By Kay DeMoss, Special Contributor…
LANSING, Mich.—You know you’re in a non-traditional worship setting when you overhear the words, “Do you want fries with that?”
Chances are, it’s Monday night and you’re at Grumpy’s Diner, a new community of faith birthed out of Sycamore Creek United Methodist Church in Lansing. The church’s website makes it clear: “One church in multiple locations.”
The Rev. Tom Arthur, Sycamore Creek’s pastor, shares the dream.
“Our big vision is to have seven satellites in seven venues on seven days,” he said. So Sycamore Creek is currently two for seven.
On Sunday, church meets in a school. Monday church gathers at Grumpy’s.
“We don’t have any timeline,” Mr. Arthur says. “The point is, getting together to learn with other Christians has got to become more convenient and accessible. Sunday morning in today’s world is no longer reserved for church.”
Mr. Arthur explains that Grumpy’s Diner emerged out of a mixture of encounters and experiences. First there was a visit to Church of the Resurrection, which now has three satellite sites in addition to the home campus in Leawood, Kan. Then, Mr. Arthur attended Church Planting 101 led by Dirk Elliott, director of new faith communities and congregational development for the Detroit Conference.
He gained inspiration from John Ball, pastor at Brighton UMC, who was also at the workshop.
“John is planting a church in a pub sort of setting,” Mr. Arthur says.
Finally, stir in a conversation with a college student at Michigan State. “I knew he couldn’t make it to church on Sunday morning and he gave me some times that would work,” Mr. Arthur recalls.
Another significant ingredient in the mix was time spent with Scott Chrostek. Scott joined Church of the Resurrection’s staff in 2009 and now serves as the campus pastor for Resurrection Downtown. Before moving to Kansas, Mr. Chrostek was an associate pastor at Brighton UMC, working with young adults building bridges into the city of Detroit through mission and service.
“While talking to Scott it became clear to me,” Mr. Arthur explains, “that I was spending all of my time in the office doing leadership development while Scott was spending all of his time out of the office building relationships.”
That had a significant impact on Mr. Arthur’s ministry style. “I started doing most of my work in libraries and coffee shops.” That’s when the vision started to gel.
Mr. Arthur and a team member went on the road looking for a new worship venue.
“We could do it here. . . . How about that bowling alley. . . . There’s a pizza shop.”
When they drove by Grumpy’s Diner, they noticed the restaurant closed at 7 p.m. Could they ever convince the owner to stay open one night a week past seven?
“I presented this crazy idea,” Mr. Arthur says, “and asked if he was willing to try it for free. Within about 20 seconds Bill was on board.”
In fact, Bill represents the very audience the Sycamore Creek team wants to reach—when many people are in church on Sunday morning, Bill is running his diner.
Next, several previews were hosted at Grumpy’s, and on Oct. 8 the weekly gatherings were launched.
“We tried not to give ourselves a bunch more work,” Mr. Arthur remarks. They offer the same music as Sunday morning and the same message but, “the feel of the experience is very different.”
Diner expectations prevail when a guest walks in. A host seats them according to preference; alone or paired with someone else. Food is ordered (or not). First-time attenders receive a connection card. A $5 Grumpy’s gift card will be sent to them if they turn it in when they leave. Around 7 p.m. the worship leader announces, “Hey, just do what you do in a diner. And sing along with me if you want, or just sit and listen.”
“Images of Sunday morning break apart,” Mr. Arthur says as the evening moves along. After some singing he introduces himself and invites people to search him out later with questions. A projector and screen are there to carry the same message he shared the day before.
“The difference between Sunday and Monday is that Monday nights are very interactive,” Mr. Arthur notes. “Because it’s so informal, people talk to me as I talk. It feels more like small group and worship smashed together.”
While worship in a diner might seem entirely postmodern, Mr. Arthur sees it as a return to our Wesleyan roots.
“It’s like an old school Methodist Society,” he says. “And I’m an old world Methodist circuit rider, with one stop in a diner and another stop in a school.” There is some crossover between congregations. Fifteen regular attenders of Sycamore Creek’s Sunday worship agreed to be “critical mass missionaries,” having made a three-month commitment to attend both services.
“It would have been easy,” Mr. Arthur says, “to come back from Kansas with Post Traumatic Conference Syndrome. There are a million steps between Sycamore Creek and Church of the Resurrection.”
Since there are no costs involved in using the diner as a venue, it’s a win-win for both the church and the diner, which gains new customers. And the worship experience has been streamlined and duplicated to not require additional staff or prep time.
“I think this model is very replicable for other churches,” Mr. Arthur says. “I’d love to see such programs popping up all over the conference.”
Sycamore Creek did receive a grant from the West Michigan New Church Team, which purchased the equipment for the diner setting and provided dollars for marketing.
Church leaders have used billboards, door hangers and a TV spot to promote Grumpy’s Diner.
“But we’ve learned,” Mr. Arthur says, “that advertising doesn’t bring people in by itself. It only creates an environment and energizes your church to be more invitational.”
He estimates that 95 percent of the people who have come through Grumpy’s doors have done so because someone invited them. “Ads are helpful but you can’t advertise and have people magically show up,” he says.
To learn more about “church in a diner,” visit www.sycamorecreekchurch.org/p/index.php/ministries/church-in-a-diner.
Ms. DeMoss is weekly news senior writer for the West Michigan Conference.