God thinks food is a good thing. So does Ronnie Martin. Each week, after Sunday services, Ronnie invites those present to a feast, something he’s been doing since the day he planted Substance Church. According to Ronnie, the Sunday feast at Substance isn’t anything extravagant, but it does represent something bigger than itself. It serves as a window into a new world, a new kingdom. The meal is a tangible occasion for welcoming one another in hospitality, extending generous grace, and fostering true community.
This intrigued me, so I asked Ronnie to explain a bit about why he’s woven this practice into the rhythm of Substance. This is that conversation.
Casey Smith: I like the feast idea. I really like it. Could you go ahead and just share a bit about what it is and why you got started doing that?
Ronnie Martin: I think in the beginning the idea was, "How can we be together as much as possible?" We didn't want to turn into a “Sunday gathering only” church. We wanted to say, "What are some unique ways that we can approach planting?" and having it be like this family model where we're all together, not in a weird way, but where we do the things that people like to do do, which is eat.
So from the very beginning we decided, "Hey, let's eat as much as possible." I don't know how you get to know somebody better than when you eat with them. So from day one, when we started our core group gatherings, we'd just meet together all the time and eat. We got this idea to extend it when we started doing Sunday gatherings. We said, "Hey, what we want to do every Sunday is we want to have our regular service and then following the service, we just want to eat together. We want to make that sort of a tradition right from the outset."
My wife had gone to her sister-in-law's church one time, it was a small church, and they had this model. She was absolutely blown away by it because she had never been a part of anything like that. I hadn't either. So we basically stole it from those guys. We adopted their model and made some tweaks to it. Really, the question that drove it was we wanted to make Substance a place that was really hard not to be known in. You’d have to try to not be known.
One of the ways that we thought would be a good way to do that is to not just do the typical Sunday gathering and then everybody just jets out as fast as possible. So we just built that into being part of the service. Really, all that happens is we complete the service and then we all gather together in what we call our café. There's really nothing original or super artistic about it. We have a team that does all the shopping, does all the preparation, and provides a meal for us all to hang around and relax and eat together.
It's really had a dramatic effect on the ways in which we've gotten to know each other. It's been interesting to see how people have been able to invite others into church, knowing that this is what they're going to be stepping into, in other words, just to create the most hospitable environment possible. I think part of the philosophy behind that was that nobody gets offended by hospitality.
We're a pretty conservative church in the town that we planted in. We're probably the most conservative church in the town theologically, in terms of our ecclesiology and all of those things. So they're going to come in and they're going to hear this very robust gospel. There's probably, on occasion, going to be push back and we expect that. But nobody ever is going to have push back against hospitality. Kindness always wins in the end. Food, togetherness, all of those types of things, to us, are things that bind and they tie, they knit together.
So this idea of feasting that's really all it was. It was really very simple. What's a way for us to stay together and to cultivate an environment that truly is like a family atmosphere? That was kind of the big idea behind it.
CS: That's really great. It seems so simple that I’m left wondering why more don’t do something similar. When you guys started “The Feast,” can you give me an idea of what it was like? I'm just curious of how many people you were feeding then? How many people do you feed now on a regular basis?
RM: Yeah, that's a good question. When we launched, we had a total of 30 to 40 people and we were meeting at this tiny church that let us use their space up the road. They would let us meet at about 10:00am. They were a different kind of thing. They met at noon, so we had from about 10 to 11:30 to meet. We'd have our Sunday morning service and then we would all drive from there to our house. We would hang out at our place and we would just all eat, have a big brunch together. So in the beginning, it was feeding about 30 to 50 people on any given Sunday as it was growing.
Again, that was something we did on the very first Sunday. We had already been doing it as a core gathering, but that was something we literally began our very first week. When we finally got our own space a few months later, we just connected it at the space we were gathering at. It just continued to grow. One of the things we didn't want was for it to be a potluck. We wanted there to be some quality control over what it is that we were doing. We wanted it to be provided by the church. We didn't want it to be something that was going to burden anybody. In other words, people can bring friends. They can bring neighbors. They can come in and they can relax after the service and not have to feel like "I have to be up late on Saturday night preparing something."
We also wanted to have quality control. We didn't want it to become church potluck style, so that everything could be of a particular quality that we designated. We set up teams, café teams, to start cycling through service rotations. These are people that do the shopping for it during the week and then do all the set-up and tear down on Sunday.
We have two congregations now and we do it at both congregations. We're averaging somewhere between 250 to 300 for both congregations. That's in theory how many people we're feeding. Although not everybody sticks around for the café and not all the same people stick around every week. But we have, I would say, probably 70% of everybody in the gathering staying over for the feast. It's still a pretty good number of people. We're easily feeding a couple hundred people every week.
CS: That's really cool. You said nobody complains about hospitality, but surely there's people that want to know how much this is costing? Those sorts of voices that come in and say "Isn’t feasting every week overly extravagant?" You know what I'm saying?
RM: Right, yeah. It's weird, we have not got any push back against it since we've begun. There's been no audible push back. But we've kept the budget low. We have a deacon that's in charge of this and she's our deacon of hospitality. We sort of lay out parameters of a budget, what she can buy, what she shouldn't buy. We keep it within a particular set of guidelines. We're not frying up eggs. We're not making omelets. We're not doing short order. It's not a diner. It's not that extravagant really. It really is just a nice brunch. It's all items that can be bought ahead of time and can be put in a fridge. We just kept it really measured so that it doesn't look like anything extravagant, but it's also nice at the same time.
We haven't really received any push back. We've increased the budget for it every year because our people have increased. We sit down and it is one of the most valuable things we do. There's a joy in increasing the budget for it because it just indicates to us that more people are taking part in it, that God's growing the church. It's been a great way, especially for newcomers that come in, to be kind. Unfortunately, for some reason, people aren't very friendly at churches and this just completely opens the door to all of that.
Imagine, you come in late because you're scared and it's your first time. You grab a seat in the back. Then you've got me in the front at the end of the sermon saying, "By the way, we have a café after. You’ve got to join us. Sit down with me. There's gonna be food dripping out of my mouth and we're going to talk to each other. We're going to have a good time. We're going to get to know each other. So all the guards are down. Just sit down with me. Everything's free. You've got your family here, so just dig in, eat to your heart's content."
There's something so freeing and generous about that. I think a lot of people that are tentative when they first come into a new church experience, this just completely lowers the guard. It's made it to where we get to know people far quicker than I think we would otherwise, just seeing them, maybe do that pop in and pop out. Maybe they finally join a community group and you just sort of get to know them very slowly. We still have people that do that to be quite honest with you. Not everybody takes part in it. But this has definitely made it so that there's an opportunity there to really really get somebody in a lot and make them comfortable a lot more quickly.
CS: My imagination is going crazy on this idea. I love it. As you're talking about it, and this is kind of embarrassing to me, it just seems like a no-brainer now, whereas before something like that just didn't even cross my mind. What would you say to those for whom this is not their normal rhythm, but they're thinking this is a great idea? How might they go about doing something similar?
RM: Great question. I actually have guys that follow me on social media asking me this. This pops up quite a bit these days. Here's the thing. It really isn't rocket science. Again, we did it when we barely any budget. It's something that I think is palatable. It definitely takes work. You definitely need to have some structure behind it. It would be great if you could develop even three or four teams so that somebody is not doing it constantly because it can become a little wearing. There is some organizational structure that I think needs to come behind it, but once you get into the rhythm of it and the groove of it, it's as natural as everything else we do as part of a church.
I would just say don't let it become something too big in your eyes for you to dive into. You can set a very low bar for it in the beginning, just create the opportunity. Again, we're not talking about a box of donuts on a table in the corner next to coffee. We are talking about a formal gathering time afterwards that you are encouraging everybody to stick around to and be a part of. I think it's really as simple as that. We always do the things we want to do. I think it would be really a good thing, especially as a brand new church plant, to institute. I really don't know of anything better or more natural.
We can do a lot of hospitable things, but some of them come off being a little unnatural. Many of them come off as being very awkward. We kind of give up the ghost when we do those things because of a high level of awkwardness attached to them. But the difference with the feast is this: if we already have the people all there, how do we (naturally) extend this out to make it so that there is a way for us to tangibly connect on a fellowship level that will extend beyond our time on Sunday? I would encourage anybody just give it a shot, give it a go, give it a risk, grab some budget dollars and try to find a good rhythm. I think you'll see it reap dividend.
We certainly have.
CS: What sorts of feedback to you get from your folks?
RM: These are the kind of things we hear at the church and this is not to sound all “face braggy” right now. But some of the comments that we get sound like this:
"We've never been to a church that's done this. We love it.”
“This is the thing that kept us coming back before we got totally immersed in the church.”
“This is the friendliest place that we've ever been to. We've hopped around 15 different churches."
That's the kind of feedback that we've consistently received. It just opens up the door to being kind and to being friendly. For us, we’ve never found a better way to build friendships than this. There might be, but this is what we found.
CS: Man, that is dynamite. I'm really encouraged. Makes me want to go practice some hospitality.
CS: Makes me hungry.
RM: Yeah, I know. I'm hungry thinking about it. I don't know why.
CS: Thanks for your time, Ronnie.
RM: Anytime. Always a pleasure, bro.
All photos by Black and White Photography.