When the Rev. Ian Martin arrived at St. Matthew, Oshawa two years ago, he noticed something was missing. Beyond a few social groups and an annual bazaar, the church didn’t have much opportunity to meet its neighbours. “Literally, we didn’t even know the people across the street,” he says. “I really did just start praying. It was a constant prayer every day.”
He began to dream of using the church’s hall and kitchen to bring people together over a meal, an idea that came to life when he mentioned it off-hand to a young woman in the parish who happened to be a professional chef. “To my surprise, she said ‘Okay, let’s do this.’ I had to do a double take,” he says.
One of the first challenges was getting the church community on board at the same time as it was struggling to pay the bills. “There wasn’t any money to do it, but I felt basically convicted that we had to do something,” he says. “A good section of the church said, ‘Let’s try it, we have nothing to lose.’”
Family Fridays launched in September 2015, and from the start, Mr. Martin insisted on weekly meals. “To develop a relationship, you kind of have to see someone all the time,” he says. “We had to get into the regular rhythm in the people we want to talk with.”
Guests sit 10 to a table and serve each other family-style. Themes have included a fondue night, English high tea, and a medieval night to celebrate the Reign of Christ. There’s always an activity for kids, such as dodge ball, lip sync battles, paper airplane contests, or human versions of Battleship and Hungry Hungry Hippos. “We set half of the hall aside for the kids to run and make as much noise as they can,” says Mr. Martin. “The parents get to sit around and talk with other parents, which they’re all starved for.”
While not an official part of the program, conversations often turn to faith. “It just kind of came out organically,” he says. “The newcomers are the ones that asked the questions, and we found ourselves having answered those questions.”
In its first year, Family Fridays grew to 60 people, two-thirds of whom were members of St. Matthew’s, something that surprised Mr. Martin. “They started to actually form deeper relationships, more loving relationships, across the table,” he says.
After running Family Fridays for three months, the church applied for a Reach Grant from the diocese and later a two-year Stretch Grant, part of which was set aside to hire an events coordinator. The ministry was also restructured as a winter-to-spring program with a new caterer and local partnerships.
Now in its second year, people around Oshawa are starting to take notice. In March, Oshawa mayor John Henry dropped in for a meal. Mr. Martin was also interviewed on the local Rogers TV station, a connection made through a friend of the caterer.
Social media has been a powerful tool for reaching people beyond the church walls, though Mr. Martin cautions that in-person connections are key. “Unless you have people inside the church really jazzed up about it and proud of it, it won’t matter what you do on Facebook,” he says.
In April, the church used social media to promote a Friday night Easter egg hunt that attracted six new families, several of whom came back on Easter morning. “They got to walk around the entire church, non-threatened, and get the feel like they know where they’re going,” says Mr. Martin. “That’s kind of my subtle message with Family Fridays – come to church before going to church.”
While the explicit goal has never been to attract people to Sunday services, this has been an unintended benefit. “After two years, I’ve seen tangible growth. We’ve got new families that are coming this year, and they’re asking about things like baptism,” he says. “They’ve been seeking but they haven’t really been engaged, so they’re trying us out again now. And they’re starting to stick.”
Mr. Martin also credits his parishioners with a deliberate shift in attitude toward newcomers, particularly young families. “We’d rather have the noise of the children here than the deafening silence without them, and that message is huge,” he says.
As the second year of Family Fridays winds down, Mr. Martin says there are still challenges on the horizon, including how to fund the ministry beyond the Stretch Grant, but he is excited about the future at St. Matthew’s. “It’s accomplished more than just the mission; it’s transformed the parish as a whole along the way,” he says. “We feel alive, and we’re showing it in far greater ways.”