Reaching out to the neighborhood transformed Wednesday night ministry at Ross Reformed Church in Gary, Indiana.

[Photo by Shawn Gerbers]

On Wednesday nights, Ross Reformed Church in Gary, Indiana, brims with people from both the community and the church. They come to share a free meal, study the Bible, and enjoy fellowship.

But Wednesday nights at Ross Reformed used to be a different story. The crowd was small and mostly made up of church members. There was still a meal, but it wasn’t free.

“We had a little kids program, an adult Bible study, and choir practice [on Wednesdays]. The meal was more to give people who had stuff to do on Wednesday a meal, so they didn’t have to worry about that,” says Shawn Gerbers, pastor of Ross Reformed.

Things began to change when a few kids from the church neighborhood started showing up on Wednesday nights. The church wanted to welcome these kids. But the kids couldn’t pay for the meal, so Ross Reformed started offering the hot meal for free on Wednesdays.

Within a month, 80 to 100 people were coming for the meal. Only 40 of them were church members.

“It’s just amazing,” says Ardy Best, who directs the children’s Bible program. “We opened the doors and didn’t know what to expect, but we were there if people came. And they did come.”

The children’s programs, which serve kids from preschool to eighth grade, have drawn particularly large numbers from the community.

“We only had eight kids when we started, and they were all church kids,” says Best. “This last Wednesday, we had 51 kids. It’s growing every year.”

About 20 kids attend the middle school AWANA program; just two are from Ross Reformed.

“We’ve seen a lot of kids who don’t have a church coming and finding one here, even if it’s just on Wednesdays,” Gerbers says.

“They have a lot of distractions and outside forces working against them, but [they] still come,” says Keith Best, who leads the middle school program. “Some even walk to the church after school and hang out in our picnic shelter [until] the Wednesday night meal and program starts.”

The community meal has also brought people to Sunday worship services.

“When we started this, we thought it was just going to meet a basic need. I have to be honest; I didn’t think anybody would come to worship,” Gerbers admits. “But since we started the community meal, we’ve had ten people who now regularly attend worship that came to us through our community meal.”

Gerbers believes that sharing the gospel with these community members has been good for longtime church members too.

“Some of the questions [new members] have been asking are, ‘Who is Jesus?’ ‘Why do you believe this?’ ‘What does it mean that you believe this?’” Gerbers says. “Answering those questions has forced us to really think about what we believe, and as we answer those questions for others, to also answer them for ourselves.”

Keith has also seen spiritual growth in the congregation through the midweek program: “We have always been a warm and loving church, but it seemed mostly limited to those who were already in our doors. I think now we have widened our arms even more to be more welcoming to our community and the community’s needs.”