As a religion reporter, my hope in the local church sometimes feels hopeless.
We seem to have drifted so far away from the description of the early church found in Acts 2:42-47. There, we are told “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers,” they “held all things in common,” and they “ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.”
Every time I read that passage, I find myself hoping that as the church, one day we will get there.
One of the places I catch glimpses of this hope is at Waffle House.
Now, before you walk away from this article, just think about it for a minute. Waffle House is America’s rest stop location. Although located primarily in the South, this chain remains one of the rare establishments in America that never closes, and it’s a place you always know what to expect when you walk in the door.
Recently, I had the privilege of interviewing and sharing a meal with the former CEO of Waffle House, Bert Thorton, who grew the restaurant from a handful of locations to almost 2,000 locations when he retired.
As soon as I walked in, having never met Bert before, I knew it was him even before he called out my name. That’s what I love about Waffle House — you always feel welcomed and you know what to expect.
The American church needs the same characteristics. We need to be welcoming and friendly, no matter who shows up. But to be honest, in many of our churches, not everyone is welcomed.
Bert explained that not only is everyone accepted at Waffle House, but the diner intentionally hires people who may not be able to be hired elsewhere. “We take people from where they are and give them a chance to rise up within the company,” he said.
Far too often in the American church, we want people to come as they are and if they can come perfect, better yet.
“Far too often in the American church, we want people to come as they are and if they can come perfect, better yet.”
Bert also laid out another secret of his company’s success: “The people working at Waffle House usually have a sense of humor and like having fun together.” If you’ve been to any Waffle House, you’ve noticed there is never a dull moment from the people behind the counter. I’m actually writing this article at my local Waffle House, and the noise and excitement is such that I wish I could package it up and take it to every church. These people like each other, and they seem to allow anyone to join in on the party, including a reporter like me.
The Apostle Luke gives us a glimpse of people in the book of Acts who also loved being around each other: “They broke bread together.” Let’s face it, you don’t eat with people you don’t like.
As Bert and I were talking, he asked one of the workers to bring out a package of the famous “Bert’s Chili Mix.” Yes, Bert is the creator of the famous Bert’s Chili. As he was explaining the concept and love affair Americans have with this product, it hit me that Bert was given the freedom to create during his time at Waffle House. “Before we sold the now famous chili, I tried it out at three Dallas restaurants first,” he said.
If the American church is going to thrive, we must give people the freedom to create and dream of new ministries the church never thought could exist. When we equip people with the freedom to do new things, amazing things begin to happen.
The same weekend I visited with Bert, I had the privilege of speaking at Towne View Baptist Church in Kennesaw, Ga. Towne View recently was kicked out of the Southern Baptist Convention for welcoming into its fellowship members of the LGBTQ community.
I have to be honest: My theology is pretty conservative, so when the pastor invited me to speak, I honestly didn’t know what to think. I knew I would go because Jesus would go anywhere to spread the gospel and that’s who I follow.
During my time at Towne View, I was introduced to a transgender member of the church. This was the first time for me to meet a transgender person. What I experienced in this congregation was refreshing. Here, gay, straight, liberal and conservative sat in the same room, and even after the service fellowshipped and ate together as the church celebrated its anniversary.
I wonder what life would be like if more local churches were like Towne View and embraced the same mission that Waffle House has for its establishment — to be the kind of place where everyone is welcome no matter their background and no matter whether they agree with one another.
That would allow us to break bread (or waffles) together “with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.”
Maina Mwaura is a freelance writer and communications consultant who lives in the metro Atlanta area. A native of Orlando, Fla., he earned a bachelor of science degree in communications from Liberty University and a master of divinity degree from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
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