Friends of mine in a nearby church told me about a great idea to promote friendships between married and single people in their church. This idea would work well in any community, but I'm so glad to see it was the brainchild of a married man who saw the value of creating contexts for people to get to know each other in their local congregation. So I asked Duncan & Rebekah Rein if they would share their story for this blog and they agreed. Below is Duncan's guest post and a request for help to set up other churches to use the same system hospitality system.
I joined Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC, in 1997 when there were only about 100 members and it was quite easy to know everyone in the church. Ten years later, I would attend a members’ meeting and see a bewildering array of new faces joining the church, while also saying goodbye to members who were leaving the area, many of whom had been members for a few years but I had never even met. My wife Rebekah joined the church in early 2008, shortly after our marriage. Rebekah was coming from a much smaller church and also felt a bit overwhelmed by the challenge of getting to know so many new people.
The membership of Capitol Hill Baptist is quite transient. That is a fact of life for a church located six blocks from the Capitol. Senior pastor Mark Dever has used the analogy of “embracing the parade,” loving people while they’re here and equipping them for ministry in a new local church in the event that they move away from the area.
I remembered my years in the church when I was in my 20’s. There were great examples of godly pastors, many of whom were accessible, but it was a bit challenging to get to know older men who were living out their faith in the workplace. However, one family in the church reached out to my roommates and me, inviting us over to dinner on several occasions and even including us as part of their family’s summer vacation at the lake each summer. These acts of hospitality made a big difference for us, as we grew more connected to people who were in a different life stage than we were.
Now, ten years later, I was sure that there must still be other younger members of the church who could benefit from stronger relationships with others outside their peer group. A couple of lunches with some younger members confirmed this anecdotally.
It occurred to both Rebekah and me that we were not doing a great job of “embracing the parade.” Partially, this was due to our selfishness with our time. We’re both introverted, and especially when we were both working long hours, we tended to want to guard our valuable free time. When we did take the initiative to spend time with others, it was typically much easier and much more comfortable to spend time with people we already knew, oftentimes drawing from a circle of friends who had been attending the church for a long time.
However, it appeared to us that there was some inertia that hampered not only our outreach efforts, but the efforts of other married couples who had similar desires and good intentions. With all the new members coming in, how would you even decide who to reach out to? And one-off invitations to people you’ve never talked to before can seem kind of random and out of the blue. Granted, these were small barriers that could be overcome, but in the whirlwind that is life in DC, even small barriers can become significant. We tried to come up with some ideas that would help overcome these structural barriers.
The solution we came up with was quite simple. We’d identify married couples who were interested in building stronger connections with singles in the church and could commit to hosting one dinner per month. And we’d identify singles in the church who were interested in building stronger connections with married couples, and who could commit to attending one dinner per month. People would be asked to commit for a six-month period.
Prior to the beginning of each month, each host couple would receive an email with seven or eight names and email addresses. It would then be up to them to schedule a dinner and invite the names on the list. Each host couple would host a different group of singles each month. The groups of singles would not remain static, but would get mixed up each month, so that over the course of six months, each person would get to know a large number of new people in a relaxed and informal setting.
By providing some centralized organization, we were able to eliminate the barrier of each married couple needing to figure out who they should reach out to, making it easier for them to be consistent and expansive in their outreach efforts. Furthermore, it was encouraging for married couples to know that their efforts each month were being supplemented by the efforts of others, and that each dinner was building, over an extended period of time, into a powerful force for good in the lives of all ministry participants.
We launched this ministry in early 2010. We originally estimated that we’d start with six married couples and 35-40 singles. Instead, we had about 80 singles express interest, and we were able to recruit 12 married couples to serve as hosts.
Since its beginning in early 2010, the ministry seems to have been encouraging for almost everyone involved. We received many notes from singles who appreciated the chance to connect with married couples and learn about God’s work in the lives of people they might not otherwise have come into contact with. It especially seemed to help newer members get plugged into the church more quickly. It helped the church feel a little smaller, both for the singles and for the host couples.
We also received positive feedback from host couples. Rebekah and I hosted a lot of dinners we probably otherwise wouldn’t have were it not for the organization and the accountability that the ministry brought. Not surprisingly, we had many months where work was extremely busy, and without the commitment of having already scheduled a dinner, it is likely that we would not have taken the initiative to try to reach out in hospitality to people we didn’t know. However, we were always extremely happy after the fact that we had pushed through and hosted because we invariably got to know a group of interesting people and enjoyed a rich time of fellowship with brothers and sisters in Christ who we would not have otherwise known.
Rebekah and I had assumed that most of the ministry participants would be young, but we were surprised and encouraged that single members in their 40s and 50s also participated and were able to contribute their wisdom and their perspective.
While the ministry was not intended to be a matchmaking ministry, we did hope to have reasonable gender balance. As things played out, young women in the church were as a group more enthusiastic about the ministry than the young men and signed up at a 3:1 ratio. While we would have liked to have seen more guys in the group, the guys that did participate largely seemed to enjoy the favorable ratio.
We heard persistent rumors that the ministry was an elaborate matchmaking service, and we heard that some guys shied away from it for that reason. The unexciting truth is that we wrote a computer program that generated random sets of names each month. The computer program made sure that a person would not be hosted by the same couple twice within a six-month period, but other than that the invite lists each month were completely random. Of course God is sovereign, even over randomly generated computer programs, and so we can’t deny the possibility that matchmaking could occur, but we did not play any active role, or try to orchestrate any matchmaking. That was not the point of the ministry.
The rotating dinners facilitated a multiplicity of relationships. We had hoped that this would provide the foundation for some new discipling relationships to grow organically. While we don’t have a record of how all the new relationships developed over time, we did receive several individual testimonies that were greatly encouraging. One illustrative example testimony is included below:
Dinner at Justin & Abigail's: I just got back to DC after what I thought was a short trip home to Texas over Memorial Day-- but I had an injury during that time and ended up having to stay home three weeks. This was my first get-together after that time-- I was exhausted, still healing from my injury, and really longing for friendship and connection. Abigail wrote me an e-mail and encouraged me to come. Looking back, this was one of my first times I really felt part of the CHBC fam. I met Leslie (and found we had a mutual friend), and David (and found we had similar heart growth since being at CHBC), and Abigail (mutual Texan and had a mutual friend). It was a really sweet dinner and I'm still benefiting from it!
Dinner at Noah & Lindsey's: This dinner and fellowship was SUPER timely. I was majorly discouraged. When I received Lindsey's reminder, I e-mailed her and just expressed my honest feelings-- that I was struggling with sin and really didn't desire or feel the worth of fellowshipping. She wrote me back an awesome e-mail, encouraging me to come just as I am and that we could go back and do dishes and talk if I needed to have a good cry. That night, I came, we had dinner, and we spent about an hour and a half singing. Everyone who came that night was musical-- so we had all different parts of harmony and a few instruments. It was seriously sweet time. That night opened up my life and their life and now I regularly connect with Lindsey, usually going over after work and just being a part of their life as a family for a few hours.
While Rebekah and I have enjoyed “embracing the parade,” unfortunately it looks as if we are going to be joining the parade in the near future. We are planning to move to Birmingham, AL this fall. The ministry has taken a break the last couple of months, as we seek to transition the management of it to someone else within the church. One thing we’re hoping to do is to build a simple website that will make this much easier to manage going forward. In theory, this would also make it easier for other churches to roll out the same concept. If you’re a tech geek who would like to help with this project, please feel free to contact me.
[Note from Carolyn: Post a comment and I'll forward it to Duncan.]