At Redemption Church in Jacksonville, FL, where I currently serve as pastor, for several years we had a partnership with a local food pantry that supplied groceries to those in need. This organization excelled at efficiently providing quality food. At least 100 families would monthly receive a lot of quality, fresh produce. However, from an eternal perspective, there was little produced. People receiving food stayed in their cars. They were often warmly greeted, but there was very little interaction. The goal was to put groceries into a trunk, not to get to know people or point them to Jesus. When I came on as pastor, one of the things I wanted to do was to redeem the food pantry. I had two goals: evangelism & discipleship.
On evangelism, I desired more human interaction. Initially, I began walking down the line of cars, greeting people and inviting them to our church. In a sad and amusing anecdote, several people didn’t even know that they were driving through a church parking lot until I told them. It didn’t take long before this brief 10s interaction became an opportunity to pray with those who wanted it, and to hand out invite cards. I did this for several months. Many began to seek me out for prayer, or to share praise reports, “Pastor, thank you for praying for my uncle. God healed him.” This was wonderful. However, very few people transitioned from receiving groceries to attending church and hearing the gospel. Moreover, few Redemption Church members participated because the schedule placed the distribution during a weekday, when our partner organization could drop off the fresh food. Then, a crisis occurred. The organization’s leadership changed, and the new leadership took issue with a pastor praying with people coming to receive food. I was dumbfounded. After trying to come to a compromise, the organization abruptly ended the partnership, concluding that a pastor offering to pray with people at a church was unhelpful for their organization. What shocked and disappointed me, though, did not shock or disappoint God.
At Redemption Church the elders met and we concluded that meeting the physical needs of people in our area via providing free groceries was still an excellent way to create an opportunity to verbally share the love of Jesus. However, we aimed to redeem how it was done so that more evangelism and more discipleship occurred. We moved the day to a Saturday, so that more volunteers from the church could participate. We did away with the car line and setup a permanent food pantry inside our church. We began serving a simple pancake & sausage breakfast. We trained volunteers to engage people one-on-one. We recruited local partners to help us supply food. We aggressively trained our volunteers to ask, “How can I pray for you?” and then to meticulously record the prayer requests and post them in a prayer room.
What effects have these changes had on our food pantry? Rather than 30s interactions, we now get about 30 minute interactions. Rather than only me or staff participating, a dozen church members participate. Rather than only giving food, we now give prayer and the gospel. Rather than feeling pressured by an organization not to pray, prayer has become the chief focus. The food pantry is quickly becoming the central outreach ministry of our church, and many have their first interaction with Redemption Church sitting down with pancakes and sausage and having a friendly conversation with a caring Christian. We have seen those who began coming to food pantry join us for Bible study and service, hear the gospel, and begin integrating into Redemption Church.
We still have a lot to learn about running a food pantry. This year, we made the decision to hire a staff member to focus on increasing this ministry, gaining new partners, and using the ministry to do evangelism & discipleship. However, I am so grateful, now, to God for bringing the former partnership to an end so the food pantry could be redeemed. If you would like to donate to the food pantry, you can give online or do a canned food drive and drop off donations at the church, located at 2000 Lane Ave S, Jacksonville, FL 32210. Please pray for us as we continue to make much of Jesus through our redeemed food pantry. For more information, please use this link to contact the church.