Not having space of your own, having limited resources, and an unlimited mission of making new disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world causes you to think creatively about how to find cheap space to reach out to new people. It was out of the convergence of our need and our mission that Church in a Diner was born.
Sycamore Creek Church is a twelve-year-old church, and I am the second pastor. It was founded my Barb Flory, a rebel grandma who had a vision for a different kind of community that would do whatever it took to creatively reach out to new people who didn’t have a church family. She planted SCC when she was fifty-nine as a mother/daughter plant out of a neighboring United Methodist Church. Barb retired when she was sixty-seven, and I was appointed fresh out of seminary to lead this faith-community-without-a-building.
One thing I noticed right off the bat was how tired our church was. SCC has been setting up and tearing down every Sunday morning in a local school for twelve years. So the first thing we did to minister to the volunteers was declare an “unplugged” series. For a month we gathered to worship with little to no setup. This was a good break, but it wasn’t sustainable. The second thing we did was begin a capital campaign to begin saving for a future building, but it soon became clear that the amount needed for a building would be a long time in the coming. Patience was required. And yet, we still needed to reach out to new people in creative ways. It was in our DNA.
The idea for Church in a Diner is a remix of three different experiences. First, I attended Church of the Resurrection’s Leadership Institute and saw what they were doing with satellites. This seemed like an excellent way to build new worshiping communities that reached out to new people. The only problem was that this strategy, while cheaper than a “parachute drop” church plant, still required a lot more resources than we had. Second, I attended a Church Planting 101 workshop led by Dirk Elliot in the Detroit Conference. While there I met John Ball, associate pastor at Brighton UMC who is planting a faith community in a bar. John described how they met for free in the bar because the bar made money from new customers. Third, I was talking with a Michigan State University freshman who didn’t really want to attend Sunday morning and asked if we had another mid-week service. These three experiences were put in the Holy Spirit blender of my imagination and out popped Church in a Diner on Monday nights.
Well, it actually didn’t begin as a Church in a Diner. It was going to be Church in a Coffee Shop. But the local coffee shop that I had built a relationship with was a franchise, and the franchise agreement didn’t allow for live music. So one day I went on a drive with one of my team members who happens to not be a Christian. We spent five hours driving around Lansing. We looked at all kinds of space that we could meet in that might be free (e.g. a bowling alley, a roller skating rink, several restaurants, a movie theater, etc.). The most promising was a local diner that closed at 7PM. All I had to do was walk in, introduce myself, explain this crazy idea, and ask if we could do it for free, and that’s what I did. Within twenty seconds of talking to the owner, he was on board. He was a believer who didn’t attend church because he’s running a diner on Sunday morning. He now considers Church in a Diner his church. Thank you, God!
To launch this new venue we followed a blueprint laid out by Nelson Searcy in his book Launch. We built a launch team of about ten to fifteen people who meet weekly from April to October. Along the way we read Launch, Ten Most Common Mistakes Made by Church Starts by Jim Griffith and Bill Easum, and How to Start a New Service by Charles Arn. These three books helped us all get on the same page. These weekly meetings also helped us learn how to be invitational. If we didn’t invite people, Church in a Diner wasn’t even going to get off the ground. So we met weekly for mutual accountability, encouragement, brainstorming, and support for how to invite pretty much everyone we came across.
One of the key things that makes Church in a Diner work is that we simply recreate the same content as Sunday morning but in a diner. Same music and same message. My worship leader doesn’t have to learn new songs and I don’t have to write a new message. My children’s ministry leader simply brings crafts from Sunday morning for any kids who show up. While there is more commitment required by my staff, this kept the extra time to a manageable level.
Before we began we didn’t quite know how worshiping in a diner was going to work. How do you worship while waitresses are taking orders and delivering food? We had never seen it done before and figured there were going to be a lot of bumps along the way. Before we launched weekly worship in October we had three preview services in July, August, and September to work the kinks out of how to worship in a diner. While there were some kinks, most of them were on the kitchen side of things. They had to get the right staff in place to handle fifty or sixty people who all descend on the diner at the same time.
So let me walk you through a service. When you show up you’re greeted at the door by a volunteer host (we have about four on our team) just like you would in any restaurant. After greeting you and finding out where you’d like to sit (booth, table, alone, or with someone), the host seats you with a menu and explains how the service goes and what to expect.
At 7PM our worship leader begins by welcoming people saying, “You’ve been to a diner before. So just do what you do in a diner. Order as much or as little as you want. Don’t forget to be generous to your servers. Sing along as you want or just listen. Words are on the screen.” After two songs, the host steps up to the microphone and welcomes people again and does some basic orientation announcements about filling out a connection card, dropping it in the offering and checking-in on your phone to let your friends know you’re at Church in a Diner (Facebook, Foursquare, Twitter, etc.). Another song is sung and our worship leader invites people to greet the people sitting around you.
After singing/listening to the worship music, I get up and speak for about forty minutes. Forty minutes!? Well, not quite. The message lasts about forty minutes, but the message is highly interactive. I usually have three moments of planned interaction where I either ask a question to the group as a whole, or I have people talk about a question for five minutes at their tables.
I say “planned interaction” because this is a highly engaged group. It’s not unusual to end up in a short conversation with one person right in the middle of the message! Besides getting to eat during worship, which shouldn’t be that odd to us since one of our sacraments originally happened around a meal, the interactive nature of the teaching is the most distinctive feature of our worship, and people love the opportunity to do it right in the middle of the message.
We end the evening receiving an offering and inviting people to stick around and discuss the message as long as they want. People usually hang around for another fifteen to thirty minutes.
One question you may be asking is how we deal with distractions, and there are a lot of distractions! These include people eating and talking at their table, waitresses walking in front of me while I’m preaching, cooks yelling in the kitchen that food is ready, and children wandering around including my own son coming up to me wanting to be picked up! Here’s the magic of the diner. Because it’s a diner, something happens in your brain so that you don’t expect the same distraction-free worship event that you expect on Sunday morning, or at least not as much. Those who are long-time attenders do have a somewhat harder time with the distractions than those who are coming who have not been involved in a church. And I find the whole experience an exhilarating moment of interactive teaching and preaching. This goes to show how much the architecture of the space we worship in affects our experience and especially our expectations of worship.
In an effort to get people to come back, we follow-up with anyone who gave us contact information on their connection card. Those who gave a phone number get a call from one of our team members. Those who gave an email get an email inviting them for feedback on their experience. And those who gave an address get a hand-written note from me along with a $5 coupon for the next time they come to Church in a Diner. We think follow-through on guests is essential to helping them connect with our community on a deeper level. We also learn from their experience at Church in a Diner of encountering (or not encountering!) God.
The paint is still fresh on this whole experiment in building a new and creative worshiping faith community in a diner, but every week it feels a little less like it will all fall apart. We have somewhere between fifty and eighty people who show up each week in a diner that seats ninety. Fifty to sixty is probably the natural psychological size when this space is full. So we’re thinking about how to expand what we’re doing. Perhaps we’ll add a second service on Monday night (an early dinner service and a late dessert/coffee service). Our big vision is to have seven satellites in seven venues on seven days of the week. That’s a God sized vision that feels less and less impossible each Monday night after a new faith community has gathered for worship in a diner.
Tom Arthur is the pastor of Sycamore Creek Church. He attended Duke Divinity School and has written for Leadership Education @ Duke Divinity (LE@DD). He blogs at www.aproperconfidence.net. His wife, Sarah Arthur, is a best-selling and award-winning author and speaker. Their two-year-old son, Micah, loves church in a diner at Grumpy’s and calls it “Grumpy’s Dinosaur.”