The White Trash Cafe Secret for Church Growth

The White Trash Café was one of the most colorful restaurants in Nashville. I went because someone invited me. A pastor from a church not far from there, but not too near either, invited me along with the rest of our minister’s group. The inside was almost as flamboyant as the out as the wallpaper was a mishmash of old album covers ranging from Andre Crouch to the Rolling Stones. Our server looked like he’d just come from living off the street and so did the owner.

We must have given ourselves away as a group of ministers. It was either our professional attire, our praying before the meal, or our over use of profanity during it that signaled we were clergy. You get a group of ministers together, confident that none of our congregants are around, and we can throw around more bad language than late-night HBO special just to prove that we can.

“How was your food?” the owner of the restaurant asked us.

“Good,” we all agreed. It was, though secretly I was hoping I would be able to say the same again in a couple of hours. It was the greasy food I love to have but that often has me for the rest of the day.

“How would you like to see Jesus?” he asked.

We didn’t know what to say. I wanted to explain to him that we were ministers, employed by churches, paid by congregations, so there was no way we wanted to actually see Jesus. We had master’s degrees in Christianity, were taught by professors and thought of ourselves as being like professors, tenured. We considered ourselves to be like Jesus’ disciples, though not Peter for he tried to walk on water. We thought of ourselves as similar to the other eleven, who, while Peter tried to walk on water, watched, and then when everyone was safe back in the boat, Peter and Jesus included, those disciples professed how amazing Jesus they was and that he surely must be the Son of God. As Professional Christians, we were more than happy to talk about Jesus, from a distance, but we had studied enough about Jesus to know just how dangerous Jesus could be. We were fine with seeing Jesus, but anytime you saw Jesus, whether in the Bible or 2,000 years since, there is a high likelihood that Jesus might see you. Once Jesus sees you, and says, “Follow me,” then life as you know it, as you worked for it, is probably over. Better to watch from a distance, stay in the boat, and if you can’t work it out, get paid for it. That’s our unspoken contract with our congregations. Keep church to an hour, go over an hour and Jesus might find you. So, get in. Pray. Get out, with a blessing. See Jesus? Sure. Can we get a guarantee he won’t see us?

Neither wanting to be like Peter trying to walk on water or denying him when confronted, we followed our restaurateur guide across the dining toward the restrooms and beyond toward the janitor’s closet. Before our host showed us Jesus, he held up a picture of Christ on the cross and asked us to look at it. We did. Then he slowly pulled it away like a curtain on The Price is Right, revealing what we’d won. There he was, above the mop bucket and mop, in the window. Just like the picture. Jesus on the cross.


Now, whether or not you see Jesus in that bit of algae between two sheets of Plexiglass is up to you. Going to the restaurant two or three times and looking at a picture of a painting of the crucifixion right before you look at it does seem to aid nonbelievers in seeing the light, or seeing Jesus through the light. Whether or not this is an act of God, consequence of nature, or both, again, I leave up to you. What I have observed in my life is that too often I suffer from not seeing Jesus in the usual places than from seeing him in the unusual ones which leads me to the answer for the most popular question asked by churches and ministers, “How do we grow?” or, said another way, “How do we get people to come?”

The answer is in what I’m calling, The Parable of The White Trash Café. I went to the White Trash Café because someone invited me. Colorful though it was, I would have never gone in unless someone invited me, albeit it, dared me to go. Without that connection, I would have never gone. The second lesson of The Parable of The White Trash Café is this, I saw Jesus in the window because somebody showed him to me. It’s not a very complicated parable or a complicated solution to a painful problem throughout congregations across the country.

As churches, if you want to grow, follow the lesson of The White Trash Café. If you want to grow:

  1. Invite others.
  2. Show them Jesus.

Will you grow if you invite others to come and show them Jesus? Likely not. Jesus’ way in the Gospels is not magic but miraculous. Jesus’ way in the world also had him living in relative poverty and got him killed. If that’s what happened to Jesus, why do we think showing people Jesus will pay off our personal or congregational mortgages? Inviting others and showing them Jesus may or may not ease our congregational woes or even provide our pastoral pensions, but if we don’t do those two things, then likely we stopped being churches a long time ago. It’s not magical, it may or not be miraculous, and it may even at times be less interesting that algae between two window panes, regardless, it has and will always be, our calling. Invite others. Show them Jesus.

Sad to say, The White Trash Café closed, so, I guess it is up to the churches now. God help us.