Bowling, Burgers, and Bibles: EOC Churches Ministering in New Ways Beyond the Walls of Their Buildings

By Brett Hetherington*

A prominent message to laity and clergy during East Ohio Annual Conference 2022 was the importance of finding new and fresh ways to do ministry outside the walls of the church. For some congregations in East Ohio that may have been a new and even challenging idea, but for many others in the Conference it was a reaffirmation of the call their church has been living out in the community.

Mentor United Methodist Church (Western Reserve District) and Mount Tabor United Methodist Church (Tuscarawas District) are engaging their congregations and their communities in fresh expressions of ministry that have both churches sharing the Gospel in some interesting ways.

Bowling & Bibles

Bowling & Bibles is a fresh expression of ministry that Mentor UMC launched after Annual Conference 2022. Each Wednesday anyone who wants to join gathers at the bowling alley. The group spends about an hour bowling together, and then moves into a time of devotion. Each week a different individual leads the devotion time, and after the discussion wraps up the group spends a few moments in prayer and closes out the evening by celebrating the Sacrament of Holy Communion together.

“I had been nurturing and engaging in relationship with some of our college students for almost two years,” shared the Rev. Mikayla Doepker, Mentor UMC associate pastor. “The core of the group that has made up Bowling & Bibles was these college students who were home on summer break. And we expanded out because they all have summer jobs, and a lot of them invited coworkers to join us.”

“It is a really organic and natural time together,” shared Tammy Palermo, Mentor UMC director of Children and Family Ministries who, along with her husband Michael, dedicates time to being present at this ministry. Bowling & Bibles began as an outreach to young adults but attracts people of all ages from the church who have made it a point to be at the alley on Wednesday nights to build and strengthen relationships. There are also those in the bowling alley who have found themselves pulled into the orbit of this group.

“We don’t exist in a vacuum. Our very presence at a bowling alley, we aren’t just a bowling team. It is very clear this is not just about bowling, this is about something bigger,” said Doepker. “The elements of communion are out on one of the tables. This is about the way the Spirit moves in our lives and in our midst, and the ways in which God calls us out of our comfort zones and into our communities.”

Doepker shared that the idea of meeting people where they gathered is something that Jesus and His disciples did, so it is only natural for the church to emulate. “We love to engage and interact. Sometimes people ask questions, ‘What are you guys doing?’ ‘Why is there a chalice and bread?’ So we get to share with them this is our expression of church. We recognize that folks aren’t just going to come on Sunday morning just because it is ‘church time.’ We have to be in the community making relationships, building a foundation, inviting people to hear the Good News in ways that are organic and exciting and maybe a little different than what they have heard before,” she said.

The people who are attracted to participate in Bowling & Bibles varies, with new individuals showing up nearly every week through the invitations of friends who are already coming. “It is that personal relationship – it’s inviting people to come and be a part of what God Is doing in a way that isn’t confrontational or scary,” offered Palermo.

Some who come are completely disenfranchised with the institutionalized Church. They have a deep desire to engage in relationship with Jesus, and they know a community of faith is important. “Some of the traditional ways church has done it in the past has been harmful to them,” said Doepker. “Others have grown up in traditions that have not nurtured them, and they are disconnected and are looking for more. Some don’t know Jesus at all and are just looking for community as we emerge from a global pandemic, finding community that knows when you are missing and will ask you about your day.”

As students return to their college campuses, the makeup of the group will naturally shift. Doepker, Palermo, and others who will be around through the fall will remain committed and shared that there is a struggle in Mentor to create a community where there is not one already established.

“A lot of the people in Mentor drive to Cleveland to work, there really isn’t a central downtown area – there is nowhere people go just to hang out. We are trying to create that,” said Doepker.

Burgers and Bible

“East Canton is a small community, and everybody seems to know each other. If we were going to expand and grow as the body of Christ, we were going to need to do something different,” stated Pastor Christy Suffecool of Mount Tabor UMC. The something different has become a once-monthly gathering at a local restaurant/bar where all are invited to share a meal, fellowship, and some light discussion built around Spiritual matters.

Suffecool is a straightforward pastor who does not shy away from the leading of the Holy Spirit. She describes her calling as a pastor as “to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.” Her heart’s desire in ministry is to see her congregation grow deep and to be involved in the community, not to hide away behind the walls of the church building.

“As I was working and praying through the details of all of this – I really call this a burden on my heart – I went to Annual Conference, and it was all reinforced by the bishop (Bishop Tracy S. Malone) going through the whole ‘let’s do fresh expressions!’ I got permission to do what I was already wanting to do,” said Suffecool.

Meeting outside the church building allows for some of the natural barriers to be taken down for anyone who has never visited the church before. “Some people when you invite them to church, they’re not sure. When you come and meet people here, now you know more people and you might be willing to go to church and meet more as well,” said Erik Kitzmiller.

The people are exactly what Suffecool wants for the Burgers and Bible nights. “I feel our church’s greatest asset is our people. We have a lot of really cool people in our congregation and if you come out and hang out with them you get to know them, and now it’s not going to feel so weird going to church if you come to church on Sunday with someone you already know. Instead of walking into a room with one person now you’ve got a chance of knowing maybe a dozen people.”

Suffecool is also clear in sharing that this event is not necessarily designed to merely funnel more people into the Sunday fellowship. She and the church leadership acknowledge there are those who may come that are not ready – or may never be ready – to step into a traditional church setting. There may be those who cannot come on Sundays because of work schedules. For those people, this is their church.

“Our goal is to create an environment people can invite friends and family to when they feel awkward about inviting them to church,” said Suffecool. She continued, sharing more about the thinking behind the construction of the evening.

“This is based off of Acts 2:42 where the disciples were breaking bread together and studying together. We’ve been eating together as churches for years, and as Methodists we have always been good at eating together. So, you really can’t fail when you are planning a meal together. This is something that costs the church virtually no investment. Each person pays their own dinner, the space is provided by someone else. If people show up, you enjoy a meal together. If people don’t come, you go home and try again next month. It’s low-risk, high reward.”

It has also allowed opportunity for the group to answer questions at least one night when people who were seated at the bar became curious about this strange, yet friendly group in their midst.

“This gets us out of the building and into the community. Last month in the main bar area, people were asking questions. ‘What are you doing here?’ We were able to engage. It takes us out of our bubble – lets us be in the world,” Suffecool shared.

Don’t Be Afraid to Fail

Both of these fresh expressions of ministry are examples of the church getting out of the comfort zone and into the community. Both are a way of meeting people where they live, work, and possibly play. And both are a way to help people connect their story to God’s story.

“I think all those things make the fresh expression so beautiful. No one person’s story is the same but every person matters. Their story matters and what they bring to the community cannot be duplicated by someone else,” said Doepker.

“For some folks they will desire to connect with the larger church (Sunday service, service project, mission project) through Bowling & Bibles. For others this is their church, this is their community of faith. Our goal is always to make sure people know they are loved and cared for not only by us as the church (Mentor UMC) but cared for and loved by God. Wherever they are in their faith journey they are welcomed however they want to be a part of the community.”

The leaders of these ministries also know how daunting it can be to try something that might be completely foreign to the normal DNA of how their local church does ministry.

“I think the biggest thing that has held the church back from growing is the fear of failing and trying new things,” said Suffecool. “So, plan to fail. There is going to be something you try that is going to fail. Get the failures out of the way. This is the first thing I tell every church I have been in. If you are not afraid of failing, then you really can’t fail.”

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 wolcott@eocumc.com.

* Brett Hetherington is the Communications specialist for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.