St. Luke's Dinner Church - Gathering Re-imagined
By: Rev. Meg Gaston
Doing church well often means looking at what we are currently doing and re-imagining it to help more people. We all have activities or evenings at church that have always looked a certain way, yet week after week fewer people are showing up. St. Luke’s UMC in Hickory first started looking at doing church differently when they partnered with Westview UMC to help revitalize a dying congregation. After seeing what a difference a dinner church made at Westview, it was decided that St. Luke’s needed to be revamped as well. St. Luke’s is one of those churches that has a country club in its back yard, and across the road out front there is poverty and families in need. The staff at St. Luke’s realized that their steeple was facing all types of people, so they started to talk about what they could do to be more fruitful in their neighborhood. While Wednesday nights used to just be a fellowship meal, they have since renamed it The Gathering and turned it into a community that was open to all people from babies to the elderly. They did not want this to be another place where you could have a free meal, but only after staying to be preached at, but rather a place where you can gather and meet people in your community you otherwise might not notice.
St. Luke’s decided that they wanted this to be more intentional than a normal Wednesday night meal, so they decided to hire a hospitality person. This person’s budget comes from their regular offering, but they did get a grant to help with other costs. They are hoping that since this ministry has become so popular, that one day they will not need a grant at all and can keep it going off of donations. The hospitality person that they hired is not just someone who fixes the food, but he spearheads the themes and ideas - making sure they are good for both families with small children, high school and college students, and adults. Once they hired him, they began to see more and more fruit. At their first meal they had one hundred twenty people in attendance. The idea of The Gathering had sparked enthusiasm for people to be together, going beyond it just being about dinner. People just wanted to be in fellowship together. And it was a bonus that the food was amazing, and the devotions and games went right along with the theme.
By deciding to mix things up, St. Luke’s saw their old fellowship night transform into a community event. All of a sudden, people who had never spoken before were sharing a meal. You would see a CEO of a corporation sitting next to someone who didn’t know where they would sleep the next night. There were people grieving loved ones who found community; elderly singles began to join; and all of a sudden they had around 210 people at the dinners.
So what helps make this dinner church so successful? For one, the members of St. Luke’s, not just the staff, are passionate about what this means for the community. Aside from the food, everything is volunteer. Regardless of age or skill set, there is a place to serve at The Gathering. Sunday School classes volunteer to help, and the senior pastor built a team of people whose sole job is to wash the dishes. St. Luke’s has also found it helpful to have formed a steering team of ten people that meet once a month to check in with how things are going so that they can continue to grow and adapt to what the community needs.
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