MASCOT, Tenn. (Jan. 10, 2019) -- The Rev. Brenda Carroll began talking to her pastors about “Fresh Expressions” when she was a United Methodist district superintendent in Chattanooga. When she was appointed to lead a new district, Carroll also encouraged her Knoxville-area pastors to consider this different way of doing church.
Carroll finally found a taker at a church named, appropriately, New Life United Methodist.
The Rev. Teresa Atkins McClure and her New Life congregation have started something called “Dinner Church” at a nearby elementary school. Every Tuesday night, they share a meal with neighboring families and then join in worship led by children.
New Life members actually had a vision for starting a second congregation outside the church before learning about Fresh Expressions from Carroll, says McClure.
“I’m amazed at how God planted the seed in the hearts of our members,” the pastor said. “When the church was ready, there it was. We didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. It’s amazing how God has been leading us through.”
New Life UMC, which has an average attendance of 60, began praying for a way to be in ministry with neighbors in 2015. “There’s a high poverty rate in our community,” McClure explained. “We picked places where we could be intentional in reaching out.”
Church leaders began focusing on East Knox Elementary, located three miles away from New Life UMC. Discussions with the principal and meals with the teachers led to the idea of inviting children and their families to a weeknight dinner and worship in the school cafeteria. (To get the word out, McClure received permission from officials to speak to the PTA, put up a sign and submit flyers to the school office.)
When the district superintendent heard about New Life's dinner-and-worship idea, she immediately saw it as a Fresh Expressions ministry. The Fresh Expressions program had intrigued Brenda Carroll enough to take a group of Chattanooga pastors to an Atlanta workshop to learn more.
“The idea is to go where people are gathering,” said Carroll, Tennessee Valley District superintendent, based in Knoxville. “We’re trying to get people in the church to let their minds stray enough to let them connect outside the walls.”
According to its website, Fresh Expressions is “an international movement of missionary disciples cultivating new kinds of church alongside existing congregations to more effectively engage our growing post-Christian society.” Examples include biker church, cowboy church, church for artists, church in an office building, or church in housing projects and college dormitories.
Dinner church is more than just serving food, McClure said. “The meal is a big part of the worship – the fellowship and the community that comes with it.” The movement’s theology is rooted in how Jesus used the dinner table to reach people.
“The dinner table was the invitation to faith,” said the Rev. Verlon Fosner, director of Dinner Church Collective, in a recent training at First Baptist Church in Asheville, N.C. “Jesus clearly embedded the gospel into the dinner table sociology.” (See related story: "Five reasons to start a dinner church.")
At East Knox Elementary, about 35 people gather regularly on Tuesday nights for dinner church. Volunteers from New Life provide the dinner, then McClure offers a simple, “Jesus-focused” worship.
The pastor quickly discovered that involving children in the worship is a win-win. “You think they’re not getting it -– some of them have never experienced Holy Communion before -- but then one of them will grab the mic and share a story that lets you know: This is a beautiful place to be.”
New Life kicked off its first dinner church in March 2018, with the help of a $2,500 Change for Children grant from the Holston Conference Children’s Ministry Team.
At first, the ministry attracted few people other than church members. McClure says they used the time to pray for the new ministry and the school. “We were just looking at each other and wondering if we should stop doing it over the summer,” she said.
In early June, something happened to give the ministry a boost and send it soaring through the summer and fall: “Camp in the Community” came to New Life United Methodist Church.
Camp in the Community is a week-long, summer day-camp experience that travels to multiple churches in low-income neighborhoods throughout Holston Conference. Seeing that the camp staff had won the hearts of the community children, McClure asked the camp staff to lead worship at dinner church. The families who accepted the camp workers' invitation to dinner church are still attending today, McClure said.
“The camp staff knew how to handle this,” she said. “They really lit it up for us.”
The success of dinner church has inspired Hopewell United Methodist Church, also pastored by McClure, to provide financial support.
Original church members may find it difficult to embrace this different way of doing church, Carroll says -- especially when they may never see the new worshippers join them on Sunday morning.
“They might lament that they don’t know each other,” Carroll said. “But is that the point, that everyone knows everyone? Or is it to share the good news of Jesus Christ with more people?”
For McClure, who Carroll compliments as a “risk-taker,” the goal is not to increase Sunday-morning numbers but to reach people who haven't been interested in attending church as they know it.
“If you want to do something fresh, get it out of your building,” says McClure. “Maybe the Holy Spirit is using people who don’t want to come to our buildings to help us create a new way of doing church.”
Contact Annette Spence at firstname.lastname@example.org.
5 reasons to start a Dinner Church (The Call, 1.10.19)
Repurposed church is a Fresh Expression (Florida UMC, 8.14.18)
Hoops in a parking lot is a new Fresh Expression (Florida UMC, 7.9.18)
Close a church, open a ministry? (UMNS, 4.5.18)
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.