Community Dinner Milestone
Seven years ago, a rapid demographic shift in Seattle's core neighborhoods toward poorer, single, and increasingly secular populations resulted in a long-established Assemblies of God congregation sliding toward extinction.
But when it came to finding the answers to inner-city ministry's existential challenges, Pastor Verlon Fosner and his staff discovered what's old, indeed very old, is new again.
"We had to decide, 'What does an urban Assemblies of God church look like?' "Fosner says. "We eventually decided to look at the Apostolic Era, how first century followers of Christ met around the dinner table. They brought in the strangers, the widows, to join them for a meal and to talk about Jesus."
The 92-year-old North Seattle church Fosner pastored remade itself from Westminster Community Church to the Community Dinners fellowship, leasing out its church building to another congregation - an arrangement which, along with a school and day-care center still in operation at the former site, helps fund the newer ministries.
Today, the Community Dinners network feeds, fellowships, and shares Christ with about 900 people a week through locations in the Seattle neighborhoods of Bitterlake, Pike Place, Market, Ballard, Fremont, and Greenwood. Each of those sites hosts about 150 people, and the movement continues to grow.
Culminating with a special meal and program on Sunday at the Bitterlake Community Center, the network will celebrate reaching its 1,000th Community Dinner milestone.
"Every night of the week we have something going on somewhere," Fosner says. "Since we began Community Dinners, we estimate we have served at least 100,000. Eventually, we want to have a dinner fellowship in every one of the 27 high-density population, walking villages within Seattle we have identified."
About 10 percent of participants annually make commitments to Christ, what Fosner views as "crossing the line of faith" from secular worldview to lives incorporating prayer and dependence on a relationship with the Lord.
The makeup of the networks target communities - where mass transit, bicycles, or shoe leather are the prime transportation options. Most residents of those neighborhoods are single, and 30 percent are below the poverty income line. Fully 90 percent identify with no specific faith.
"We have found Seattle isn't opposed to Christianity, but it is not impressed with 'Churchianity,' " Fosner says. "Seattleites have no problem with talking about Christ - and using a 19-century-old template really is our future as an urban church."
Gathering around tables, Community Dinners groups including people of means sitting with little or nothing; believers with those of no spiritual backgrounds. As they eat the freely provided meals, attendees talk about health, housing and employment issues, and are invited to stay afterward for a low-key, and voluntary time of prayer and sharing of the gospel.
It is a pattern that Fosner says was set by Jesus, who shared himself at tables where the broken and lost of his time felt welcome.
First century Christians kept that focus. Now, nearly two millennia later, it is a pattern that is working to reach tens of thousands of urban Seattle residents who might otherwise never encounter Jesus.
Pike Place Market photo used in accordance with Creative Commons license. Photo credit: Michael Righi, Flickr