By T. David Beck
Imagine your Sunday worship service as a dinner party. It’s an important social event where there’s music, people mix together, an important speech is delivered, and a meal is served. If your church regulars are the hosts of this weekly dinner party, they might have their own invite list—the type of person they feel comfortable around and want to see at the party.
Church often does run like a dinner party—a social event we orchestrate and control. But the thing about church is that it is best orchestrated and controlled by the true host, Jesus. And the thing about Jesus is that he’s notorious for having his own invite list.
At our small church, we set out to attract people on our invite list, and none of them came. But Jesus invited a handful of people on his list, and they not only showed up, they breathed new life into our church. This is the story of the world’s most accidental and quirky outreach ministry. It’s a tale of what happened when we allowed Jesus to be the host of his own dinner party.
In January 2013, our 100-person congregation uprooted Sanctuary Covenant Church from a suburb on the north side of Sacramento and replanted it in the center of the city. One of the first things we wanted to do was connect with our new neighbors.
At our new location, we meet in a community center in a prominent park. The park is ringed with a jogging track, and the track flows with a continual stream of runners and walkers. Inside the jogging track are thirty-two acres of grass, trees, playground, recreational areas, and a community center. Many of these joggers and recreationists are active urbanites from the neighborhood—exactly the sort of people we wanted to reach. They tend to be educated, creative, and socially engaged. Many of them are professionals. We pictured being a church they could call home.
In order to make an initial gesture of friendship, one of our leaders purchased a few dozen water bottles, stuck on a label with Sanctuary’s name and information, and handed them out on a Saturday afternoon. We hoped a few runners, soccer players, or playground moms would show up for worship.
As far as we know, not a single one of these people ever came to church. For those keeping score, here’s the tally. Our best laid plans: scoreless.
If you think of church as a dinner party, we had invited the neighborhood’s most shiny citizens. I hadn’t paid close enough attention to Jesus. That’s exactly what he once taught his followers not to do (Luke 14:12).
Contrary to American church growth strategies, Jesus went on to say that when you throw a dinner party, bring in the poor, the outcast, and the ones who are last on most people’s invite lists. Start with the people who have little or nothing to give you in return.
In other words, de-swank the party.
Contrary to American church growth strategies, Jesus went on to say that when you throw a dinner party, bring in the poor, the outcast, and the ones who are last on most people’s invite lists.
On that Saturday afternoon when our volunteers were handing out Sanctuary water bottles, a small handful of women were making their way down the walking path, chatting and enjoying the sunshine. They were residents at a local in-patient facility for recovery from alcohol and drug addiction, and they were using their limited free time to get some fresh air.
Our volunteer handed each of the women a water bottle and invited them to church. As they walked on, one of the youngest women looked at the bottle and said, “I didn’t know there was a church that meets at this community center. I want to try it and see what it’s like. Will anyone go with me?”
The following Sunday, five women and a house mom made the ten-block walk from their facility to the community center for a Sanctuary worship gathering. It was the beginning of our accidental outreach ministry.
That Sunday morning signaled a shift in our Sunday services. Only half a dozen women from what I will call The House were with us, and they kept mostly to themselves, but they had an immediate impact on the atmosphere in the room. For a lot of us, going to church is a longtime habit, and we show up with low to moderate levels of God-hunger. Not so for the women from The House. The veneer has been stripped from their lives, and they come to worship with hearts laid bare.
The women from The House range in age from young adults to grandparents. Some have held good jobs, and others have spent time on the streets. Many of them have criminal records. Several have lost children and spouses. All have reached the point where they have checked themselves in or have been checked in by someone else to live for up to three months in this all-women’s facility.
Some of them wear their hardship on their faces. Dark circles under their eyes, missing teeth, and scars on their faces or arms tell of years of hard living. Others are stunningly beautiful. If we didn’t know they were from The House, most of us would never guess they are addicts.
Whatever they look like on the outside, in their hearts they tend to share an intensely raw hunger for God. As I preached that first Sunday morning, almost all of them were weeping. I don’t chalk that up to my oratory skills. It was because they wanted so badly for God to meet them in their brokenness. As I talked in simple terms about grace and hope in Jesus, the dams holding in those emotions began to break.
By simply being themselves, the women raised the level of God-hunger and lowered the level of pretense in our worship gathering. Twelve-step recovery programs teach honesty and humility, and that is how the women carried themselves. As they brought their lack of pretense into the room, they encouraged me and other Sanctuarians to be real.
An endearing blend of outer toughness and inner brokenness—that’s how the women from The House show up at church. And Jesus does powerful things among them. We have seen an unusually high rate of first-time conversions and life rededications among them. And we believe God is doing a lot more that we don’t even know about.
The women cycle through the program in thirty-, sixty-, or ninety-day durations. The downside of that high turnover is that we don’t get the kind of sustained influence in their lives that we’d like. Naturally, when we saw God moving in the women’s lives, the first thing we tried to do was build a church program. We attempted to start Bible studies or discussion groups for the women. We asked the house moms if there was any way we could provide any spiritual counsel. We even tried to see if we could walk them home from church so we could talk more with them. We pushed on every door we could think of, and none of them opened. I described this as the world’s most accidental and quirky outreach ministry. It appeared without our bidding, and we can’t make it fit into any common mold we have for ministry.
So we do everything we can do within the boundaries of the situation. And those boundaries are rather tight—interacting with the women within the context of the ninety-ish minutes of a typical Sunday service. Greeting them is incredibly important. Some of them are new to church. One Sunday after service, I had an opportunity to chat briefly with the women as they were leaving. I was letting them know how much I appreciated them being with us. The youngest of them, a nineteen-year-old named Ava, was standing next to me. She said, “This is only my second time in a church. My first time was last Sunday. I really like this place.” It is impossible to overestimate the importance of receiving people well. Some of them are forming their first impressions of church.
For another segment of women from The House going to a church service means fighting through the pain of previous church experiences and willingly stepping over the threshold into a place of worship. They enter the sanctuary bracing for the worst, yet holding out a sliver of hope for the best.
One Sunday a young woman named Caitlin decided to give church one last try. She had been raised in church, but when she started getting into trouble with alcohol and drugs as a teenager, other parents in the church told their kids, “Stay away from her. She’s no good.” Ostracized, she left church during high school and hadn’t been back since. Now in her mid-twenties, in rehab, and at the end of her rope, she found herself walking into a church service with her housemates. She was darkly cynical, but she had decided to entertain the remaining shred of hope she held out for Christians.
During the greeting time built into our worship gatherings, a young Sanctuary couple approached Caitlin. They engaged her in small talk. Not knowing she was from The House, they asked, “So do you live here in the neighborhood?” She decided she was going to test the waters. She looked them in the eye and flatly stated, “I live at rehab.” Fully expecting the familiar frown of churchy rejection, she was shocked when the couple replied, “Oh yeah? Good for you! It’s great that you’re taking that step—although it has to be very difficult. How can we support you?” Their simple interest in her and enthusiasm for her well-being blew a gap in the wall that existed between her and faith.
Through that gap the grace of God began to flow into Caitlin’s heart. She became a regular at church during rehab and then for a season afterward. One Sunday morning she shared the story of her life and talked about the difference it had made to be welcomed with authentic gladness into a church community. Her story puts an exclamation mark on the importance of showing hospitality, Jesus-at-the-well style.
On Sunday mornings, I make it a point to interact with the women from The House. For a while they took to sitting with me in the front row. It was quite a treat, especially since no one usually sits there. One Sunday we had prayer circles after opening worship, and I asked the women if I could join them. We were praying especially for a newborn boy who was in neonatal intensive care. A couple of the women had never prayed out loud. I told them they should only participate if they wanted to. Then I added some sixty-second coaching: “Praying is just communicating with God. You can talk to him in very simple terms, just like you talk to anyone else. Don’t worry about making a good speech; just say whatever is on your heart.” Five minutes later when we were finished praying, each of the women had offered at least a sentence of prayer out loud. As I said our “amen,” my eyes were wet with tears. It was as holy a moment as I have ever witnessed at Sanctuary.
The presence of the women has enhanced the way I preach. I have never forgotten the almost childlike transparency in Ava’s demeanor when she told me she had never been to a church before. I want to be as helpful as I can to those who don’t know their way around a church service. They honor us deeply with their presence, and I want to honor them in return. When it comes to the message, I do what I can to help the Avas in the room follow along and receive something meaningful. This means doing things like making sure our hosts hand out Bibles to those who don’t have one; explaining how to find that weekend’s passage; referencing pop culture and non-Christian thinkers; avoiding insider-speak and Christian jargon as much as possible—or explaining it when I use it; and explaining in as down-to-earth terms as possible what the Bible is talking about. I was originally influenced by pastor Andy Stanley to move in this direction, but my practices have been most shaped by seeing Ava’s face in my mind as I prepare and deliver a message.
Our service culminates in receiving communion, and it is a very important element of the service for the women from The House. It gives them a way to connect with Jesus, whether their faith is weak or strong. The communion table is a place of mystery, oneness, and restoration—exactly what is needed when we are exploring the depths of our own brokenness and relearning how to negotiate life.
“The communion table is a place of mystery, oneness, and restoration—exactly what is needed when we are exploring the depths of our own brokenness and relearning how to negotiate life.”
When Jesus brought the women from The House to Sanctuary, he knew he was entrusting us with a ministry that is fragmentary and unpredictable. We had to adjust our expectations. Sometimes the women don’t show up at church, and we have no idea why. One week I asked about that, and a couple of the women told me that when there is trouble, there can be a “blackout” on the weekend, which means they are not allowed to go out for optional activities. On blackout weekends, they cannot attend church.
The women also depend on house moms to bring them. If a house mom doesn’t like the idea of coming to church, it is unlikely to happen. One Sunday a couple of us noticed that the house mom appeared to be very uncomfortable in church. The women didn’t show up for a few weeks after that.
Counterintuitively, we have learned that no-shows at church can sometimes be good news. One young woman had come to church for about four straight weeks. She was beautiful and had a sweetness about her. I couldn’t believe she was recovering from heroine addiction. As she talked about how powerfully God was working in her life, she also asked for prayer for her relationship with her mother. Our prayer team happily took up that cause. And then as if someone shut off a light, we didn’t see her anymore. I was alarmed that she had relapsed or gotten into trouble at The House. One of the other women told me, “Oh, she’s doing very well. She has been spending the weekends with her mom.” God was answering our prayers! What appeared to be failure was actually success.
Because our attempts to establish follow-up programs and Bible studies have been stymied, we have been forced to focus on how we can best minister to these women within the context of our worship gatherings. First, we want them to hear and encounter the gospel of Jesus. From greeting to sermon to communion to benediction, we want to present opportunities to respond to God’s invitation to a flourishing life through Jesus.
Second, we want them to experience love that is simple and without strings. By the time a woman gets to The House, her relationships have typically become so twisted that manipulation, not love, has been the norm for years. The women show up at church with an aching hunger to taste love without pretenses or strings. They quietly hope that they might be able to find it among Christians. When Jesus is shining through his people, the church is the best place on the planet for them to be. The women drink up love like a thirsty plant after months of sun-baked drought. One of the women once wrote on a prayer request card, “Thank you for welcoming me with unconditional love.” On that same card, she reported that she had given her life to Jesus. We know our church is far from a perfect reflection of Jesus. But the love she experienced was enough for Jesus to draw her to himself.
Third, we want to speak hope into broken lives. One of the women told me, “When I was living in addiction, I knew I was ruining my mind and body. I didn’t care anymore. I figured I would be dead in a few years anyway, and I didn’t feel my life was worth anything.” That brief exchange galvanized my determination to counter self-destruction with hope in Jesus. It was a jolting reminder that we are not running a civic club at church. We are engaged in a battle to breathe hope into those who have given up or, in some cases, have never known hope to begin with. We thus make it our intention on Sunday mornings to weave together raw realism and defiant hope.
Another young woman who at one point had sold her body to pay for drugs said, “I am beginning to see light in my life. I have ever only seen darkness.” By entertaining hope, she is taking a great emotional risk. Our part is to point her to Jesus, the only one who can shine in the deepest darkness.
At Sanctuary, we set out to attract people who anchor the neighborhood surrounding the park—active professionals, playground moms, and soccer players. It made perfect missional sense. It really was a good idea—and still is. But Jesus had a better idea. In our new-church-on-the-block eagerness to attract attractive people, we would have welcomed the Rich Young Ruler. In his my-ways-are-not-your-ways determination to reach the God-hungry, Jesus invited the Woman at the Well. We have learned more of what church is all about by letting Jesus be the master of his own dinner party.
Note: As soon as I started writing this article, the women from The House suddenly stopped coming to Sanctuary. When we followed up, we were told that the current crop of house moms don’t care for church. That’s how easily the situation can turn. I ask you to pause and pray for the women at The House and the thousands of men and women at other recovery houses like it.