For eight years, newcomers to The Waters church in Sartell, Minnesota, have connected with Lead Pastor Doug Vagle over pork and cheesy hash browns casserole.
The dinner, known as The Entry, is held one Wednesday a month at Vagle's home. Open to all new attendees, the time of fellowship allows people to meet Vagle's family, the pastoral staff, and some of the elders.
It's a practice Vagle began when the newly planted church had just a dozen attendees, and one he continues today as attendance approaches 1,000.
"We made that commitment that I don't care how big the church gets, we never want to lose that connection," Vagle says. "My heart is that no one would feel like they didn't get an opportunity to connect with us."
Vagle and his wife Peggy started The Waters after spending a decade as youth pastors in Brainerd, Minnesota. Feeling the call to plant a church, they and their three children were drawn to Sartell, a central Minnesota city of about 16,000, because of the small community feel and number of young families.
As more people began walking through the doors on Sunday mornings, the Vagles made it a point to invite newcomers to dinner during the week. Eventually, Vagle says, it became too much to coordinate into his schedule, so he began marking off one night a month to invite everyone.
Vagle says the dinner began with about eight people and now averages 30. He also says in eight years, the menu -- pork roast or pulled pork, cheesy hash browns casserole, salad and dessert -- hasn't changed.
"That's kind of been the joke," Vagle says. "I've served pork every meal for eight years."
Something else that hasn't changed, Vagle says, is that building relationships continues to be in the core of ministry focus.
"It connects the church in a way that it keeps relationships in our DNA," Vagle says. "I really fight hard to keep a small-church feel."
This emphasis on relationships played a major role in convincing newcomers Marcus and April Paden that The Waters was the place for them.
The Padens and their infant daughter Caitlin moved to nearby St. Cloud about three years ago and first attended the church last year. April says when the family came to The Entry about two months ago, Vagle's genuine desire to connect stood out.
"It was really a neat thing to feel so welcomed," April says. "You can get lost in a church, and so this smaller community dinner was just kind of a way to be more personal with people, and also meet the new people that were also coming into the church and hear the background, their stories."
Angie Henry, who began attending the church about a year ago and attended an Entry dinner over the summer, says the experience not only helped her get to know the pastoral staff, but also to connect with others in the church.
"I didn't know anyone, really, from just going to church because it's weird when you are new to a church and don't know anyone," Henry says. "But when I got there, it was nice to meet new people. And when I go to church now, I know people."
Over the past eight years, Vagle says more than 2,200 people from the church have come over for dinner. Crowds range from a high of 48 people to a low of one family.
"The Lord sends the right people on the right night," Vagle says. "We've had a few nights where those were some smaller nights, and those were some of the most significant nights to me because you get to hang out with somebody on a totally different level."