Oklahoma Church Makes Excellent Use of Wednesday Nights
by: Stafford North | November 11, 2011
by Rex Walcher, Minister
Henryetta Church of Christ, Henryetta, Oklahoma
I worked for 25 years before I started preaching in a full time capacity. It was always difficult to find time to cook dinner, eat and get to services and, if you waited until after services to eat, it was 10:00 or 10:30 before we were done. With a Wednesday night attendance of 1/3 to 1/2 of Sunday morning, we had tried unsuccessfully for years to encourage more attendance. So, I decided to start cooking on Wednesday nights. My wife wanted to make it pot luck but, to make it easy, I wanted people just to show up and eat. I enlisted some help from the cooking elite at church and we made dinner with no charge, just a donation bucket. I could not believe the response we received. Our Wednesday attendance has become as big as Sunday morning worship.
The next step seemed logical since we were eating on Wednesday. We started picking up the teenagers at school and bringing them to the church building. Since I was picking them up and was also trying to cook, I limited the ones I picked up to kids I knew I could trust, but they wanted to bring friends. This presented a problem of its own; it’s hard to cook and watch kids. So, we hired a former youth group member that was now in college to watch the teens, but that did not prepare us for what happened next. Younger kids started showing up; kids just walked in from off the street. One little girl from across the street, about six years old, just started coming. She had never been in a church building in her life. We had teens upstairs and sixth grade to one month downstairs. I enlisted mothers to help with the young kids and teen girls to help mothers with the nursery.
Within six months of starting this, people from the congregation started volunteering to cook. Our veteran cooks took them under their wing and now we have young couples and friends making dinner for 150 people. I had to learn to cook for that many people (I was a mechanic), so I was glad for the relief. Once they started cooking, I started teaching. At 3:30 I do a Bible study in my office till 4:30. After the study, people visit and drink coffee and tea. They also help set up for dinner and watch the kids. It is exciting to see people get to know and love one another.
Somewhere in the middle of this chaos, I thought why not take food to the shut-ins and those who are home bound for whatever reason. So the ladies started making “go plates” about 5:30 and some of our teens deliver them not only to our shut-ins, but to people in the community that might have been in an accident or have a need. So we started our own version of meals on wheels.
We take donations for the dinners and we struggle to keep the cost as low as possible. Sometimes we go in the red but generally we have a little extra each week. The first year in November I thought let’s do Thanksgiving dinner, so we cooked a huge dinner and people from the whole community came to eat, free of charge. The second year we could not hold the crowd. We had a devotional/praise session before the meal and I kept praying please let there be enough food. We did not have enough tables or chairs, but we had enough food—praise the Lord!!
The dinners have gradually taken on a soup kitchen atmosphere. Many people have started coming that I don’t know at all. Some stay for class, some don’t, but they know who we are. We welcome them all, I tell our congregation, “People don’t care how much you know, till they know how much you care.”
The problems have mostly been due to children. It is real difficult to control such a huge age range of kids. The elders decided to stop picking up middle school kids, and elementary school kids so our youth person could just deal with teenagers. The problem is that people drop off the other kids. I have tried to pay out of my own pocket, a young mother to come and help with the small children. This has not been a success. I pray we find a good solution because these young children that come tug on my heart. Most have never been to church, many come from bad families. They don’t know how to act, so I preach all the time for our members to show love and understanding. Our teachers on Wednesday night are dealing with a new group, kids who have not been raised in the church or in any religious body for that matter. Class sizes have more than doubled; one teacher is not sufficient in most classes. The teen and middle school class has grown from about 10 to sometimes 55—they don’t fit in their room. The plus side to this is the little kids that hug my legs every Wednesday night: they are safe and welcome, their belly’s are full, and I send snacks home with some that I think need it.
I had serious concerns about the sustainability of this program. It is a lot of work from planning meals to cooking to cleaning. It has so far surpassed my expectations. We are going on three years and, so far, it just keeps expanding. We run 150 to 175 on Sunday mornings and we hardly ever drop below 145 on Wednesday night and we have seen 165.
For congregations considering this I would give some advice:
- Find a way to control costs. We went through our food pantry program and became a soup kitchen. This helps us buy large quantities of food cheaper. Find the older cooks in the congregation that know how to feed a lot with a little—it is amazing how they can stretch food. When the young cooks make dinner we almost always go in the hole, but when the old cooks make dinner we almost always have a surplus.
- Consider your kitchen. Most church kitchens are fine for a once a month pot luck, but when you actually start cooking that much food you need to start thinking industrial. I went to auctions and have gradually upgraded our equipment to restaurant grade. Big ovens, big mixers, even an industrial potato peeler have been added; along with warmers and steamer tables, we still need big stoves.
- How are your facilities? We had the blessing of a practically new building with a large kitchen and fellowship room. Do you have room for kids to run and people to eat? We even had to buy more tables and chairs.
- How is your help? This is a big ministry and if you are going to sustain it, you will need good help, and lots of it. Not just cooks, but people to set up and clean, people to buy supplies, teachers to help with classes, people to watch kids. Think long term or you will not sustain this program.
- Consider hidden costs. In our situation the church pays for everything but the food. There is a substantial expense in utilities, paper goods, plastic utensils, cleaning supplies etc. that needs to be considered. The church has also paid for all the equipment upgrades. Extra youth help and increased janitorial expenses may also be a factor.
The summary is this. We are a better congregation for this program. We are closer; we have more of a sense of community in our membership. We are proactive in a ministry that fills a need in our society, and in our congregation. Wednesday nights are wonderful chaos!!
This is a great story of a congregation that found a way to start a program and to help it grow. The members have been given a way to grow and a way to work together. And the potential is great for using this plan to help make positive contacts with the community for developing prospects for teaching.
For more information, contact Rex Walcher at email@example.com.