Sometimes, success looks like a folded slip of paper.
We host a weekly community dinner at our church and payment is anonymous. Two weeks ago, mixed in with the cash and checks was a folded piece of blank paper that to a casual eye would have looked like a check when it slipped in the box. To me, that paper might as well have read, “Well done my good and faithful servants.” It was a sign that we were indeed successfully travelling down the path God had put us on to love our neighbors.
The Seed is Planted
About a year ago, a life group planted the seed of an idea to invite underprivileged members of our community to join us for Wednesday dinners. I filed this idea away for future reference because there seemed to be too many barriers that would keep it from happening. Honestly, many of these barriers were keeping our own church family away already. Barriers like:
- The regulars liked things the way they were.
- The food was not accessible to people with varying dietary needs.
- The advance reservation system prohibited spontaneous invitations.
- The payment structure didn’t allow for varying levels of payment (or no payment at all).
I was seeing barriers. I needed to see bridges.
Building Bridges to Overcome Barriers
A few weeks later, within the span of 3 days, God sent me: a grant possibility, a conversation with a lay leader about reaching our community, and an unplanned brainstorming session with a friend on staff. I am glad that when I didn’t pick up on the subtle nudging of the Spirit, God sent me a few swift kicks to put things in motion.
Our community dinner was born, and we named it The Dinner Table. The name was inspired by this post on the Fresh Expressions blog.
During the spring of 2017 we laid the groundwork for the program to launch with a 10 week trial the coming fall. The trial period was a safety net. If no one came, if we bled money, if it was just a miserable failure….we could go back to the way things were. Defining a trial period raised the comfort level for a lot of folks who were nervous about the big changes we had ahead.
We began dreaming of ways to tear down barriers. We received generous grants from Fresh Expressions through the Baptist General Association of Virginia and from Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and our dreams turned into bridges.
Embracing Change to Embrace Community
We removed our reservation system and encouraged our cook to step out in faith that we would always have enough food anyway.
We changed to a “pay what you’re able format,” and put out a box for people to anonymously deposit their payment. We also began accepting debit cards for those who never carry cash.
We purchased a salad bar to expand our food selection for all types of eaters and added a weekly soup to the menu to help expand choices. We paid special attention to vegetarian and gluten free needs, which seem to be prominent in our area.
We rearranged our seating from what some had called “prison cafeteria style” to tables arranged for conversation in varying sizes. We added placemats, centerpieces, printed devotions and conversation cards so it would feel warm and inviting.
We spread the word that EVERYONE was invited. Our early target groups were those already in our building: food pantry clients and families and staff or our preschool and after school. Banners and directional signs not only let people know they were welcome, but also helped them find their way when they got here. Church members were encouraged to invite friends, neighbors, and coworkers. Everyone was encouraged to reach out and meet someone new to sit with when they came to dinner.
We prayed, we dreamed, we planned, we promoted. Then we waited.
And people came.
Relationship Building Around the Dinner Table
Dinner after dinner, relationships are being formed that are the groundwork for sharing faith and doing life together. People who are otherwise intimidated by or uninterested in coming to traditional worship will come to dinner.
Not only have our numbers increased, but they also include new faces every week. More importantly, new faces are becoming familiar as they continue to join us around the table.
For some, The Dinner Table is the only expression of church they attend. For others, it is a place to experience their faith in a different way.
Reassurance in a Slip of Paper
That little slip of paper? That was the first time I knew for sure that someone understood that we wanted them to come to dinner, whether or not they could pay.
We invite you to come as you are because we’re all broken here. All of us have needs and questions and fears. All of us are loved incomprehensibly by our precious Lord. Let’s talk about it over dinner.
You can catch a glimpse of The Dinner Table here.
Stacy Deyerle is the Local Missions Minister at Gayton Baptist Church in Henrico, Virginia.