Kevin Harney describes how his church transformed their successful food pantry ministry to attend to spiritual as well as physical needs. Volunteers are offering conversation, prayer, and Bibles to the many people who have come for help during the pandemic period.
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 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. Years ago, we decided that we needed to identify the outreach “intensity” of every ministry we do that we claim is evangelistic.
What we realized was that, before the pandemic hit, our food pantry gave a lot of food and 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. 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.
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 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 to open doors for a deeper relationship, the food pantry team also provides 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.
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).
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. God 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.
In this time of challenge and need, do all you can to innovate and increase the outreach potential of everything you do.
This material is adapted from an article that appeared in Outreach. Used by permission. Kevin Harvey and his church have developed a simple scale to identify the outreach intensity of every ministry a church claims is evangelistic. This scale is found in his Organic Outreach books. Organic Outreach International has developed tools to help with the kind of training described in this article.
- A Spiritually Inviting Food Pantry by Sue Nilson Kibbey
- Your Best Outreach Programs are Already in Place. You Just Don’t Know It by Kevin G. Harney
- 7 Simple Mind Shifts that Unlock Outreach Potential by Kevin G. Harney