Churches Focus on Hospitality
Brian Fournier was homeless in downtown Thorold, Ont., when he met Terence Schilstra, pastor of a local church that meets on Sundays in the carport of the pastor’s home.
The two of them became fast friends, and Fournier began to attend the carport church service. And today he is on the leadership team of this Resonate Global Mission church plant called The Table.
Attracting him to The Table, Fournier said, “is that it has established itself as a congregation in a radical and organic way. It is a welcoming community that focuses on the marginalized in downtown Thorold.”
Thorold is a city of about 20,000 people located on the Niagara Peninsula in southeastern Ontario.
“Like me, many of those who come to The Table are unchurched and feel intimidated by church,” said Fournier. “But The Table helps people recover from being separated from the church. The love that you see of God’s people is amazing.”
The Table emerged over the past couple years from a small group started by The Village, another local church that has forged a missional identity by finding ways to meet and serve the needs of people who generally have had no connection with or desire to attend an organized church.
They started by connecting with and starting programs and events in nearby elementary school, said Schilstra.
“We paid attention to and sought God’s leading. Over time, the school asked us to do more. We held events and shared meals and saw many people come out to participate.”
Preaching the Gospel through Hospitality
Taken together, the Table and The Village, say leaders of the congregations, are fresh expressions of faith and outreach. They are compelling examples of quiet but persistent love for neighbors and of making church a daily and meaningful reality. They speak the message of the gospel more by what they do than by what they say. They seek to spread the love of Jesus, say the leaders, more by attraction than promotion.
These are congregations that seek to practice hospitality, especially through the sharing of meals in homes and in other locations.
In fact, The Village, which was founded in 2007 and meets on Sundays in a community center, has recently launched a dinner ministry out of the home of Leah DeVos. She is a newly ordained commissioned pastor who invites international students from nearby Brock University for supper every Friday.
With room for a dozen or so students in the renovated garage that is her home, DeVos sets the table and often cooks a meal on Fridays for those who show up regularly and those who come every so often for conversation, prayer, and food. Frequently the meals turn out to be a potluck of foods from various countries.
“We have a heart for connecting hospitality with the gospel. We believe that sharing meals is a way of serving people and together seeking the truth,” said DeVos.
Students of many faith backgrounds, or none at all, come for dinner – a meal that feeds the body as well as the soul, she added.
“We have a simple devotional time after dinner. We are honest that we are Christians and try to show our faith in a loving and gentle way.”
As an extension of the dinner ministry in her home, DeVos has been named a mission network developer for Resonate. Her role is to connect with other churches in the Niagara area and help them, if they desire, to set up a dinner church.
Called to this work by The Village, DeVos hopes to multiply the ministry of hospitality and outreach to people on the margins – often those who have problems with organized religion – in churches throughout Classis Niagara.
“We now have an experiment in Leah’s home that is flourishing, and we want others to try it as well,” said Mark DeVos, pastor of The Village. He is Leah’s brother.
“Dinner church is a start, but it is not an end,” he said. “Rather, it is a beginning for people who have not experienced a life of faith before.”
Besides helping to launch the dinner ministry in Leah’s home, The Village holds regular meals in a local park throughout the summer for people living in inner-city Thorold. Working as hosts, members of The Village often wear t-shirts that say “Here to Serve.”
“Our hope is that people begin to wonder and ask, ‘Who is this God we’re talking about?’” said Mark DeVos.
As part of her work, Leah DeVos will be seeking to train a handful of interns who in turn can help to establish dinner churches in the Niagara-area congregations.
“I’m looking for people who have a passion for the Lord to be on mission and to start a dinner church,” she said. “This is a different way of doing discipleship. We hold things loosely. People may one day come to our church or find a different church for themselves.”
Back to The Table
A model that The Village has held to is starting other churches such as The Table.
“The Table has really helped to drive the sharing of the gospel over meals,” said Mark DeVos.
The Table has found ways to reflect the love and care that Jesus showed in his ministry, he said.
“Jesus ate with people and removed all of the barriers,” said DeVos. “It is powerful to see how Jesus enacted grace over a meal.”
Today The Table holds several formal and informal gatherings a week – in Schilstra’s carport and in the pastor’s home, in a bar, in the local school, and elsewhere.
Members of the Table, as well as those who are members of The Village, see that they are part of a movement away from being a formal church in a specific building.
They are reaching out to people, such as Fournier and others, and finding ways of kindling a sense of the sacred in them in various settings.
In this work they go beyond food to reach out and help people who face addiction, experience broken relationships, lack decent housing, and/or have a difficult time finding work. Some people come to the church feeling unhinged and at loose ends, and slowly but surely they start to find a better and more satisfying life for themselves.
In a blog posted on the CRC website Do Justice, Schilstra wrote about the Table, and what he said applies to The Village as well: “Over a meal, we discuss the joys and challenges of life. We find ways to support each other. We pray for each other and read the story of God in the Bible together. The table of hospitality is where people, experiences, and the gospel collide.”