Imagine that you’re at a cookout in your backyard this summer. As you settle into a lawn chair near your friends and neighbors, you balance your plate in your lap so the watermelon doesn’t slide off, and take a big bite of the freshly grilled burger that’s dripping with toppings. A neighbor you’ve wanted to get to know better for a while finishes a bite of potato salad and looks at you expectantly.

“Um, so how about this weather?  Sure has been hot lately, huh?” you stammer.

“Yeah,” your neighbor responds, as a disappointed expression crosses his face.

You both make small talk during the rest of the meal. Then, soon afterward, your neighbor leaves, just as much of a stranger to you as before.

It doesn’t have to be this way. You can use your summer cookouts and picnics to build relationships with your neighbors that may lead them to the greatest kind of relationship – between them and God. As you nourish people’s bodies with good food this summer, you can also nourish their souls by sharing your faith with them.

Food has a unique kind of power to bring people together. From sharing a holiday feast or celebrating a milestone like a birthday with a special meal, to helping a struggling coworker over lunch or comforting grieving loved ones at a wake, food is a vital part of relationships.

Since food satisfies a basic and vital need, it causes people to pay attention to their cravings. When they eat, people are often more receptive than at other times to thinking about what they need and how those needs – physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual – are or aren’t being met. As they enjoy the tastes and textures of good food, they’re open to reflecting on the other blessings in their lives with gratitude. And when people benefit from the generosity of a gracious host or hostess, they feel loved, which will naturally motivate them to build relationships.

In the Bible, food symbolizes many important spiritual concepts, from God’s provision (manna in the desert, the multiplication of loaves and fish) to unity between God and other believers (the Passover meal, Communion). Jesus often ministered to people while they were sharing a meal together. And He declared in John 6:35: “I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me will never go hungry, and he who believes in Me will never be thirsty.”

Here’s how you can reach out to the people who come to your summer cookouts or picnics with food for their souls as well as their bodies: 

  • Pray before the event that the Holy Spirit will bring the people who need to come, guide your conversations with them, and open their hearts to help them move closer to God as a result of their time with you there.
  • Let your guests know when you invite them that you will provide plenty of food and they don’t need to bring anything, but they’re welcome to bring something if they have a special dish they’d like to share. Many people will choose to contribute a dish that will tell you something about them and open the door to a meaningful conversation at the event. For example, one person may share a tasty chili with an interesting story behind it, while another may bring homemade cole slaw from a recipe that’s been used in her family for generations.
  • Serve the meal in several courses (such as appetizers, main dishes, and desserts) to encourage people to stay a long time.
  • Include some unusual foods that have spiritual significance, to arouse people’s curiosity. You may serve something that’s popular in the Holy Land, such as falafel with yogurt sauce, or include ethnic foods that represent various nations where your church is currently supporting missionaries. Then, when people ask about the unusual foods, you can explain their significance.
  • Don’t clutter your event will too many activities, like lots of games. Instead, focus on the food and give people plenty of time to savor it together. But offer some simple activities for kids to enjoy so their parents can stop worrying about entertaining them and start engaging in conversations with other adults.
  • Encourage people to eat together by placing long tables or grouping lawn chairs in circles wherever they’re likely to congregate in your yard or on your deck or patio.
  • Open up to people about your own life and what’s important to you by sharing some brief, honest stories about a topic you want to discuss. Then have those stories lead into questions that give your guests opportunities to share their values. For example, you could say something like: “My daughter threw a temper tantrum in the grocery store last week and I had to leave my cart there and take her out to the parking lot to calm her down. She was tired, but I didn’t have any other time to get the shopping done. What do you find works for you when you’re trying to get your kids to behave in a store?”
  • Ask people open-ended questions about their lives – questions they can’t answer with just a simple “yes” or “no.” You might ask questions like: “Why did you decide to move to this neighborhood?” or “What do you enjoy most about your job?” Then, as the conversation naturally progresses, listen for cues as to how God is at work in their lives. When people ask you about your own life, mention how your faith helps you deal with whatever situation you’re discussing.
  • Show a genuine interest in what they have to say. Listen well, giving them your full attention. Use your body language to show them that you care about their thoughts and feelings, such as by making eye contact, leaning forward, and nodding. Give people a chance to finish what they’re saying before jumping in with a response. Try to listen more than you talk.
  • If people express specific needs to you – like concerns about stress at work, or anxiety about a family member’s health – don’t be afraid to ask if you can pray for them. Remember that most people will be glad you care enough to do so. If they give you permission, pray briefly with them about their concerns right there, and promise to keep their needs in your prayers after the cookout or picnic. Follow up with them later for an update on the situations about which you prayed.
  • If people show a strong interest in discussing faith, invite them to your church for a worship service, Bible study, or a special event in which you think they’d be interested.
  • Be patient! Avoid pushing people to talk about faith if they’re not interested, and don’t cross their personal boundaries before building a trusting relationship with them. Be sensitive to the cues they give you and let go of any pressure you might feel to accomplish certain results. Remember that God is already at work in their lives and knows when the time is right for them to take the next step in their spiritual journeys. Instead of seeing your guests as projects to work on, simply view them as people to love.
  • After the event, pray that all the people who came will eventually experience what Psalm 34:8 mentions: “Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the man who takes refuge in Him.”