Posted: 8/29/19 at 2:00pm. Article by Rob Marsh.
I can’t remember exactly when it was that the idea of starting a dinner church grabbed hold of me. But I do know that for several years the thought just wouldn’t let me go.
I attended a Fresh Expressions Vision Day when I was serving a church in Northern Virginia, and we watched a video about the Dinner Church movement that was emerging out of the Seattle area. As I watched it, something within me said, “Yes. This is what church is supposed to look like.”
As I moved to other areas of Virginia and began to serve as a pastor, I learned a lot about ministry in all the traditional kinds of ways a church worships, loves, and serves together.
I preached sermons about the Great Commission and reaching our community. The churches I served worked hard on promoting a new vision of the church and energizing the ministry and mission teams in the church.
Through all this, however, I had a sense of divine discontent. As I began serving my church in the Roanoke area, I asked myself: What about the people who live nearby to the church, who see our steeple every day or drive the country road on which we are located?
What about those who have needs and don’t have a relationship with Jesus? How will we reach them?
The idea of the dinner church as way to encounter people in our community inspired my imagination, and yet I wondered if it could be done in my rural context. I attended Fresh Expressions and BGAV gatherings, and I eagerly sat in on breakout sessions to hear the stories of people who had launched dinner churches.
I heard the Holy Spirit ask, “What if?” But I always left with more questions and doubts about how this could actually be done in my church context.
I struggled with what seemed like obstacles in our rural setting: Our neighborhoods are spread out and we don’t have a large or central gathering place for many miles except our church building. Aren’t unchurched people unlikely to come to a church building?
What about my people, would they be on board with an effort like this? We had tried a Wednesday night meal before, and it didn’t last long. I didn’t want to overload or burn out my people who are already doing so much.
But earlier this year, the Holy Spirit finally got through to me and showed me what the biggest obstacle was to doing dinner church: me.
I prayed for God to help me let go of my need to know how it could happen and simply prayed, “Okay, God, I know you want to reach people through a dinner church. Just show me the next step.” That was the beginning of an unexpected journey over the past five months that has surprised me at every turn!
I understood the Spirit telling me two things: to pray and to invite others into the vision. I had to trust that God had this. I invited two of my church leaders to attend the Roanoke Vision Day. We went away from that experience asking that same question the Spirit had prompted in me all those years ago, “What if?”
We prayed, and we dreamed together. We shared about the Vision Day with the deacons and other leaders and asked them to pray for us for discernment.
The vision began to leak. I bought 10 copies of the book, Welcome to Dinner, Church, and the video that goes with it. I prayed for God to show me specific people to invite to be on a dinner church team.
I met with someone who attends our church who wanted to give a financial gift to the church. Following a nudge of the Spirit, I showed him video clips of a dinner church in North Carolina. When he finished watching, he told me that he and his wife had experience preparing and serving dinners like this at a previous church. And he said when we got it started, he wanted to help fund it.
A week or so later, I couldn’t avoid the impression that the Spirit wanted me to share the dinner church vision with a neighbor of the church. He and his wife are active in prison ministry and are faithful prayer partners. He owns a survival and preparedness store located a half mile from the church, and we had hosted his disaster preparedness seminar at the church the previous year.
I dropped by to see him, and I shared with him the vision of dinner church and asked if they would pray for our team that was developing. I told him that even though someday a dinner church could grow large enough to meet at the church, I was struggling trying to find a neutral and friendly location in which to host the dinners.
To my surprise, he said he was no longer using the building as a store and had been praying about how to use the space!
Each step of the way, from the unexpected group of people that became our team to the unexpected meeting location, the Holy Spirit opened the door and we simply had to walk through it.
It was simply about praying and then paying attention to how the Spirit led. We met during the summer and went through the training as we shared a meal around the table, modeling and practicing how to do life together.
But the Holy Spirit had another surprise for us. After targeted mailers, emails, some door-to-door visits with neighbors, preparation, and prayer, we were ready to launch the night of Tuesday, August 13. The launch location could comfortably hold about 15-20 people including our team of eight.
Monday morning, I got a phone call: “Rob, we have a big problem…but it’s a good problem. We have had a large response, and we ought to consider moving it to the church.”
We thought perhaps one day the gathering could grow and we could consider using the church building. We never expected that at our launch that Tuesday night, 42 people would gather around tables and share a meal and their lives together.
The Holy Spirit showed up!
We are at the beginning of this journey. We are an unlikely group that God brought together to be a team. We host our next dinner church in a few weeks.
The stories of how God showed up that night are still being shared. Our church is praying and celebrating with us. We are hopeful and excited about what God is doing!
Perhaps you are reading this and wondering, like I did, about the “obstacles” to doing something like this. You might be thinking: “We are too small, too rural” or “we lack the resources, the volunteers, etc.”
If so, let me ask you, are you willing for God to use you?
Are you willing to sit next to someone and just listen and love? Do you have a dinner table? Do you have a slow cooker? You can have a dinner church!
Jesus has set the table; you just need to show up!
If you or someone in your church wants to start a Fresh Expression of church, a Fresh Expressions Learning Community is coming to Richmond, VA, on October 18-19 and a Dinner Church Launch Cohort is coming to Williamsburg, VA, on November 23, for more information go to www.FreshExpressionsUS.org