This post originally appeared on the Western North Carolina Conference UMC Blog.
Like many churches in our conference, Assurance UMC’s Connections Campus in West Charlotte has been feeding their neighbors once a week for several years. When Karen Furr, a lay leader at Assurance, joined a recent Fresh Expressions cohort offered by the WNC Conference Vitality Team, she found herself asking, “What could we do with our Tuesday night meal to make it more impactful and accessible to the community?”
As the cohort drew to a close, she had a conversation with Pastor Charles Dirico, another member of the Fresh Expressions cohort who had just been appointed to Thrift UMC, a smaller congregation a few miles from the Connections Campus. She shared her question with him and the wheels started turning. The idea of a dinner church arose.
They attended a Dinner Church event hosted by Fresh Expressions US and the WNC Conference, visited Soul Food in Albemarle, and then they talked to their respective congregations. Both congregations agreed to a soft launch on January 9th to see what starting a dinner church together would look like.
The First Week
According to Furr, “We said if 10 to 20 people show up we’d be happy. We had over 100 people come. Over 25 of them were kids from the neighborhood not connected to other churches who came with their parents.”
Dirico added, “We found out that these kids were having trouble connecting to a church.” A dinner church that embraces the chaos of people moving around and kids being kids was perfect. Assurance invited families they had connected with from subsidized housing a mile from Thrift UMC. Thrift UMC talked with a grandmother from the trailer park a mile the other direction who then invited families from the trailer park. He emphasized a priority for the dinner church going forward is to invest in the kids.
A New Partnership
Karen Furr emphasized how exciting it was that the two congregations were partnering together. “We’re two miles apart. It makes all the sense in the world to partner together.” When they brought the churches together to plan they decided to host it at Thrift UMC because of a bigger kitchen, but have the two congregations alternate cooking to help lighten the load. Dirico added, “I told my congregation, ‘We’ve got this facility, let’s take it out for a spin.’”
Furr said, “I connected my pastor with Charles so they could work out the ‘pastor stuff’ and we worked on the vision for the rest of the dinner church.”
Furr and Dirico both emphasized how much the support from the Conference meant to them. Furr said, “It meant a lot to me as a lay person to be in the fresh expressions training and feel like my ideas about starting something new were valid.”
An Interactive Liturgy
The format of their gathering on Wednesdays so far has been a prayer for the meal at 5:30 followed by eating and fellowship. Then when the meal is winding down they shift gears to worship. The “house band” plays some worship songs followed by an interactive community prayer. Their time is closed with a message and communion. Pastor Charles said he is working on a style of message that works in the space, but the overall format is conversational, including some questions for the congregation. The whole service emphasizes that everyone has ownership of it.
He added, “One of the little girls, who’s knee high, every time I get up to preach she runs up and grabs my leg. Maybe she’s called to be a preacher.”