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Hot Dogs and Community Connection: Churches Try Neighborhood Cookouts

Hot Dogs and Community Connection: Churches Try Neighborhood Cookouts
Calvin CRC Neighborhood Picnic, June 2019

On a Wednesday night in late June, members of Calvin Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., welcomed neighbors to come have a hot dog, enjoy “oldies” music piped through the outdoor speakers, and interact with members, young and old alike.

“Our church does a great job of intergenerational relating,” said Corey Visker, chair of the committee planning the event. “We thought this might be an easy, instant way to say to our neighbors, ‘Hey, we’re here’ ... focus our efforts on fellowship.” For two hours, the church lawn and parking lot were filled with yard games, sidewalk chalk, bubbles, face painting, and a catered hot dog stand from a local restaurant.

Rebecca Jordan Heys, Calvin CRC’s minister of worship and pastoral care, said they wanted to try something “low maintenance” that could be repeatable and, as Visker said, give an opportunity for “a little bit more fellowship with families.” Jordan Heys said they spread the word with flyers around the neighborhood. On the night of the event, they had about 50 church people participating and a couple dozen drop-in neighbors.

It’s one step to what Jordan Heys called developing an “incarnational presence” in the church’s setting. “God loves this place, and because God loves this place, we love it, too. … We’re committed to being a church of this neighborhood, but we’re still figuring out what that looks like,” she said. “Different ministries ebb and flow according to the demographics of the community. In the season we’re in, we’re asking, ‘Who’s here now?’”

At Beaverdam CRC, about 20 miles (km) southwest of Grand Rapids, church members are preparing for their second annual community night. Last year in August, they turned their pastor’s annual congregation cookout on the parsonage lawn (pastor’s residence adjacent to the church) into a wider community-building event. Pastor Tyler Wagenmaker said he welcomed this outward approach, especially in the congregation’s more sub-urban/rural setting where people live further apart.

“The community here doesn’t really have a sense of identity the way it used to,” Wagenmaker said. “It’s slowly growing around here, and people are moving in, and we said, ‘Well, there’s not as much a sense of community and so let’s make the church a focal point of the community.’”

Held on a Thursday from 6 to 9 p.m., the Beaverdam event will feature food, inflatables, and a four-level crawl-through maze created by a church member. Wagenmaker said he and a few other church members hand delivered 1,500 invitations hung in small plastic bags from door-knobs or mailboxes. They called up the two local township fire departments and local police force to welcome firefighters and officers as well.

“Last year was kind of a test run, and it went really well, and there was a good response from the community and from the congregation,” Wagenmaker said, noting there were about 450 people at the 2018 event.

This year, they’ll add a couple different elements, welcoming the fire department to bring safety training for kids and encouraging future community connections with a small business expo.

“This is another way that we thought, ‘Well, how do you love people?’ One of the things you do is you take an interest and you support their livelihoods ... so we’ll give them a space,” Wagenmaker said. Any local small business can have a free 10-by-10-foot space to share what they do with others. “Lord willing, it will slowly take root throughout the year in terms of word-of-mouth (advertising) and a willingness to befriend,” Wagenmaker said.

Beaverdam CRC’s community night is supported in part by a three-year grant from Classis Zeeland, a regional grouping of Christian Reformed congregations. Classis members also have helped in volunteering. Calvin CRC in Grand Rapids leaned on help from some other congregations, too. Visker said she spoke to and learned from organizers of regular community-focused events at Seymour CRC and Fuller Avenue CRC.

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