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Documentary records shift in local outreach

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Outside the Walls
Elsinore MediaWorks

Local outreach is changing. Among Canadian evangelical churches, “local outreach” has often meant helping people to believe in Jesus so they can be saved. Increasingly, local outreach in many of these churches includes ministries of mercy and care for people who are marginalized.

Labour Day weekend, Northview Community Church used its three worship services to screen a new documentary movie, Outside the Walls, produced by Greg Harris, director of local outreach at the Abbotsford, B.C., MB church. Says Harris, Outside the Walls “explores the relationship between the churches in Abbotsford and the broader community.” The rapidly growing city of Abbotsford, which has nearly 100 churches for its population of more than 124,000 people, is considered by some to be the buckle of B.C.’s “Bible belt.”

Last spring, Graham Nickel, an English teacher at Mennonite Educational Institute, approached Harris with the film’s concept after taking a course with filmmaker Bruce Marchfelder at Regent College. Nickel, “a Christian for as long as [he] can remember,” asserts it’s not enough for Christians to have a relationship with Jesus and to help people get to heaven. Christians must also show mercy to people around them. Nickel, Harris, and three filmmakers of Elsinore MediaWorks produced the film in four months.

Outside the Walls features interviews with Christian leaders from Abbotsford. These interviews are interspersed with striking scenes, often from Abbotsford’s downtown core. An early interview laments that although Abbotsford-Mission has the highest per capita median charitable giving in Canada ($620; Canadian average $250), little of this money benefits Abbotsford’s neediest people.

Another interview highlights the way Love Abbotsford helped churches begin reversing this trend in the early 2000s; city-wide acts of kindness reduced competition between the churches of Abbotsford in spite of their theological differences. The film goes on to introduce Christian individuals, churches, and organizations that offer practical care to the people of Abbotsford.

The film features largely original scoring, and some visual humour. Thankfully, the movie does not manipulate the viewers’ emotions toward guilt or tears – although the use of strings while local pastors were speaking feels too glossy for the topic at hand. The movie could have been grittier had it included interviews with people who are in some way marginalized or who do not believe in Christ.

After viewing Outside the Walls, I felt both hopeful and dissatisfied. It’s a hopeful sign that churches like Northview – attended by some 2,300 on a typical weekend – include not only the Alpha course, but also social action in their local outreach. As Northview’s lead pastor Jeff Bucknam says, “It’s true, what [people] really need is Jesus, but…they also need a loaf of bread.” The message of spiritual life, heaven for eternity, and salvation from sin is inaccurate and insufficient unless Christians live on this earth according to the values of God’s coming kingdom.

At the same time, some of the documentary’s interviewees and spokespeople seemed unclear about the relationship between evangelism and social action. Too often, these necessary ministries were presented as parallel and independent oars, rather than as a seamless garment. Their connection in the gospel of Jesus Christ needs to be grasped more clearly. Perhaps then people will experience transformation by God in such a way that they will join Jesus in his ongoing work of extending mercy to neighbours who live with overwhelming needs of all kinds. Outside the Walls ends by pointing in this direction.

Outside the Walls is available with a study guide for viewing in churches. Details at outsidethewallsfilm.com (including a link to the full documentary on Facebook).

Andrew Dyck is a co-pastor at Highland Community Church (MB) in Abbotsford, and a PhD candidate with the International Baptist Theological Seminary in Prague. A version of this article appeared in BC Christian News.

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