Chili, Beer & the Church Parking Lot
The following stories are part of Lake Institute’s story collection, The Faithful Generosity Story Shelf, which highlights congregations and other religious organizations who have sought to use their assets and resources in creative—and sometimes surprising—ways as an expression of faithful giving.
Each entry in our Story Shelf is short enough to be read and discussed during a committee meeting or other group gathering. Our hope is that these accessible vignettes will spark new questions, conversation, and imagination among clergy and laity about what might be possible with the funds, buildings, land, and other resources in their care. Learn about Ways to Use the Story Shelf. If you know a story that should be included in the Story Shelf, submit it here.
By Caleb Rollins
How did a church of seventy-five people in the small town of Ada, Michigan, come to organize the largest chili and beer festival in the country? “It’s an outflow of who we are as a church,” says Rev. Dr. Mara Joy Norden, senior minister of The Community Church in Ada. Combining their natural tendency for hospitality and fun with intentional community engagement and some entrepreneurial voices in their congregation, the members of this small church have created an annual event that draws thousands of people each December to their church parking lot. And with each version of the event, the congregation donates all proceeds to the Ronald McDonald House of West Michigan.
The Community Church’s commitment to their neighbors began in 1902, when they were formed as Ada Reformed Church in the center of town. From its earliest days, the congregation would allow patrons of downtown businesses to park their car, or horses, on the church’s property. Yet, as the congregation made the shift into the twenty-first century, their central location alone wasn’t enough to sustain their community engagement. In 2001, the congregation underwent a time of intentional revisioning informed by listening sessions with the community. As a result, the congregation committed to deepening its natural tendency for hospitality in the community, including a new stipulation that the pastor should spend 10 percent of their time on community engagement.
This boost in community involvement aligned with a plan by the city to redevelop the downtown area. The leaders of The Community Church soon found they had a seat at the table for many of the conversations about the future of their neighborhood. One such conversation involved the congregation’s strategically located parking lot that had served the downtown for decades. The church renegotiated their lease with the city, ensuring that patrons could still easily park while visiting downtown and the church could benefit financially without needing to cover maintenance costs. Additionally, The Community Church hosted multiple community events in the parking lot, including the local farmers market.
While the church put into action their commitment to deeper community engagement, they also continued another core part of who they are: gathering to eat, drink, and have fun. In the early years after their revisioning, a few people in the congregation started an annual chili cook-off with beer pairings that was held in someone’s house. After a few years, a member dreamed up the idea of hosting the event in the church parking lot under a big circus tent and inviting the whole community. This first gathering in the parking lot in 2015 has since grown to include dozens of chili contestants, thirty breweries, bands, and more than four thousand visitors.
After the first few years of the official Ada Chili and Beer Festival, The Community Church realized they could leverage the platform of this event for generosity. They found partners for this generosity at the Ronald McDonald House, which provides places to stay and wraparound services for families with children receiving care at local hospitals. With partnerships at this nonprofit and many others in the community, the festival, which started as a way for the congregation members to gather for fun, has transformed into something more. “It has really become a community event. There is a sense that this belongs to Ada and not the church,” reflects Norden.
With this one big idea of their congregation fully embraced by the community, members of The Community Church have now begun dreaming how they might next use their resources to benefit others. As they look toward the future, they hope to continue combining their natural tendencies with intentional practices of generosity and dreaming big. Says Norden, “Even though we are 115 years old, everything we do is a grand experiment.”
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