By Brett Hetherington*
Hosting a ministry around a meal is commonplace within The United Methodist Church, creating an opportunity to connect with others around a shared experience within fellowship halls, gymnasiums, and kitchens. However, a fresh expression of being the church is growing in the Firelands District because the people of Lakeside Chautauqua asked the question “How can the church of Lakeside get out of Lakeside?”
Fresh Bread was birthed from the answer to that question. This new ministry is a once-monthly free dinner which welcomes any in the area who are searching for a connection to God, whether that be an initial meeting with the Creator or a deepening of a bond that already exists. The ministry is a cooperative effort led by clergy and laity in the community who volunteer their time.
“It was actually Chris who got everything started by sharing an idea about dinner church at Lakeside Chautauqua’s Religious Life Advisory Committee,” shared the Rev. Karen Graham, pastor of Lakeside United Methodist Church (Firelands District). “Chris” is the Rev. Chris Young, a retired Lutheran minister, who serves as chairperson of the Lakeside Chautauqua Religious Life Advisory Committee.
“The people of our church were asked to be a part of Fresh Expressions training and when we came back for our next meeting Chris reminded us about her idea,” continued Graham. Another member of the committee, Dan Moulton, had attended the Fresh Expressions training as well.
“They came back for our meeting the next month and I shared about dinner church again and they said ‘Oh! We had that training. We’ll help!’” said Young. After that meeting Graham described herself, Young and Moulton as “the instigators” of what has become Fresh Bread.
The initial planning was slowed to a crawl as the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the launch of Fresh Bread for a year. But as the stay-at-home orders were lifted and people became comfortable with joining together for meals the outreach ministry was launched and in June of this year celebrated its first anniversary.
“We are making a very intentional effort in what we are doing with Fresh Bread,” said Graham. “We are non-doctrinal. We are not pushing any particular interpretation of scripture, we just agreed we would tell the stories of Jesus every month. We are not teaching any particular church’s history, theology, or biblical interpretation.”
This mindset is key for Fresh Bread, as the idea behind the ministry is getting outside the walls of the church. It is not an extension of any one church in the area, though there are some who support it financially, and the East Ohio Conference aided the launch with a grant. Graham and the leadership behind Fresh Bread desire for the once-monthly dinners to be a place that are welcoming to all people – unchurched, those who are disenfranchised with the church, and even those who are merely looking for more opportunities to fellowship together.
“I think we really have a good cross-section of who we are trying to reach,” shared Graham.
Young and Graham are also quick to point out that Fresh Bread is not the start of another new church, nor is it designed to take the place of any existing church. “This is one of our guiding principles,” shared Young.
Over the first year in operation Fresh Bread has grown. The ministry partners with a local restaurant – Bistro 163 – which provides the food for each dinner as well as the original meeting space. “Because of COVID we had a smaller launch than anticipated, and we started off by taking reservations so we could get an idea of who is coming,” shared Graham. Soon Fresh Bread outgrew the space available in Bistro 163 and another space in the building was secured. The July 2022 gathering had 55 reservations.
Fresh Bread is more than just a time to share a meal together. The leadership team of Graham, Young and Moulton rotate in leading a planned devotional time. There is also a commitment to offer other avenues to connect with God.
“We do talk but people connect through music and art as well, so we want to offer a space where people can meet God in a different way than they might be used to,” shared Graham. “We want to have it be experiential. Not just listening someone talk, have it be interactive.”
The artist who shared her gift at the July 2022 gathering was a college-bound young woman by the name of Rebecca and she fulfilled this mission statement in a simple, yet elegant manner. As she passed out small pieces of colored paper, she shared some thoughts on faith.
“Faith is the foundation on which everything is built, so how do we sum it up? What image comes to mind when you think of faith?” A lake came to her mind, so she had painted the surface of a lake meeting the sky. Everyone present was invited to write down what faith meant to them in one word or a few words, and Rebecca would take those papers and add them to the painting as the sunrise or sunset.
During the meal people are invited to share a high point and a low point from the previous month. After the meal the devotional is shared, with time built in for questions and discussion around each table. Following the benediction, people will filter out, but not too quickly as there is genuine community being built across denominational and socioeconomic lines.
Fresh Bread meets needs both physical and spiritual in different ways for different people, and there are plans to continue growing. Two other area ministerial associations have been invited to join in and there are continual efforts to involve more churches in the area. This Fresh Expression of ministry is only one-year old, and the leadership does not see any sign that it will be doing anything but continue to grow as the future unfolds.
The Conference Communications team would like to share other stories that highlight ways that each of us is answering the call of Bishop Tracy S. Malone to reach out to our communities in creative ways. Please e-mail your ministry story to EOC Executive Director of Communications Rick Wolcott at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Brett Hetherington is the Communications specialist for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.