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They Thought They Had Failed

It seemed to Isaac and Jaime Olivarez that their church plant was failing, but then God revealed His success.
For two years, U.S. missionaries Isaac and Jaime Olivarez worked intensely on growing their new church plant, Urban Outreach Denver. On their initial launch Sunday, they saw 97 people attend . . . attendance after that encouraging start rarely hit 50. It seemed no matter what they did, coming to UO Denver on Sundays was not a priority for local residents.

The Olivarezes felt called to inner-city ministry and were approved as U.S. missionaries with Missionary Church Planters and Developers to the neighborhood of Five Points in Denver — an area that drug dealers, prostitutes, and gang members call home.

But when the couple surveyed their small congregation, it was worse than they thought.

“It’s not that we didn’t have people coming on Sundays,” Jaime observes. “But all the people coming were from outside of the people group we were trying to reach — we were basically preaching to our volunteers.”

“I felt like a failure,” Isaac admits.

But then God gave the couple a revelation. What is church? A gathering of believers and unbelievers who are ministered to through the Word of God and (hopefully) personal interaction. It was as if a light suddenly came on.

Since May 2013, Isaac and Jaime have hosted Thursday night meals for local residents, which include drug users and dealers, prostitutes, alcoholics, the homeless, and even some gang members. At those meals, Isaac presents a brief gospel message and during the meal, the message is the topic of table discussion.

“It’s a relaxed evening as we always make more than enough food, so people are in no hurry to eat,” Isaac explains. “We begin with the meal, and then following the message we offer seconds and sometimes even thirds as they sit around the tables and discuss the Bible message for the evening.”

What both Isaac and Jaime have learned is that sometimes stepping back is more effective than stepping up. Instead of Isaac always having to lead discussions, each of the nicely decorated and tableclothed “Jesus tables” are permitted to have their own discussions, often with a volunteer leader helping to guide the topic or answer questions. In this way, the Holy Spirit uses others’ giftings and can inspire them to do more, rather than being limited by the Olivarezes’ availability.

The couple also admits that they have had to “unlearn” their preconceived and formed ideas of what church is and should be and even how they defined “success.” In fact, Sunday isn’t even a part of their church’s equation any longer — Thursday and, more recently added, Monday evenings are their times to gather together — having ended Sunday services about two years ago.

“Dinner church is not a homeless feed, an outreach ministry, or even a church planting model — it’s a theology of doing church,” Isaac says. “When you look at Acts and the gospels, Jesus loved to share meals with people as He shared His message. I believe that with the Great Commission the disciples understood it also meant shared meals. In dinner church, it’s not ‘us serving them.’ No, what we’re doing is having a meal together.” On May 24, UO Denver will mark its fifth anniversary of Thursday evening meals – 263 and counting!

Although Isaac is the lead pastor, Jaime is gifted in organizing and vital to the continued success of UO Denver. In addition to assisting with the dinner church meals, during the summer Jaime leads a month-long daily camp for local children, with a two-fold agenda: meeting kids’ spiritual needs by introducing them to Christ and meeting their physical needs by providing breakfast and lunch.

“Many of the children in the neighborhood rely on school for what nutrition they get,” Jaime explains. “So, when school lets out, kids often go hungry.”

Over the summer, the Olivarezes have help with their kids camp as they host youth groups from around the country who want to be a part of the ministry. From this camp, and at about the same time the Sunday services ended, Monday evening dinners for kids, which Jaime prepares, evolved.

What Isaac and Jaime have found surprising is that the kids coming to the Monday evening dinners are typically not the kids of the people coming to dinner church on Thursdays — it’s almost like a separate second church.

“We keep things low-key and organic on Mondays and Thursday’s dinner church,” Isaac says. “If a conversation isn’t completed or wasn’t held during dinner, we simply follow-up on the street or in the park . . . instead of people signing up and coming to classes, we find a lot of our ministry takes place outside of the church walls.”

One of the biggest hurdles for the couple to overcome when they first arrived in Denver was their apprehension — having had few to no conversations with drug addicts, prostitutes, gang members, or alcoholics, much less ongoing relationships — they had to intentionally become more dependent upon the Holy Spirit to speak through them, open doors, and see miracles in the radical situations they faced on a daily basis.

Darlene Robinson, senior director of U.S. Missions Missionary Church Planters and Developers, visited dinner church. Being familiar with inner-city ministries and churches, there is a typical pattern of ministry that most follow. She soon discovered, dinner church was not typical.

“When I saw the line of Five Points residents waiting to get into the building, I thought I knew what to expect,” she recalls. “But all the stereotypes fell apart when the dinner started in the packed space. First, the food (good food) came first. Second, everyone ate together. Third, when Isaac stood up to share the Bible message, everyone was immediately listening. Fourth, the sharing at the tables was mutually respectful, genuinely interactive, and easily moved to spiritual matters. It looked like discipleship to me.”

The Olivarezes’ dinner church has also caught national attention as they were invited to be a part of The Fresh Expressions National Gathering held in Washington, D.C., earlier this year. The event brought multiple denominations together to focus on new and creative ways to do church. While there, Isaac and Jaime were able to share about dinner church and were a part of panel discussions on reaching marginalized populations and why dinner church theology is so effective.

Although Isaac and Jaime are witnessing change for Christ through dinner church and “conversation ministry” in the lives of Five Points residents, they admit, the experience has also changed them.

For Jaime, she says ministering in the neighborhood has made her more dependent on God as well as made her both accountable and responsible for her faith. “Bible reading, worship, and my prayer life have all increased,” she says.

“It has completely reinvigorated and revolutionized my faith,” Isaac says. “And I’ve come to learn that the gospel doesn’t just survive in inner-city projects, it thrives. It takes on another dimension. Really, our Christian bubble was shattered five years ago when we came here.”

And for both Isaac and Jaime, they wouldn’t have it any other way.

Dan Van Veen

Dan Van Veen is news editor of AG News. Prior to transitioning to AG News in 2001, Van Veen served as managing editor of AG U.S. Missions American Horizon magazine for five years. He attends Central Assembly of God in Springfield, Missouri, where he and his wife, Lori, teach preschool Sunday School and 4- and 5-year-old Rainbows boys and girls on Wednesdays.