With all of the commitments that a busy pastor like Clancy Cruise juggles each week, taking the time to host a dinner for newcomers might seem like it would be at the bottom of to-do list. Instead, it’s at the top.
“I’ve said from the beginning that if you want to know how a pastor is going to treat his church – see how he treats his family,” says Clancy, founding pastor of the Marysville Grace, a Grace Brethren congregation in Marysville, Ohio. “We want people to meet our pastors early and their familes too.”
In the last 15 years, Cruise and his wife, Sandy, have extended hospitality to new attenders at the church by inviting them to dinner in their home, hosting close to 2,000 guests over the 15-year history of Marysville Grace.
The dinners are held about every six weeks, with each family or individual who rings the doorbell bringing a dish to share. Each event will find about 20 to 30 people sitting down for the meal, followed by a time learning the stories of the Cruises and other staff members who attend.
Seating expands to accommodate everyone. When weather permits, tables are set on the outdoor deck, and people are welcome to sit anywhere they like. “Our carpet has been replaced. Our furniture worn,” notes Sandy, “but we look at it as, ‘You know what? God’s given us this house, so we’re using it for Him.”
“We started the new attender dinner because it was a key part of our strategy as a church plant,” she continues, referring to the beginnings of their congregation in 2002. “We held kind of a meet and greet, but it was a vision and prayer time, and then it morphed from there.”
These New Attenders Dinners are often the first point of contact once a person or family visits that church. Guests to weekend worship services are encouraged – strongly – to attend. Cruise knows that the initial steps to connect are often the most difficult, so he doesn’t mind being persistent.
“We track guests like the FBI,” he admits. “I mean, really track them, and follow up immediately with a phone call from me, where I talk about the New Attender Dinner.” Each guest receives a letter invitation as well, and Cruise is sure to mention the event from the front during services.
This might make the potential guests feel “almost coerced” Cruise admits, but it is strategic. “Once they come, they have a good experience. “
This is because the New Attender Dinner has an integral place in the process of helping newcomers go from feeling like a visitor to feeling like family. It has several functions, according to Cruise, including a chance for families to get to know other new families and an opportunity to watch the interactions between the staff and campus pastors at Marysville Grace (they rotate attendance at the dinners along with Cruise and his family). It is also a perfect chance to present the gospel through the sharing of their testimonies and answerings questions about their faith.
“At the New Attender Dinner, each staff member and his wife will tell their testimony. Then we open it up for questions “Ask the questions, because if you’re going to make a commitment, you deserve to know what you’re getting into.”
“It was nice to have an open, more ‘intimate,’ discussion with the pastors about the church and their setup and vision,” notes Cory Rolfes, who participated in the dinner with his wife, Jessica, and their young son, in February 2013 after attending the church for three months.
“The dinner was a very positive event where we just ‘felt at home,” adds Tom Hartranft, who attended with his wife, Janet, in 2012. “But,” he admits, “we had already made up our minds that this was the church we wanted, as it was, and remains, a Bible-believing evangelical church.”
“We want people to know that we’re a team and we get along,” adds Cruise. “We tell stories and inside jokes, and people realize we like each other. It’s so important for them to see us in real relationships that are long‑standing, and we are asking them to come and be part of it.”
Cruise doesn’t mind being picky, either. “I’ve sometimes intentionally scared people away because I don’t want people coming and messing with what God’s doing here. “
After the dinner, participants have several options if they decide to keep coming – most of which do. The next step is Discover Grace, a two‑part class on Wednesday evenings that teaches people, according to Cruise, “the deeper version of our DNA, the values of our church, the vision, the philosophy, and where they fit in.”
He stresses that “if you would like to be part of a Life Group, our Life Group leaders are trained to be expecting you.”
Do these New Attender Dinners make a difference in whether guests become involved in the church? Cruise certainly thinks so.
“Inside information helps them feel included and valued and comforted that they know — they know what you believe, they get a chance to ask questions. You’re not hiding anything. And people fall into that openness.”
“Marysville Grace is big on relationships within the church,” says Rolfes. “We were able to learn more about the volunteer opportunities within the church and the different types of small groups that the church had to offer at the time.” Both he and Jessica accepted Christ as their Lord and Savior as a result of the ministry of the church and are now part of a launch team to plant a new church 20 minutes away. (The Hartranfts are also part of the team, which is planting a church in Bellefontaine, Ohio.)
“What’s the greatest commandment in the Bible?” concludes Cruise, who also serves as executive director (moderator) of the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches. “It’s to love one another. And that all starts with really knowing people.”
This first appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of GraceConnect magazine, the publication for the people of the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches. A downloadable pdf version of this issue is available by clicking here. It also may be read online at issuu.com. If you would like to receive the magazine delivered to you at no charge via U.S. Mail, click here to subscribe.