How we made our food pantry into so much more
Shoreline Church has offered a food pantry ministry to our community for many years. It has been a solid, successful effort to show the love of Jesus through an act of meeting basic human needs. For a long time, the primary goal was clear: provide food for hungry people.
Now, in a time of deep need, economic challenges and a global pandemic, that food pantry is gone. Why shut down a successful, needed and fruitful ministry like a food pantry at a time of profound need? We did not shut it down—we transformed it. We have innovated, prayed and changed this ministry so much that it is something entirely new.
When the needs change, we need to change. In the quarter prior, our food pantry served 10,156 people in need, including 4,190 hungry children. This number dwarfs the same three-month period the previous year. The needs have changed, so our approach and strategy had to morph in order to meet the increasing demand. Along the way, our team has innovated, prayed, dreamed, taken risks and seen the birth of a more effective gospel-centered ministry than we had ever dreamed.
FROM PHYSICAL FOOD TO SOMETHING MORE
The Shoreline food pantry always had a Jesus-centered vision, but as needs increased, our team turned more and more attention to meeting both physical and spiritual needs. We moved from a Level 0.5 outreach focus to a solid Level 2.
If you have read the Organic Outreach books, these terms and numbers make sense. If not, here is a brief introduction. Years ago, we decided that we needed to identify the outreach “intensity” of every ministry we do that we claim is evangelistic, so we developed a simple scale. The higher the number, the more intentional the evangelism focus.
Level 0—Kind deeds done by Christians with no real evangelistic activity.
Level 1—Acts of service and community care where we hope to have spiritual conversations, pray with people and share Jesus.
Level 2—Acts of service and community care where we expect to have spiritual conversations, pray with people and share Jesus.
Level 3—Events where the gospel is clearly articulated and people are given an opportunity to respond and receive Jesus.
Level 4—Events where the gospel is clearly articulated and people are given an opportunity to respond and receive Jesus in a public way and also asked to come forward and begin a journey of discipleship (baptism, being mentored, given a Bible and a reading plan, etc.).
What we realized was before the pandemic hit, our food pantry was somewhere between a Level 0 and a Level 1. We gave a lot of food, we were kind, but there was not a clear and intentional evangelistic focus to the ministry. If we were going to invest huge amounts of time and energy into a growing outreach ministry, we were going to make sure we were actually having a spiritual impact and doing evangelism. The goal became to make it a solid Level 2. We wanted to do all we could to have spiritual conversations and prayer with anyone who came for food, if they were interested. We also learned that a large majority of those who came to the pantry were not church attenders at Shoreline or any church.
Offering conversation and prayer. Our outreach pastor and the food pantry leaders made a decision that they were going to have trained prayer people available to talk with every person as they arrived. This was at a time when everyone was wearing masks and staying in their cars when they came to the food pantry. By the time the food pantry opened on Tuesdays and Thursdays, a line of dozens of cars had formed. As people waited, they were asked, “How are you doing? Is there anything we can pray for you?”
Of course, no one is ever forced to talk or pray. Receiving care and food were not contingent on engaging spiritually. With time, over 70% of the recipients were engaging in conversation and prayer. God was showing up and ministering to hearts and lives. Friendships were forged. Names were learned. Follow-up was offered where possible. The people coming to the food pantry were blessed and so were our prayer team members.
“When the needs change, we need to change.”
If a Level 2 gospel event involves expecting to have spiritual conversations, it is fair to say that engaging with 70% of our guests in prayer and spiritual interaction hits the mark. By training and providing a team of people to engage in this part of the interaction, while other team members took care of the food, we have innovated a whole new food pantry outreach ministry.
The Word of God. The team decided to go one step deeper. Along with conversation and prayer, people were offered a new Bible (We provided them in English and Spanish). Many people were interested and open. This also led to more conversation and spiritual connections.
Building bridges to the church. In an effort to show the love of Jesus and open doors for a deeper relationship, the food pantry team has also provided information about church services (at that time, online and outdoor on campus), youth ministry, children’s ministry and more. Every bag of food that is given includes printed materials inviting people to connect in the life of the church if they so desire.
Since the need for food was growing, our team looked to forge partnerships with stores and organizations in our community. Trader Joe’s jumped in as a fantastic partner. So did Grocery Outlet, Safeway, Ocean Mist, the Community Foundation of Monterey County, the USDA Farmers to Families, and others. It became a true partnership with the community and the church. What a joy to see a local church and these organizations serving the community side-by-side.
“No matter what kind of outreach you are doing, God shows up when we pray.”
In addition, the food pantry team discovered it was taking an average of 52 volunteers a week (serving for an average shift of three hours). Over 150 hours of service. Most of these volunteers were from the church, but some of them began inviting friends to come and help. Some of these folks are not yet followers of Jesus. They love to serve, partner and care for people in need. This side-by-side service has opened the door for more spiritual conversations with volunteers and church members. Friendships are being built and lives are connected.
FIVE LESSONS FOR DEVELOPING STRONG OUTREACH MINISTRIES
1. Make sure your outreach is actually outreach. Too often churches engage in community service and call it outreach (or evangelism). A level “0” ministry or event might be called community service, but don’t pretend it is outreach. I have worked with churches that honestly evaluated their outreach department and discovered almost nothing they were doing was actually spreading the good news of Jesus. Take time to evaluate each of your outreach ministries (See my book Organic Outreach for Churches, Chapter 10).
2. Raise your outreach level. If you discover that you have a low level of outreach engagement and want to increase it, innovate ways to do this. Some of your volunteers will be excited, others will be nervous. But all of them will rejoice after you make the shift and they see God work in the lives of spiritually curious people who come closer to Jesus or enter his family by faith.
3. Engraft prayer in all you do. Don’t just pray for your ministries. Offer prayer for and with those who come to receive ministry. No matter what kind of outreach you are doing, God shows up when we pray. He answers and moves in powerful ways.
4. Forge partnerships with nonbelievers. Whenever you can, work in concert with people in your community. There are people who like to help and serve, but they are not yet Jesus followers. By serving together you can establish a friendship, show the compassion of Jesus and open the door for spiritual conversations.
5. Train your volunteers. In every outreach ministry, establish a practice where you train volunteers in how to pray for people in need and how to share the gospel. Some will be nervous about this, but it should be a requirement for all who help in a ministry. This helps them understand that all outreach is about sharing the love, grace and message of Jesus. It also prepares them for the moment God opens a door. They will be ready to tell the story of Jesus, share their testimony, lead someone in a prayer to receive Jesus, and even take the first steps of discipleship.
At Organic Outreach International we have developed tools to help with this kind of training. If you can’t find the free resources you need on our website or in the Organic Outreach books, please call our offices and we will help you take your next steps forward in increasing your outreach potential and equipping your volunteers. In this time of challenge and need, do all you can to innovate and increase the outreach potential of everything you do.