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What does it mean for our marginalized neighbors to encounter Jesus? What about kids? In this episode, you’ll hear from Isaac Olivarez, founding pastor of Urban Outreach, a Dinner Church in Denver, Colorado. You’ll learn what it’s like to be a Dinner Church in the city, who he encountered there and what he learned along the way.
Isaac and his wife, Jaime, founded Urban Outreach Denver in 2012 and planted a Thursday night dinner church called Community Dinners, a church for Denver’s homeless and marginalized in 2013. UO Denver is located in Five Points, an inner city Denver neighborhood historically known for crime, drugs and poverty, but that is currently experiencing a resurgence of economic growth. Isaac and Jaime also launched a Monday night “Community Dinner” for kids called Little Rascals, and host a summer kids camp, short-term missions teams, back-to-school outreaches, as well as Thanksgiving and Christmas outreaches.
“I used to come just for the food. Now I come to hear the message,” shares a formerly skeptical attendee of Isaac Olivarez’s Denver dinner church. This story encapsulates the subtle but profound transformation facilitated through humble, consistent welcome around the table. For over a decade, Olivarez has spearheaded communal meals for the homeless and marginalized that gently cultivate faith and life change over time. His wisdom offers deep inspiration and practical guidance for leading dinner churches.
An Outgrowth of Existing Street Ministries
Olivarez shares that his dinner church emerged “organically” as an extension of his nonprofit’s existing outreaches to the homeless in Denver’s urban core. The motivation was clear: provide a consistent presence of care and gospel hope in an area struggling with poverty, addiction, and isolation.
Specific goals included:
- Offering nutritious, appetizing meals to the hungry
- Fostering community for isolated individuals
- Providing a welcoming atmosphere through music, conversation, and hospitality
- Sharing accessible spiritual nourishment through “Christ stories” from the Gospels
- Modeling Jesus’ compassion through practical service and relationships
As Olivarez notes, even simple acts like smiling while greeting each guest communicated care and “preached the gospel.”
Learning Patience in the Discipling Process
Dinner church flips traditional models of discipleship focused on imparting information and expecting behavioral change. Instead, Olivarez focuses on humbly “learning with people” amid their messy journeys. He shares stories of skeptical diners slowly glimpsing “Jesus in our interaction” and softening towards the gospel over years of fellowship.
“It’s Jesus showing us a better way…the invitation to say, ‘Let me show you the best way to get through this life.’”Isaac Olivarez
Rather than demanding change, dinner church offers patient space for guests to experience and respond to God’s love in their own timing.
Experiencing Personal Transformation
In serving shoulder-to-shoulder with marginalized neighbors, Olivarez found his own faith also profoundly reshaped. As he describes, it completely altered “the way I read scripture…the way I understand the gospel.” This mirrors Jesus’ promise that serving humbly transforms the servant.
An Unthreatening Bridge
Churches today often feel disconnected from those struggling with poverty, addiction, and homelessness. Olivarez suggests established congregations honestly ask themselves: “What will you do to reach those disconnected from Sunday worship?”
For many today, a dinner church approach can provide a gentle bridge back to Jesus. Ultimately, Olivarez exhorts preparing spiritually to allow “the love of Jesus to be evident” through our hospitality. Patience and care for each person can unlock community renewal.
- How can you cultivate more patience in others’ spiritual journeys? What motivates impatience?
- When have you experienced transformation by humbly serving others?
- What would it look like for your church to reach out to those disconnected from Sunday worship?
- How can you prepare spiritually to allow God’s love and grace to flow through your leadership?
- Who feels uncared for in your community, and how can you extend gentle care to them?