“There’s a natural beauty in a big, huge, family table that says, ‘You’ll be included here,'” explained Verlon Fosner, director of the Dinner Church Collective, a stream of the Fresh Expressions movement.
He and his wife, Melodee, work together to help churches reach isolated people in their communities by establishing “dinner churches” – a type of congregation that seems new to many traditional churches but really isn’t so new at all.
When the church that Fosner pastors in Seattle, Washington, began to decline rapidly in his sixth year there, he and his wife felt a new kind of calling.
“We prayed about moving, but we sensed God bringing us back to the apostolic era – those 300 years – and how they did church. There was a predominance to the dinner table, and that’s something that’s dropped off the scene quite a lot in recent centuries,” he explained.
The Fosners rented out the house they owned and moved to an apartment about 50 blocks south of their church’s main campus. In that neighborhood, they started a dinner church on a Thursday night in a community space.
“What happened next was quite profound,” Fosner recalled. “That room started to fill up with more strangers and individuals that you would just never see on a Sunday morning – people without any church background at all. Before long, they were fascinated with the life of Christ and then knew it was a church. They called me their pastor, and my wife their pastor’s wife – and we weren’t even using those titles. Very quickly, a church was born.”
Not long after, they started another dinner church in another neighborhood nearby on Wednesday nights. They opened the first one in 2009, and they are about to start the 11th one in their area.
“In 2014,” Fosner remembered, “we realized we had a responsibility to the wider body of Christ.”
Knowing that similar dynamics of church decline were going on around the country, they linked up with Fresh Expressions (an international ministry whose U.S. franchise is sponsored by the Baptist General Association of Virginia) in order to bring their ideas and resources to more congregations by forming the Dinner Church Collective.
The Fosners now co-lead training for others around the United States who want to start dinner churches.
In North Carolina, for example, they’ve recently worked with a group of leaders who have a goal of starting 500 dinner churches in the next 3.5 years.
The Fosners no longer lead all the dinner churches in their area of Seattle because they travel a lot with the national initiative.
But they continue to be actively involved in their local dinner churches by helping prepare food and nurturing relationships with those who pastor those churches.
Fosner said that they know of at least 133 dinner churches currently meeting in the U.S., and new ones are opening every few days.
In the past year, the collective has expanded to the point that jurisdictional and denominational leaders have sought help in putting together strategies for their entire conferences, districts and networks because of the growing number of churches that are closing.
“We want to get declining churches’ missional momentum back,” he explained. “Our big dream – what we really want – is for an established church congregation to start a dinner church congregation in a challenged neighborhood a few blocks away on a weeknight, and for them to love it as much as they love their Sunday morning church.”
Fosner said that the stability of the traditional group helps the new group, and the new group helps the traditional group know what the front line of missions feels like. “It’s a great way for everyone to win.”
Fosner told of one dinner church in North Carolina that runs about 80 in attendance, and its affiliated traditional congregation recently grew from just seven to 14 members.
In the Seattle area, some dinner churches have more than 300 people attending weekly.
Fosner clarified, “These are not outreaches; they are churches – not just another church activity on a weeknight.”
The food for each meal – a central element to the dinner church experience – is usually coordinated and prepared by a culinary team of volunteers who start cooking as early as 11 a.m. on meeting days.
In areas like Seattle, where there are several dinner churches, the food is prepared in a central location and delivered in “hotboxes” to all the locations.
Most dinner churches start serving at 5 p.m. and continue serving until 6:15 p.m. or so, throughout the worship experience.
Music by live worship artists begins early, and some congregations have visual artists who paint during worship as well.
The entire worship experience occurs around the dinner table; the pastor preaches a one-point sermon on the life of Christ, and congregants share in prayers of healing with those around them.
“We do everything needed to lead someone in their next step of the Christian faith, and we come back the next week and do it again.”
Because of the nature of dinner churches, diversity is built into each congregation. “Whoever lives in the neighborhoods – that’s who’s in the church,” Fosner explained.
People of all ages and ethnicities are attracted to dinner churches. They just go to the one that meets in their neighborhood.
“The ethnic blending is so natural, it’s shocking – since that’s something that traditional churches tend to really struggle with,” Fosner said.
“The heartbeat of the dinner church is that it is for isolated populations, and you can trace that theologically way, way back,” he said. “For some of these people, maybe their family left so they live alone, or maybe they have struggles within their family and society isn’t enveloping them in support structures. But they’re included around the table at the dinner church, and that’s one thing that Christians have historically been very good at. We do know how to make family out of the family-less.”
More information about the Dinner Church Collective is available here.
Jennifer Law is a marketing associate with the Baptist General Association of Virginia. A version of this news article first appeared on the BGAV blog. It is used with permission. You can follow BGAV on Twitter @VaBaptists.