Donuts and divine moments go together for couple starting a church
Pastor & writer
Church planting & multiplication
When Brian Thompson goes to Krispy Kreme, the man wants an apple fritter.
The lemon crème and the apple-filled donuts are good. But when asked what his favorite donut is, the answer is always apple fritter.
Several years ago, Brian went to a Krispy Kreme with his aunt. That day, he saw his now-wife, Pamela, for the first time in many years. The Thompsons knew each other as children, even attending the same church at one time.
After the Krispy Kreme connection, they stayed in touch on Facebook, then began dating. They were married in 2013. Now, the Thompsons go to Krispy Kreme at least once a year, always on their anniversary.
Pamela has her favorite donuts at Krispy Kreme, too, although she’s intentional about getting her vegetables every day. Whether it’s donuts, vegetables or fresh crabs from their native Maryland, this is a couple who loves good food.
“How do you gather people?” Brian asks. “Food. Food is a big deal because it brings people together.
“And, what is the one thing people will do when they sit down and eat? They talk. They’re having a conversation.”
Food is an ingredient for faith
The Thompsons are planting a Converge church just outside Washington D.C., in Largo, Maryland. Known as Easel Outreach, their ministry focuses on conversations with creatives and people who have been hurt in the church. All their services are held virtually via Zoom.
Even though Easel Outreach is a church without a place to meet in person, the few dozen people who’ve been part of Easel since the beginning gather for a meal whenever they can. That creates even more conversation about knowing Jesus and following him.
“When we deal with food, that’s the perfect time for people to come together, whatever their issues are,” he said.
After growing up in church, Brian was eager for church to be done differently. He wanted to shift how he shares God’s word in church; he wanted dialogue as soon as possible with people. So, Brian and Pamela launched Easel Outreach on Zoom during the pandemic. And after he preaches, he immediately reflects with the worshipers on what they heard.
“I want people to have a conversation with us,” he says of the messages on Sundays. “At the end of the sermon, I ask them point-blank, ‘What do you think about this?’”
Mi-Chele Williams is thrilled sermons at Easel Outreach end with a forum of discussion. Often, she would leave other churches with questions or different opinions on the sermon topic. But there was no opportunity for her to have those kinds of conversations with other people.
“I love the forum. I love the fact that you can have a conversation with leadership,” Williams said. “With Easel, you get to speak and ask those random questions. Everyone gets to comment.”
Escaping the grip of Satan to find Christ
Thompson grew up always wanting to do artwork, not sports or other things expected of him. His relationship with family and their hopes or norms made life challenging sometimes.
Church wasn’t much better at making Thompson feel accepted for who he was. When he was 13, he felt done with the pressure to conform, and he found himself considering taking his own life.
As he sat in his bedroom, thinking about ending his life, he saw a black hand come out from under his bed and grab him. “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,” Thompson rapidly said.
Next, he heard God say, “Go get saved by Pastor Shockley.” Shockley was the pastor of a church near Thompson's home. Pastor Shockley became one of several pastors who took him along on a journey of learning and leading ministry.
“People saw [ministry leadership] in me at a young age, and I didn't even see it,” he said. “It’s always been a fire in me, but I had never really fit into churches that I attended. I felt God telling me, ‘You need to start a church for creative people.’”
The Thompsons long for something very specific for the people they serve through Easel Outreach: find your identity and live your purpose.
For them, a very helpful tool to share with others has been the five-fold ministry concept. God has given the church apostles, evangelists, prophets, pastors and teachers. The Thompsons regularly use an assessment, so Christians know their identity and live aligned to their God-designed gifts.
“He’s called you to fulfill the great commission, and you have a unique, creative gift inside you that is important to the world,” he said. “Just sitting in the pew is not what he’s called you to do.”
The Thompsons have helped Dave Saint Simon live out his purpose at work and in life. He grew up in church. His dad was a deacon. But Saint Simon, who lives in Orange County, hadn’t attended a church in two years.
Then he saw a mural and learned of Thompson’s work as an artist. Saint Simon reached out to Thompson on Instagram, and the two began to keep in touch.
From across the country, Saint Simon started participating in Sunday services via Zoom at Easel Outreach in February 2021.
“We're having real-life conversations with stuff that's going on today: mental health, how to hold yourself accountable,” he said. “The Thompsons are teaching us to read [the Bible] and live it.”
The people he only knows through Zoom inspired him to start an Easel Outreach experience in Orange County. He’s organizing a paint-and-dine in September. Thompson will fly from Maryland to California to paint and dialogue with the artists who come.
Thompson's visit to Orange County will mark the official launch of Easel's second location.
“I’m trying to give back,” Saint Simon, who worships at Easel along with his fiancee Diane Maisonneuve, said. “I can feel the difference in my life.”
A healing place for many
A significant reason the Thompsons said they feel called to this ministry is the number of people hurt by the church. That includes church leaders who feel used or mistreated rather than honored and empowered.
Easel Outreach started to serve creatives like Thompson, a banknote designer for the U.S. Treasury. As a result, many artistic leaders, especially musicians and audio techs, have opened up to the Thompsons about how difficult ministry service can be. He said they often feel like servants who minister to others but don’t receive care for their needs.
“People who tend to be creative don’t trust church anymore,” Brian said. “We have a lot of people who call in [to Zoom ministry events] and develop a relationship with God again.”
Pamela’s caring side ― she spent decades in healthcare ― recognizes how many people are hurting from life struggles, church wounds and mental illness.
She said the church’s core values ― loving God, loving your neighbor and making disciples ― are highlighted every Sunday. But, when it comes to loving one another, Pamela keeps emphasizing and implementing a deeper conversation.
“It's OK not to be OK,” she said. “We really started with ‘don’t send a text.’ Instead, call and share how you’re doing. Reach out to your brothers and sisters.”
That acceptance and invitation into relationship motivates many creatives and artists to attend Easel Outreach’s virtual Sunday gatherings. As a result, the new church is seeing growth in numbers because many people have found Easel Outreach a safe and supportive place.
“We set this ministry up for artists, and we’re ministering to many people who aren’t artists,” Thompson said. “We wanted everybody to feel safe and have a relationship with God.”
God is accelerating Easel’s influence
God is already doing abundantly more than what the Thompsons expected. While completing the Converge Church Planting Assessment, the two envisioned more than one Easel Outreach location. But God has brought that about faster than they expected, despite a pandemic.
Since moving to Florida, she is sharing how Easel blesses her with new neighbors. As she builds relationships there, Clearwater may become a future Easel Outreach plant.
She gathers people on the beach while walking their dogs early in the morning. She continues the Easel Outreach model there, discussing God's word.
“We get to discuss what God is sharing,” she said. “When you have a conversation, you have more things to think about.”
Meanwhile, in Orange County, the leaders are building a second Easel Outreach ministry for artists, chefs and entrepreneurs. Rooftop parties have happened to gather people together for a deeper community.
“It’s church, but it’s not church,” said Saint Simon of why Easel Outreach exists and how the ministry stands out. Although Orange County’s gatherings are distinct from Easel Outreach near D.C., Thompson sees his role as discovering others’ giftedness and anointing them to go do ministry.
A major goal of Converge is seeing churches in the movement open their front door, meaning the churches would find relevant, accessible ways for people to visit and worship and follow Christ in a local church.
Busyness and status-seeking lives drain people
Since the church started in December 2020, the Thompsons have been intent on finding a physical location in Prince George's County. Easel Outreach has found a space to meet. They'll be able to have worship and gatherings there in December 2021.
“That's where the people are, and it’s fast-paced and busy and stressful and expensive,” Thompson said of the county where he and Pam grew up.
However, amid all the hustle and achievement, Easel Outreach seeks to offer people a place of genuine relationship and rest.
“Pam and I are real,” he said. “We're not relics in some museum.”
Even when in-person gatherings are feasible, their ministry will happen online simultaneously with in-person gatherings. That’s core to how the Thompsons do ministry.
Getting the guidance to do church differently
The Thompsons felt like obeying God in starting a new church wasn’t a simple matter. And they both had full-time jobs as well.
Fortunately, Converge's Mid-Atlantic District partners with V3, a cohort-based mission to train church planters to create churches that are interactive movements, not program-driven institutions.
There, the Thompsons perceived the vision, voice and viral quality ― or V3 ― of what Easel Outreach is.
“When we get a physical location, it’s not going to look like a church. It’s going to be an art studio within the community,” he said of the D.C. location. “We want to make sure it doesn’t look like a church front.”
The goal is for everyone to regain a relationship with God through the gospel. The Thompsons named the church Easel Outreach so it could be a place that holds up the canvases God is transforming into art.
“People who are going through something in life have a canvas full of stuff. It feels like a mess,” he said. “What happens when God gets a hold of you? He takes the blood of Christ and he washes you white as snow.”
Thompson said, “Even in the Bible, the arts are huge. The people who made all the tabernacle elements by hand, they were artists, creatives who had the Holy Spirit first so God could be satisfied with the construction, elements and artifacts.”
Easel Outreach provides a place for those creatives to gather as God's Spirit fills them to satisfy him in how they live and work and move.
“You've got a blank canvas to start your whole life again,” he said. “That easel is the one that keeps you propped, looking up to God saying, ‘Be with me, help me, stay with me.’”
That's what he wants the church to do, on Zoom, in Maryland, in Orange County and in future locations like Florida or Pennsylvania. Easel Outreach wants people to gather around faith and food, finding Jesus.
Ben Greene is a freelance writer and pastor currently living in Massachusetts. Along with his ministry experience, he has served as a full-time writer for the Associated Press and in the newspaper industry.