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.)
“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 an initiative of Fresh Expressions that has found success in many United Methodist churches, including those in North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.
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.