“You have changed the atmosphere in this place!” the apartment complex manager told the pastor after three months of “Lunch Church” with the residents. A retired school teacher, Pastor Tim, was serving two small rural churches on a part-time basis. Tim felt the prompting of the Holy Spirit to start a table-centered expression of church in a local apartment complex after learning about the dinner church movement.

For over a decade, one of the churches he served had partnered with a local feeding ministry to distribute food during the summer months to address the gap left by the lack of school breakfast and lunch. Monday through Friday, lunches were distributed by one or two people to the complex’s residents. When summer ended, they would not return until the following year. Sometimes the person distributing the food was the same, but often it changed.

Of the two churches Tim served, one was a congregation of 50; the other, according to Tim’s description, was a congregation of five chronologically mature women. Which church do you think started the new expression of church? If you guessed the congregation of five, you would be right.

How Asking “What If” Changed Everything

When it came time for the summer lunch distribution to end that year, Tim sat down with the complex manager and asked, “What if…?” Before he could finish, the manager said, “Yes, yes!” One month later, the five members brought crockpots of food to the community room at the complex and invited residents to eat together.

After a blessing and conversation, Pastor Tim shared a story from Jesus’s life, and everyone discussed what they had heard and how it connected to their own stories. The gathering finished with an invitation to the Lord’s Supper. Each month they would gather again for lunch, catch up, share a Jesus story and conversation, and share the Lord’s Supper.

After three months, the apartment complex manager shared with Pastor Tim how much that gathering had changed the whole atmosphere of the apartment complex. Did I mention that the number of those gathered was five times the size of their congregation? The apartment complex manager shared that before their Lunch Church, most residents did not know one another, despite living in the same place for many years. Most did not know each other’s names, and even fewer knew each other’s stories. Lunch Church had changed all of that.

A few crockpots and a shared meal had served as a vehicle for the Spirit to work in the lives of the residents. She shared further that the residents seemed to care for one another now in a way she had not experienced before. They began to look out for each other in new ways as they learned each other’s names and stories.

Four Insights for Small Churches

This is one of my favorite small church stories, and there are a few things that I want to highlight from it for any church looking to start a fresh expression of church. First, consider what you are already doing that might be lacking a relational quality. Sure, this church had been serving here for years, but only one or two people were dropping off food. There was no real time for connection, relationship building, spiritual conversation, or discipleship.

Second, the one thing they had earned was the trust of the complex manager in their faithfulness to show up and follow through on their commitment to feed the residents year after year. That faithfulness fostered trust with that manager and certainly played a part in her saying, “Yes!” when Pastor Tim asked, “What if…?” Any other pastor or church coming in off the street and asking the same question would likely have gotten another answer.

Third, they didn’t have a grand plan, program, or budget but created a space to share a meal in the community room of the complex. Fourth, it was done by five people, all sharing the vision for this new community and sharing leadership to make it a reality. Fifth, the Holy Spirit was already there. This shared meal highlighted and connected people to that reality.

Remember that God Loves Small Beginnings

“Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin…” Zechariah 4:10a

Small churches have everything they need to start a fresh expression. How might your church partner with the Spirit to bring the church Jesus loves closer to the people Jesus loves, who will likely never walk into our buildings? How might your church be uniquely gifted and positioned to change the atmosphere in your community?

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Heather Jallad
About the Author

Heather Jallad

Rev. Heather Jallad serves an innovative dual role as the Fresh Expressions Specialist for the United Methodist Church in North Georgia and as the Community Engagement Pastor at Cannon UMC in Snellville, GA. She leads The Greenhouse (a network of FX pioneers) for the North Georgia Annual Conference. She pioneered the Common Ground Network, a network of fresh expressions, at Mount Pisgah UMC in Johns Creek and The Douglasville Dinner Church in Douglasville, GA. She holds a BA in Mass Communications from University of South Florida, an MDiv from Asbury Theological Seminary, and is currently pursuing her doctorate in Church Renewal and Fresh Expressions at United Theological Seminary. She and her husband Marten have been married for 28 years and have two daughters.