“But do you think they’d come if you didn’t serve a breakfast or hot dogs?”
Probably not, for the most part.
Imagine someone walking up to Jesus during the feeding of the five thousand and saying, “They’re only here for the food, you know?”
I can imagine Jesus’s reply: “So?”
I get this and similar questions and statements all the time about our weekly Saturday sidewalk breakfast and church service and the summer Wednesday evening Park BBQs. Usually, from the well fed and safely sheltered, I might add.
And, plus, what’s wrong with doing something that seeks to meet a perceived need, let alone a real life need, and, in this case with us, so also to be able to tell them about their eternal need of forgiveness and that Jesus paid that price for them?
Do not think “ordinarily church” (regular Sunday-go-to-a-building church) doesn’t do the same thing . . . most of church programs are to meet perceived needs and attract people or to get them to stay . . . children’s programs and activities appeal to parents perceived needs, family functions appeal to family perceived needs, even friendships appeal to perceived needs . . . almost all church activities include the “don’t forget to invite your . . . [friend, neighbor, co-worker, family]” clause to get the unchurched to, well, go to church through these programs and activities. Most VBSs, Christmas events, even Easter activities are designed to “attract” through something that a person or family perceives as important or needed. This is never questioned.
But serve the poor and homeless food and the ordinary-gospel-church folks go crazy.
Nevertheless, also, let’s remember there is direct biblical precedence (inference) in joining gospel & food, church & food, even preaching/teaching & food. Food is an element in Jesus’ ministry whether it is around a table or in a field or on a mount. It is a founding element in the young, newly born church well into the first 150 years of early church history, and still hanging on up to 350 AD until Constantine put the church in a box (i.e., a building) and took it out of the home and away from the actual meal (supper) table.
We build ordinary on what we have always done and on the cultural, social, and structural habits we are accustomed to (e.g., a 5 day work/weekend–week for example or full time Monday-Friday jobs that give us evenings and weekends off—the young and early church knew of no such privileges). Making what we think is “ordinarily” based on our customs and culture—our own location in time, place, and space, we, then, read back into scripture and then affirm our “ordinarily.” But a non-ordinary people in a non-ordinary place needs non-ordinarily church.
The sidewalk church in no way replaces the Sunday gathering. But it is church in a place and space where people will most likely never go to a building-church in a neighborhood outside (in most cases, way outside) their neighborhoods.
Two things, outside the “So if they come for only the food” take:
First, the homeless, the poor neighbors, those experiencing food scarcity (among all the other experiences of basic needs scarcity) can imagine an outside, year round (even in the rain and cold and snow) church being formed. It is hard for the well-buildinged (I made up a word here)—buildinged church, “an ordinarily church” to imagine such a church forming.
Second, while it is still small, average on any given Saturday on the sidewalk is about 10, but some Saturdays upward to 16 to 18 and as many as 20, the weather doesn’t determine the numbers—the attendance—of people who join us for Sidewalk Church. Pouring rain. Zero and single digit cold. Snow, even blizzard. Nor hail. And not even hot and muggy . . . stops folks from coming and joining us. The “ordinarily church” that meets in a building and is mostly accessed by car can’t even imagine such faith.
So . . . so what if they only come for the food . . . the breakfast . . . the hot dogs?
Chip M. Anderson, advocate for biblical social action; pastor of an urban church plant in the Hill neighborhood of New Haven, CT; husband, father, author, former Greek & NT professor; and, 19 years involved with social action.