It is 5 o’clock on a late Sunday afternoon, and worship is about to begin at the Belleview United Methodist Church. But this is not your usual service.
If it looks like something different, that’s because it is. This service is designed to attract those who would otherwise never consider going to church.
|The Open Table serves a potluck buffet on fine china and linen tablecloths. After the main course and dessert, a brief message and communion are said to be offered in "the way Jesus taught, in small groups or one at a time."|
Church members provide a buffet potluck meal, home-cooked and placed on a long table. No paper plates here. The places are set with china and linen because it sends a message that something special is about to happen.
Everyone gathers around to hold hands as a prayer is offered to bless the food. There is conversation as live, soft Christian music plays in the background. There is no congregational singing.
After dinner and dessert, Rev. Kris Schonewolf brings the message, maybe five to seven minutes, tops. She talks about hope and love as shown in Jesus.
The service ends with communion for those who wish to take it, but that doesn’t mean people stampede to the doors.
“They like to stand around and talk,” Schoenwolf said. “It’s almost like they don’t want to go home.”
Just as this is not a typical service, those attending are not the usual members. Some of them abandoned organized religion over the years for reasons known only to them and God.
Others have never known about Christ. Some feel abandoned by society; some are struggling financially and battling hunger, and some are seeking to fill the void in their lives.
This service is designed for them. It’s an offshoot of the growing church movement called Fresh Expressions, which calls itself a “radical approach to community.”
Fresh Expressions has the full support of Florida Conference Bishop Ken Carter as an innovative outreach to the people who need it most.
Schoenwolf calls the service The Open Table, and the goal is to find and minister to those who need it most in a non-threatening way that keeps them coming back for more.
She spreads the news about it through social media sites and advertising on outlets like Facebook. Word-of-mouth helps, too.
“I don’t pretend it’s not church,” she said. “I don’t like the bait-and-switch approach. But this is different. This is the way Jesus taught, in small groups or one at a time.”
The format is simple: no pressure, lots of love.
There is conversation between members and their guests, but visitors aren’t peppered with questions about their faith or why they haven’t been attending church.
Carol Pauze, a longtime Belleview member, said the idea is to treat people with respect and to show Jesus’ love in action.
“We try to sit near the people who are new, but we’re not really asking them a lot of personal stuff the first night they come. We try not to push it. That seems to work,” she said.
|The event, often advertised on social media outlets like Facebook, includes live Christian music. The format is described as no pressure and lots of love.|
“If they ask questions about God or our church, of course, we answer. But we want them to feel comfortable.”
Like a lot of churches, Belleview has struggled to get new people to come to the traditional church and to show them the love of Christ. The church has a lot of longtime members, and it took buy-in from them to make this venture work.
They got it.
Pauze quickly saw that this service played into her passion for hospitality.
“I jumped right at it,” she said. “I prayed a lot about this, and it just seemed like it was the perfect fit for me. I can’t stand it if someone comes in the door, and there is no one to greet them. We need to reach the unchurched. Our pastor does so much with that, trying to bring them. That’s what I want to do too.”
Still, no one knew quite what to expect that first night. The food was prepared. The hospitality team was in place. But would anyone come? That was the great unknown.
Five people came to the first service.
“I got so excited when the first two people entered. Wow! We did reach somebody,” Pauze said.
They kept on reaching, too. The number of attendees has grown to as high as 22. They range in age from young families to middle age and above. The service started off as a twice-monthly experiment but has grown into a weekly event.
That required more volunteers and members who raised their hands and created two service teams, Alpha and Omega.
Christine Gibbs joined the church only a few months before the launch of this program. She admits she was “honestly skeptical” when Schoenwolf presented her idea for it, but now Gibbs leads the Alpha team.
“You’re asking people who don’t normally come to church to come to church. You’re offering them a meal. Being new to the church, I wasn’t sure how the community would receive it,” she said.
“In the beginning it was slow, but we have families coming now and bringing children and grandchildren. I was overwhelmed. It has turned into something special. This has brought us all together. The community that is participating knows we are there for them. And I think this will continue to grow, I really do.”
Schoenwolf and another staff member also take turns delivering the message. Some of the new people have shown up for Sunday morning services, but that wasn’t the aim.
“The goal is for this to become its own church,” she said.
Gibbs, for one, doesn’t doubt that will happen. She praised the leadership her pastor has shown.
“That woman is a spitfire,” she said.
There also was a benefit that might have been unexpected at the start. Those doing the ministering discovered the experience had a profound impact on their lives.
“This has changed the way I look at things. We had some families come who really are struggling, or they’re homeless, or people who are working but aren’t into the conformity of church,” Gibbs said.
--Joe Henderson is a freelance writer based in Brandon.