A simple meal. Friends and strangers gathered around tables. Good conversation.
Welcome to dinner church, the Fresh Expressions initiative that is gaining ground across the Florida Conference.
“Dinner church has a way of offering this radical hospitality and love that is just really attractive to people,” said Pastor Heather Evans, who coordinates the program for the conference. “They experience God and feel his love there. It looks a whole lot different, but it happens!”
The conference plans to help launch 55 new dinner churches by September. Springing from both large and small congregations, they will meet weekly in a wide range of venues.
|Kitchen helpers Elliott Walker, Amy McGlynn, Rita Roberts, Melanie Jacob and Pam Pearson serving at Trinity dinner church in Fort Myers.|
“It is happening in all eight districts of the Florida Conference … in both urban and rural settings,” said Evans, who also serves as the campus pastor for Grace Church in Cape Coral.
“Dinner churches will be hosted in community centers, Boys and Girls Clubs, in public school cafeterias, and even in outdoor park settings.”
In 2018, the conference invited 130 congregations, primarily those located in growing areas, but still experiencing declining or flat attendance, to participate in the dinner church movement.
Since September, the 55 that responded have been undergoing extensive training facilitated by Rev. Verlon Fosner, who heads the Dinner Church Collective and founded the dinner church movement in Seattle, Washington.
The new dinner churches were divided into groups of five, and each group has a dedicated pastor from the Dinner Church Collective who serves as a coach and mentor.
“We view this as church planting,” Conference Director of Church Vitality Dan Jackson said. “We don’t view this as a mission program of a local church.”
The goal is not to convince people to attend a traditional Sunday morning service.
“Dinner church is dedicated to reaching people who are not currently connected to a faith community or to Christ,” Jackson said. “Many of these people are never going to end up in the traditional Sunday morning service. This will be their church.”
|Volunteers Rita Roberts and Pete Terrell stop for a hug during clean up at Trinity in Ft. Myers.|
The dinner church approach, primarily driven by lay leaders, also reflects John Wesley’s ministry of going into a community to meet the needs of others.
“I liked that to participate in this program, you had to take it outside the walls of the church,” Jackson said. “It fits us theologically. It fits us missionally. It meets all the criteria of Fresh Expressions.”
The dinner church training has covered everything from the practical to the spiritual. Participating congregations have been provided with shopping lists, recipes and many other suggestions to make their gatherings go smoothly.
Jackson and Evans say the most important piece is an open and generous spirit.
“If you walk into a dinner church, everyone is welcome,” Jackson said. “No one is refused seconds or thirds.
“The sequence of the evening is a meal, simple but with substance and quality, some background music, a story from the Gospel—told, not read. And there is unstructured conversation around the dinner tables.”
Evans helped launch Eat, Pray, Love, a dinner church that started more than two years ago that meets in the Sun Coast Community Center. Since then, she has seen the dinner church movement unite people of vastly different backgrounds.
“We have a variety from the homeless, to lonely elderly people, to average middle-income folks,” she said. “We pray together. They feel comfortable, and everyone pitches in.”
|A couple at Eat, Pray, Love in Suncoast Estates share a Valentine's Day kiss.
That loving vibe was on proud display the evening of Feb. 14.
“It was Valentine’s Day, and it was just the simplest thing,” Evans said. “We had fried chicken, and you’d have thought we had served the fanciest 8-course dinner. And then we played Bingo, for candy.”
Evans also cautions that there’s no perfect playbook or foolproof strategy to make a dinner church work. The key is getting out there and loving people. Having 55 new dinner churches can go a long way to reaching those who feel isolated
“Where there’s a lot of hurting people, that’s kind of the heartbeat of where God is, we think,” she said. “Hopefully, it says we’re figuring out what people need and not what we want.”
WANT MORE INFO?
If you’re interested in learning more about the dinner church initiative, contact Pastor Heather Evans at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Kari C. Barlow is a freelance writer based in Pensacola.