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Soup's On

How one family serves up neighborly friendship.

For years, my husband, Scott, and I struggled with the biblical command to love our neighbor (Luke 10:27). How could we love them when we didn't even know them? So when we read a magazine article about a weekly neighborhood "Soup Night," we were intrigued by this possible way to get to know the people who live so close to us. When we couldn't shake the idea, and when a ministry we were involved with fizzled shortly thereafter, we decided to invest our newfound time and energy in giving Soup Night a try.

That was three years ago. Since then, Thursdays, our family's official Soup Night, have become our favorite day of the week. Our kids (Lars, seven Luke, five and Lily, two) love having friends and neighbors over for dinner every week for our six-month "Soup Season," October through March. And while the idea of having the neighborhood over for dinner once a week may seem intimidating, we've discovered it's much easier than you think. We've also found it to be the best thing we've ever done with our home.

First-Night Jitters

In September, my kids help me hand-deliver invitations to the neighbors; the rest go out in the mail. They proclaim: "Come one Thursday. Come any Thursday. Bring a loaf of bread, salad, dessert, or nothing but a smile. No RSVP necessary." We never know who or how many will show up, but we know it will be an evening of good food and great conversation.

The very first Thursday we tried Soup Night, I grew increasingly nervous as the day wore on. For weeks I'd thought it was such a great idea, and I had fun preparing. But as that afternoon rolled around, the doubts crept in. I worried everyone we invited—all 30 families!—would show up at once and I'd run out of food. Then I worried no one would come. My neighbor across the street is a professional chef, and I worried the soup wouldn't be up to snuff for those with discerning tastes.

But once the first guest walked through the door (my neighbor, without her husband the chef!), my worries melted away. That first night, five families came to check it out. While we ate my own creation of Creamy Chicken with Wild Rice soup, we visited about where in the world my family had gotten the idea of Soup Night, and people introduced themselves to each other. The conversation was easy, and the soup, to my delight, was a big hit.

Over the next few weeks, the number of families attending climbed as the word got out. As the season went on, we averaged three or four families every Thursday night.

Love Thy Neighbor

It's been fun to see who God brings through our door. We've had Christians and non-Christians together in a nonthreatening setting. Some families have started attending church together, while others have made social plans and arranged play dates for their kids. These friendships are able to develop as they have only through our regular get-togethers.

While Soup Night isn't a planned time to share our faith, we still think of it as a ministry. Our neighbors and coworkers witness firsthand what Jesus means to us in our daily grind. We hope to get an opportunity to share the gospel with our new friends, and Soup Night provides those moments.

One such opportunity came when one neighbor revealed to me she wanted her kids to learn about God. While she hadn't been to church in years, she felt she owed her children at least some exposure to Christianity so they could decide for themselves what to believe. She knew we're churchgoers since she'd watched us pile into the car every Sunday morning. So she asked if I'd go with her to visit some local churches. Because we'd grown close through Soup Night, she felt comfortable asking for help. The story of that neighbor and her family is still unfolding, but we've had many long talks about God.

Just because we're the hosts of Soup Night doesn't mean we've taken on the mission field of our neighborhood alone. Our friends John and Sheila understand our desire to spread Jesus' love and partner with us in this ministry by attending regularly and being intentional about connecting with other soupers. Their presence also helps me stay accountable to the real purpose of Soup Night—to love my neighbors—and not get carried away with the enterprise of entertaining.

I'd previously asked God to help me love my neighbors because I knew it was something Jesus said we should do. But in this process my husband and I find ourselves caring about the hearts of our neighbors in a way we'd never experienced before. Now we want them to know about Jesus not from a sense of duty, but because we love them and don't want them to miss out on heaven.

The Nitty Gritty

I'm a stay-at-home mom with a second-grader, a preschooler, and a toddler we affectionately refer to as "the Great Relocator." Lily's happiest when she's moving all the upstairs toys downstairs and the downstairs things upstairs. So, we don't have a fabulously organized home, but we've learned you don't need to have one in order to host a Soup Night. A house full of people every week sounds daunting, but in reality, it isn't a major event. Because we're only responsible for the soup, there are no grand menus to plan.

Thankfully, we've developed some routines to keep Soup Night manageable. For starters, we begin Soup Night early—5:30 p.m.—so it doesn't become a late-night affair. Usually the last guests leave around 8:00 p.m. so we're still able to put the kids to bed at a reasonable time, and Scott and I can debrief without staying up too late.

I do all my grocery shopping early in the week. My goal is never having to run to the store on a Thursday. Knowing what kind of soup I'm making and having the ingredients on hand early makes it easy to sleep well the night before. I keep a couple just-add-water soup mixes handy for last-minute emergencies. Sometimes we serve two soups, one homemade and one from a mix, and the homemade one hasn't always tasted better! I also keep a loaf of garlic bread in my freezer in case it seems people aren't getting enough to eat. It's nice to know I always can have warm bread on the table in 20 minutes. Usually I serve water to drink, unless a guest brings soft drinks or lemonade.

My family designated a kitchen drawer for "soup stuff"; that's where we store bowls, spoons, and extra plasticware. Having it all in one location makes setup and cleanup easier. Because I think soup tastes best in a real bowl, I bought extras at tag sales and discount stores. We now have different patterns and sizes of bowls, perfect for varying sized appetites. And we always have plastic bowls and spoons on hand in case we have a big attendance one night. I run and empty the dishwasher on Thursday morning, so it's empty by Thursday night—and people put their dirty bowls right in. This helps us avoid piles of dirty dishes around the house.

To keep any children who come entertained, we check out some more obscure children's videos from our church library. The less familiar these videos are, the more likely the kids actually will watch them. And our children have proven helpful with coats, traffic flow, and house rules.

Soup Night certainly doesn't require a huge house, as we have an average-sized spilt-level home. I keep the soup warm on the stove and let people dish it up themselves. We keep the spoons, napkins, plates, and all the other food people bring on the dining-room table. I move the chairs away from the table for easy access, and people sit in the living room or stand around the table or in the kitchen.

We have a couple icebreaker questions in mind in case of awkward silences, but we've never had to use them. People are eager to get to know their neighbors—they just don't know how to make it happen. What a blessing it is to provide this opportunity for them!

We've found tremendous joy in Soup Night. I couldn't have imagined the opportunities and conversations I've had with my neighbors on these evenings. These experiences remind me of Ephesians 3:20, which tells us God is "able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us." In our attempts to obey God's command to love our neighbor, we've been so blessed. At the end of our first Soup Season, we realized the experience had been so great, we couldn't wait for the next Souper Season to arrive!

Julie Dahlberg, a freelance writer and stay-at-home mom, lives with her family in Illinois.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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