In 1839, the First Baptist Church of Jackson (FBC JXN) was launched when a dozen or so Christians gathered in Jackson, Michigan and decided to dream big. Over the next 30 years, the community transitioned from bouncing around different locations in the city’s downtown to being able to construct an over 300 seat early gothic revival style sanctuary. The church grew as the world invented light bulbs and automobiles and when the world grieved over pandemics and world wars. Eventually, like so many other historic churches, a booming church transitioned into decades of decline in membership and an aging congregation.
Members of a declining church are exhausted. The more a church shrinks, the heavier the responsibility weighs on the remaining members’ shoulders. Sure, the occasional weddings, anniversaries, and socials provide joyful moments where members forget about the church’s overall health. But in the moments when members reflect on the church’s trajectory, the fleeting possibility of change saps the joy away. Of course, guests have no interest in preserving the legacy of someone else’s church. This situation is untenable. Something has to change.
And perhaps surprisingly, that’s what excited me to leave my university setting as a religious studies Ph.D. Candidate to become the Pastor of FBC JXN. The church’s need and eagerness to better connect with their neighbors coincided with my sense of calling. In a time of growing political divisions, hate speech and toxic rhetoric, and the deliberate ignoring of racism and xenophobia, I wanted to help a community build something different. I needed something more than a classroom. We needed to be the church.
“If you could do anything for our neighborhood, what would you do?” That’s the question I posed to our church’s leadership team. There was one additional rule—the leaders weren’t allowed to edit themselves while answering. They weren’t allowed to worry about funding, or volunteer capacity, or building resources. Instead, they were just supposed to dream of how we could make a difference for our neighbors. Struggling churches usually don’t dream about the future, they live in the nostalgic memories of the past.
Café Connection began as a dream. It was in the safe space to dream that Logan Dodge shared his inspiration for what would become Café Connection. Five years earlier, he had seen a post online about a Californian church who served a restaurant style Thanksgiving dinner to those in need. He proposed that we launch something in that manner. Instead of a once-a-year event, we imagined a no cost weekly restaurant experience that celebrated the dignity of our guests.
What if every decision in planning the Café was guided by our guest’s dignity? Guests deserve a menu and choices instead of a pre bagged sack lunch. Guests deserve fine china instead of disposable plates. Guests deserve servers instead of a cafeteria line. Guests deserve live music instead of Spotify. Our neighbors deserved a space where they mattered.
We thought we were entering the food business as we launched Café Connection, but we quickly realized we were in the hospitality business. There are plenty of opportunities for food—from food pantries to fast food options—but for our guests a sit-down dining experience is rare or inaccessible. By not charging our guests for the experience, we were inviting people into an amazing sit-down dining experience, who might not otherwise have access to it.
When guests arrive, hosts provide them with a menu and walk them to their table. We have a variety of dinner table sizes accommodating dinner parties. Kids receive coloring pages, crayons, and high chairs. A server waits on guests throughout the night. There’s bread, drinks, appetizers, entrees, and dessert. There is even a musician playing off and on throughout the night for ambience in the space. Everything is designed to make our guests feel special.
A common place that’s actually a holy place
There’s no churchy bait and switch at Café Connection. We didn’t invite guests to a meal in order to sneak in a sermon or an altar call. We believe that dinner and table conversations are transformational on their own. Jesus was known for having bountiful dinners with people of all types. Jesus and his disciples fed crowds. Jesus even said the nations would be judged based on how they fed the hungry. Serving meals is a holy act.
And despite our best efforts to make the Café approachable as a regular restaurant and not something churchy, the Café has still become a holy place to our guests. Without programming overtly spiritual activities, our guests have found a freedom to be themselves and become vulnerable enough to share when they have joys or pains and don’t want to do life alone. Guests ask us about weddings, funerals, and baby showers. Prayer requests happen not because we’ve asked for them, but because we’ve loved as God loves.
The Café has been a holy place for our volunteers too. What has resulted at Café Connection isn’t just work though—it’s discipleship. We now have a 4-hour time window every week where volunteers serve in a fast-moving environment and have to process how to respond with compassion to a difficult guest or how to rejoice with an appreciative guest.
Churches tend to attract people who think the same or have the same preference in music, but the Café has gathered people around a common table. The Café has grown to over 120 dinner guests per night across a variety of ages, races, economic groups, political affiliations, and faith traditions.
We’ve reached more people through the dinner table than we could have ever done just through Sunday worship. The excitement about the Café has changed the tone of our community. With something worth celebrating happening weekly, our historic church has become filled with evangelists for the good news of the present.
It’s your turn
You don’t have to launch a restaurant tomorrow to start changing people’s lives around a dinner table. What if you committed one night a week to intentional meals with others? Invite people to dinner at your place—and spoil them with extravagant hospitality. If you don’t have a place that works to host others and you don’t feel like you have enough money to fund a fancy meal, take someone out to dinner at a fast food restaurant but act as your guest’s servers. Take their order and go buy their food. Get their drinks and refills. Go up and buy dessert for them at the end of the meal. Show extravagant hospitality to someone who needs it. Hospitality isn’t just service, it’s also being a good listener and asking good questions. Let someone in your life know that they matter. If you want to upgrade the experience, bring a diversity of folks together to experience what God can do at the dinner table. And then see what God might do through the dinner table.