Jesus as Outreach Pastor

By Gabby Cudjoe Wilkes ’18 M.Div.

I am a local senior pastor based in Brooklyn, NY. My church is affiliated with the Progressive National Baptist Convention. That is relevant to share at the outset. In my tradition, the preeminent duty of a faith leader is to become a senior pastor. Most clergy in my tradition have dreamed of the day when they would pastor their own congregation. Most have worked their way up from the pew where they first acknowledged their call to preach, then mentored by their pastors, invited to preach their trial sermons, working within the church to assist their pastors in the work of Christian education, pastoral care, discipleship, affinity group ministries and more. If they’re later deemed suitable for ordination, they spend a great deal of time shadowing their pastors, attending seminary, carrying out sick and shut-in visits, attending denominational conventions, interviewing for church leadership positions, and ultimately, if they are fortunate enough, being elected and installed as senior pastor of a local church. This is the professional trajectory of many of my colleagues. 

We need to get out of our fancy offices, come down from our pulpits, and go where the people are. That’s the only way the church is going to survive this mass exodus on Sunday mornings.

Yet we live in a period now where many clergy are completing these professional development steps only to realize that the post-pandemic church is functioning very differently than it was a mere three years ago. Churches that used to hold two to three worship services a Sunday are now down to one. Hybrid ministry has turned into a predominantly virtual ministry and as a result, the need for full-time, in-person senior pastors looks a lot different. 

Not the Most Glamorous Job

It is in this spirit that I endeavor to answer the question that Reflections asked of me: “Given worship attendance declines in many places as well as institutional distrust and social upheaval, what images of God should we explore or affirm or reclaim for the future?” More than ever before, I am convinced that the image of God that we need to affirm and explore in this moment is not Jesus the senior pastor but Jesus the outreach pastor. 

Here’s the thing—outreach pastors aren’t the glamorous jobs we’ve been preparing for. Outreach pastors don’t preach every Sunday. Outreach pastors don’t marry the congregation’s beloved members. Outreach pastors aren’t invited to fancy functions to offer remarks. Outreach pastors don’t get the calls to be commencement speakers and legislative chaplains of the day. Outreach pastors aren’t on Good Morning America or Oprah. They’re not asked to throw the opening pitch at the local ball game. Those kinds of opportunities traditionally go to the senior pastor. Yet I believe, in this new era of church, we need to follow and aspire to become like Jesus the outreach pastor, not Jesus the senior pastor. 

Outreach pastors are in the community, showing up at senior centers and after-school programs. Outreach pastors run the food pantry and clothing drives. Outreach pastors keep the sick and shut-in visited and bring communion to those who are homebound. Outreach pastors find their way to the prisons and the detention centers to check on parishioners and spread the gospel good news. Today, this is the model that I believe will keep the church relevant. Folks may never walk through our doors but they know we represent the church when we come to them. 

This Is The World Now

I hate to break it to us, but in an era where folks watch three to five sermons a week from their favorite pastors’ YouTube channel, people don’t put as high a premium on connecting with their senior pastor. Folks have moved beyond needing to have a pastor who knows their name. They’re far more comfortable with plugging their headphones in, skipping straight to the sermon and getting their word for the week on their own timetable. Their spiritual inspiration is right at their fingertips. 

Still, the work of the outreach pastor cannot be replicated by a YouTube stream. Would that we all consider shifting our ambition from solely being senior pastors with power and influence to becoming outreach pastors who have the honor of touching the needs of the people directly. That kind of work may not make the front page of the news but it is powerful and life-changing in its own right.  

When I consider who we need to follow in this season, I offer that we need to follow Outreach Pastor Jesus. We all need to get out of our fancy offices, come down from our pulpits, and go to where the people are. That’s the only way the church is going to survive this mass exodus on Sunday mornings. 

I know many of you have prepared your entire career to become a senior pastor. I know you’ve been pastoring for 20-plus years and don’t have any plans to slow down. But maybe, just maybe, we each need to turn in our senior pastor credentials and take up the outreach pastor mantle. After all, that’s what Jesus did. 

The Rev. Gabby Cudjoe Wilkes ’18 M.Div. is the co-founding lead pastor of The Double Love Experience Church in Brooklyn, NY. Currently vice president of the Yale Divinity School Alumni Board, she is a graduate of Hampton University, NYU, Yale, and Duke Divinity School, where she received her doctor of ministry degree in 2022, with research on innovation and social change. She and her husband, the Rev. Andrew Wilkes, co-founder of Double Love church, are the authors of a new book, Psalms for Black Lives: Reflections for the Work of Liberation (Upper Room, 2022). Follow her at @drgabbycwilkes on all platforms.