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Equipping congregations for 'Dinner Church'

Equipping congregations for 'Dinner Church'

Fresh Expressions

Church isn't always confined to a set space, week after week, with the same routine. The Sermon on the Mount was out in the open, with plenty of room for anyone who wanted to listen to the message. There was food, too, more than enough for 5,000 people.

The people ate. There was prayer. There was love.

The "Dinner Church" concept, which started in urban Seattle in 2004, soon expanded into a national network. Described today as the Dinner Church Collective, it has become an initiative of Fresh Expressions U.S.

That’s the premise behind the growing Fresh Expressions dinner church movement. To hear Pastor Heather Evans talk about it, it won’t stop anytime soon.

“This gives us the ability to bring people in who have never attended church,” she said. “It allows us to bring people into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”

Evans is the campus pastor at the Fort Myers Trinity campus of Grace Church. Along with Grace’s lead pastor, Rev. Jorge Acevedo, she shares the vision of a nightly outreach in places where people will gather in their community.

Equipping congregations for 'Dinner Church'

Grace Trinity UMC recently was the site of a statewide dinner church encounter. The dinner church movement gained national prominence through a Fresh Expressions ministry out of Seattle.

The event's purpose was to equip church members throughout Florida to take the dinner church format back to their congregations. There are variations of that already active in the conference, but the basic premise is the same.

Organizers are encouraged to go off campus into an area of need. Volunteers provide a meal and table service to those who come. It might be only a handful of people at first, but consistency and spreading the word are said to help the church dinner ministries grow.

Often there is music at the service. Attendees are aware they will hear a message of faith, which is encouraged to be brief.

“When we’re doing our training, someone will say ‘this isn’t really new, is it?’ No, it isn’t. We’re just doing what Jesus did, what John Wesley did,” said Matt Harrell, the Florida Conference coordinator for Fresh Expressions.

“When we think about the dinner table, I think that’s where many of my great memories with my family, close friends and youth kids when I was in Atlanta, happened,” Harrell said.

More than preaching, the success of this outreach depends on showing Christ’s love in ways those attending have never likely seen.

“Pre-Christian people, secular people, don’t have the decoder ring. They don’t know what a Narthex is. They don’t know what these sins are that we assume everyone knows,” Acevedo said.

“You see the statistics of people who are not going to come to church as you and I know it,” he added. “We’re setting the table. They’re coming to enjoy the meal.”

Harrell stressed the importance in spreading this word throughout the state.

“I think for me, the importance of this type of initiative on the conference scope is huge. It recognizes from the top down that we are going to have to be creative and innovative in order to reach our communities. We have to come up with some new ways and new ideas in order to do that,” he said.

“I believe, and this (is) in line with the Fresh Expressions teaching, that the things we do on Sunday morning are important, but that only reaches a certain portion of people. We have to move beyond the church walls.”

Evans said that is the force behind everything her church does.

"Eat, Pray, Love" is a Fresh Expressions ministry initiated by Grace Church in the Ft. Myers area. Held at the Suncoast Community Center, located in a trailer park, the gathering has included baptisms, a funeral and one wedding.

One of the Grace Church locations is the Suncoast Community Center in the middle of what Evans called “the second-largest trailer park in the nation.”

Participation has grown to about 75 people a week, none of whom are regular attendees at Grace. They are fed at no cost, offered various programs and receive a message.

She calls it Eat, Pray, Love.

“The lesson is totally optional,” Evans said. “This is about building relationships over time. It is radical hospitality for people who have never experienced radical hospitality or unconditional love.

“It’s showing signs of becoming an actual church. We have had baptisms there. We had a wedding. We had a funeral. We’ve had people say that this is their church,” she said.

“We believe wholeheartedly at Grace that God has planted us here so that we can have Eat, Pray, Love seven nights a week,” she said. “We believe in this so much that we want to equip all the other churches in Florida to do the same thing.

“We want to show how easy it is to do Fresh Expressions. People don’t even know how great the need is in their communities until they reach out and find it,” she added.

Florida Conference Bishop Ken Carter encourages churches to think of ways to reach those who need to hear God’s message the most, rather than waiting for them to come through the door.

“The bishop sees that for the church to be vital in the future, it will need strong, healthy traditional models of church. Right alongside that is the Fresh Expressions model,” Harrell said.

“For people who have been in the church their whole lives, to experience something like this and see how impactful that can be, that’s pretty neat. What comes from that is a greater understanding of how God works in our lives.

“It’s kind of like a light bulb switching on to help us recognize there is more than one way to engage people and more than one way to spread the word of God,” he said.

—Joe Henderson is a freelance writer based in Brandon.

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