January 25, 2024
D.Min. student uses food truck to build relationships in Michigan town
Nazarene Pastor Rich Evans was happy building a successful church in Monroe, Michigan when he happened to pass a road sign pointing to the city of Bad Axe, a small town of 3,100 people located in a rural part of the “thumb” of Michigan. His congregation had weathered COVID and continued to grow, to the point that he had been able to hire an associate pastor. When he returned home from the trip, he joked with his wife Missy, “What if I were the Bad Axe Pastor?”
Not long after, however, he found himself in a conversation with his District Superintendent. Rich mentioned off-handedly that if he had the opportunity, he might want to start a different kind of church—like a coffeehouse. “Or,” his D.S. suggested, “maybe a barbecue place?”
This struck a nerve with Rich. He had not enjoyed a good relationship with his father growing up. What they did have in common, though, was that his father had worked in the meat industry, specializing in smoked meats, and Rich had followed in his footsteps as a butcher and a meat manager. You could say barbecue was in his blood. So, he leaned into the dream of a church somehow built around sharing food.
Then the D.S. surprised Rich by asking, “What would you think about revitalizing a church in Bad Axe?” He explained that there was a Nazarene church there that was down to about five members and was close to closing. Rich’s wife thought he had mentioned the encounter with the road sign to the D.S., but Rich assured her he had said nothing about it. The seemingly random encounter now felt, literally, like a sign. God continued to speak to Rich, assuring him through a sermon he heard that his current congregation would continue to thrive without him. By January 2022, Rich and Missy were heading off to a new calling in Bad Axe.
“Jesus didn’t just call people to a class, he called them to follow him in his daily life.”
One of the first things they did was purchase a basic trailer and begin building it out into a food truck. They began showing up at community events, sometimes selling barbecue, and sometimes participating in fundraisers where they gave food away or used a portion of the profits to support a good cause. However, the point was not the money or the meat; the goal was to get to know people. “Everything in my ministry is built on the idea of building relational capital,” says Rich. “Jesus didn’t invite people to come to a class or a program, although those things can be good” he explains; rather, “He called them to ‘come follow me,’ to be present with him as he went about his life.”
Through the barbecue business, Rich has been able to meet people from all walks of life. He knows the community leaders through participating in public events like the town Christmas parade. He has gotten to know servers and businesspeople with whom he works. Others have simply come to enjoy his smoked brisket, pulled pork, and baked beans, and ended up in long-term, one-on-one intentional discipleship with Rich.
Once a month, Bad Axe Nazarene hosts “Barbecue Sunday.” People who otherwise might never have attended church show up for these services, and the church of 5 has now grown to over 45. Even those who do not attend speak highly of the church. One newcomer in town ended up coming to worship because a local waitress told him, “I don’t go to church, but if I did, I would go to that Nazarene church because I love Missy and Rich.”
Rich’s commitment to the Kingdom goes beyond even one local church, to building relationships with other pastors and congregations. One of the events he is most proud of occurred last January when the wife of a Free Methodist pastor in his area was diagnosed with cancer. “I got someone else to preach for me and I spent all night in their church, smoking meat that was donated,” he recalls, “and our Nazarene congregation prepared the main meal to go with it.” That Sunday at lunch they were able to feed over 500 people, with proceeds going to help with the medical expenses of the other pastor’s wife. The local newspaper ran an article in which the Free Methodist pastor said, “This is what the Church is supposed to look like.”
Barbecue is opening even more doors to Rich now outside the walls of the church. He is becoming a chaplain at the county jail, and serving food is a way to build relationships with the officers. His church has also started a ministry at a local nursing home. Meanwhile, his business has been voted “Best Food Truck” in the area, opening even more doors for engagement in the community.
This fall, Rich felt a nudge to begin working on an old dream to start a doctoral program. However, he knew the time invested in a doctorate must be to strengthen his ministry, as time is too valuable to expend simply on getting another degree. Then he found Wesley Biblical Seminary. In his first two classes, he was able to have conversations with Dr. Brian Yeich about how the sacramental life of faith is grounded in a holy meal that we share, the Eucharist, and with Dr. Matt Friedeman, about how the church must make disciples by getting outside the walls and running to the places of pain in the community. It seems that WBS is going to be a good fit for a pastor revitalizing a church and serving a community through the power of relationships built around a simple shared meal.
Rich’s father passed away recently, but before his death, he revealed to his son that he had felt a call to ministry himself when he was a young man but had “run the other way.” That resistance to God had been part of the source of pain in their father-son relationship. Nevertheless, Rich was blessed to hear his father say that he was proud to see his son fulfilling that call now. How beautiful that, along the way, God folded in the skills Rich’s dad picked up in the meat industry and passed them on to Rich so that he is now using them for Christ. As Rich puts it, “God works in every part of our story—the good and the bad—and he uses it all to make us a blessing to others.”
“God works in every part of our story.”