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Table Grace

It starts with a simple invitation.

“Have dinner with us.”

In a world where people tend to isolate themselves from their neighbors, Chad Williams and his family are recapturing an old-school concept to make a gospel difference in their community.

The family of five has a vision for biblical hospitality. They’re on a mission to bring people into their home and around their table to hear the gospel.

“They need Jesus, so we want them to come over to our house and see what it looks like to be a family that follows Christ,” said Williams, former family pastor at Tabernacle Baptist Church in Decatur and the new senior pastor of Rochester First Baptist Church.

“All of our flaws, all of our issues, our dirty house,” Williams said. “This is who we are.”

The Williamses try to designate one night a week to invite people to their home for a meal. It’s not fancy—tacos or chili. And it’s not necessarily reciprocated. But the family has been able to sow seeds of the gospel, and they’ve seen results. Recently, they invited a family from church to dinner. The father, not yet a Christian, engaged in several hours of conversation with the Williamses.

“If we really want to make an impact and get to know our neighbors, we’ve got to start engaging them in a way that they’re not expecting.” – Chad Williams, Rochester FBC

“He had a perception of who Christians were…as he got to spend time with us, there became this openness,” Williams said. A few weeks later, the man decided to follow Christ.

Asked if the commitment to spend time with others each week impinges on their family time, Williams said no, because it’s a shared commitment. The family is still at home, still sharing a meal together. They’re just inviting another family to join them. “We see this as part of our mission,” he said, “and we want to be on mission as a family.”

How can we help?
Chris Merritt and his wife, Alyssa, moved to Blue Mound, Ill., seven years ago. Both raised in central Illinois, the couple knew they wanted to live in a smaller town. Blue Mound, a community of around 1,200, is where they’re raising their two pre-teen sons.

Their church, Tabernacle Baptist in Decatur, sponsors two small groups in the region where the Merritts live. Along with their fellow life group members, the family is invested in building relationships in Blue Mound through community activities and by simply looking for opportunities to meet needs.

About a year ago, the Merritts approached their local school to see how they could help out. When the principal identified mentoring as an area of need, the couple and others from their church started a mentoring program.

“If I’m going to dedicate time for our children to be at these things, it’s logical for us to be there not just to support our children, but to build relationships in our community too.” – Chris Merritt, Tabernacle BC

“It’s just a regular, consistent positive influence of adults into kids’ lives who maybe need an extra positive influence,” said Merritt, who serves as church administrator at Tabernacle. The 12 students in the mentoring program have lunch every other week with their mentors. For that hour, he said, someone is asking them questions, encouraging them, and helping them make good decisions.

Outside of the mentoring program, the Merritts also are involved in Blue Mound through community sports leagues—the kids as players, and Merritt as a coach. He said being involved in the community through their kids’ activities is a natural choice. And they try to be intentional about making the most of their opportunities.

“If I’m going to dedicate time for our children to be at these things, it’s logical for us to be there not just to support our children, but to build relationships in our community too.”

Faith in action
Erica Luce credits her husband’s upbringing for her children’s willingness to serve their neighbors. “Dan spent his life serving others because his parents were so others-focused,” said the member of Delta Church in Springfield. That’s why their three children can often be found raking or shoveling to help a neighbor, or baking a welcome present for neighborhood newcomers.

“It’s given us so much room to speak truth into other people’s lives that are not really even seeking God,” Luce said. “They see faith in action, whether they want it or not.”

“It’s given us so much room to speak truth into other people’s lives that are not really even seeking God.” – Erica Luce, Delta Church

It’s been contagious on their block too, she said, recalling a time when her 12-year-son was shoveling a neighbor’s driveway and another neighbor came out to help.

Seeing the family home as missionary tool—whether it’s a place to invite people to, or a place missionaries are sent out of—is something Christians needs to recapture, Chad Williams said. Too often, we’ve lost the idea that our neighborhoods and workplaces are mission fields. Instead of seeing people’s need for Jesus, we see our co-workers and neighbors simply as people we interact with—and, if they’re hurting, we often don’t know it.

Rather than backing away from a culture that seems increasingly far from the gospel, Christian families have an opportunity to lean in closer, Williams said.

“If we really want to make an impact and get to know them, we’ve got to start engaging them in a way that they’re not expecting.”

South Loop of Chicago

South Loop of Chicago.

My wife, Cindy, and I have moved to a new home in a mid-rise building in Chicago’s South Loop. Relocating from the Uptown neighborhood where we lived the past two years, this feels like a new mission field. We’re approaching the community as missionaries.

Our seven-year old Australian Shepherd, Yabbo, has proven an effective missionary in his own right. He provides the opportunity to initiate conversations easily. In keeping with the breed, Yabbo is well mannered, charming, and appreciates attention. With Yabbo’s help, Cindy and I have begun to meet the wide variety of people in our mission field and to engage them in conversation. We’re learning what is important to them, how they think, and who they are.

Among our new neighbors are a 60-something couple who moved in a week after we did from a nearby condo. They waited two years for the right place in this building to hit the market. We’ve met a cautious 60-something mother and her hard-charging adult daughter who live together. One woman is single-again in her 40s and has an energetic, vocal small dog. Another couple, in their early 30s, has daughters who are ages three years and four months.

“Who are the people in the neighborhood?” Engage them in conversations. Common ground becomes an opening for the gospel.

If the condo association permits us, we’ll host monthly Sunday brunches as a means of getting to know our neighbors and develop relationships with them. Our objective is to bless our neighbors. We believe, deeply, that the place we live should be better because Jesus-followers are here. We seek to add value to their lives.

The relationships we develop will provide conduits for the gospel and opportunities for disciple making. We’re confident that some will hear the gospel for the first time. Others may have heard the gospel, but have never understood how it applies to their daily lives.
Our hope is that a new community of believers—a church—will emerge from the new believers and those who seek to grow in Christ-likeness.

Regardless of whether we’ve lived in the same place for decades or just moved some place new, we all have the opportunity to listen and learn. Ask as they do on Sesame Street, “Who are the people in the neighborhood?” Engage them in conversations. Common ground becomes an opening for the gospel. And we can begin to make disciples while going about our daily lives.

Dennis Conner is IBSA’s Church Planting Director for the Northeast Region.