, and they genuinely want to help, but they expressed frustration that the people they were serving would just sit and watch them work. This year they approached the project differently—they asked the community what types of projects they might need help with. The community discussed it and then told the church people they would like to restore the Little League field.

      At first, the church people were annoyed. “Some of these people have holes in their floors and no electricity—and they want us to work on a ball field?!” But they accepted the assignment and began helping. As they worked side by side with the members of the community, not only did they learn why the project was important, but they also saw that the community people had skills of their own they could contribute. They came to learn that this ball field had once been a center of community life, a place where kids could play safely, a place where parents and grandparents could sit together and cheer and talk and yell encouragements. It was not “just a ball field;” it was a hub of hope, a place of pride. And the church people only realized this when they set aside their assumptions and began conversing and listening and respecting.

      Relationships have now begun between the church and the community. And those relationships are changing the way the handyman group thinks about people and projects now. It’s a beautiful thing!

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