Elmore UMC re-claims focus by loving and feeding neighbors
November 16, 2022
By: Christa Meland
Four years ago, Elmore UMC was concerned about having to close. The congregation and its small Minnesota town bordering Iowa were both declining in numbers, members had experienced major conflict, and the congregation had lost its pastor around Thanksgiving in 2018. The situation didn't look good.
The Minnesota Conference allowed a neighboring United Methodist pastor, Rev. Russ Jacobsen, to take Elmore UMC under his wing and help the church through the Advent season. Jacobsen was pleased to find a small core of members who wanted to not only keep the doors open but re-engage with their community and share the love of Jesus in practical ways, especially if it involved food.
Today, through a mid-week meal and worship experience, the church is reaching new people and has a renewed sense of energy and hope for the future. Every Wednesday evening, more than 60 people gather at Elmore UMC to eat and grow in faith, especially significant for a town of less than 600 people that worships maybe 20 on Sunday. More than two-thirds of them aren’t part of the church.
“We just put food in front of people and love on them,” said Jacobsen. “We’ve made things so institutional and complicated. It doesn’t have to be that hard. And I think the dinner church model is providing a very realistic path for our many declining rural congregations. Offering community and grace around the table is so powerful and it’s so biblical, and it’s something Minnesotans can do.”
Attendees include the elderly, young families, those in assisted living, and some living with severe mental illness—and there are always lots of kids. After church volunteers make and serve the meal, those gathered sing a few contemporary songs. Then children from preschool through fourth grade go down the hall for a Bible lesson taught by high school volunteers while older students and adults stay in the fellowship hall to watch videos from the Alpha Youth Series and have discussions about life, faith, and God. One Wednesday each month, Elmore UMC serves Pizza Hut pizza—which is always well received—rather than a home-cooked meal.
In the summer, the church changes things up a bit and hosts a monthly picnic supper in the local park. For the past couple of summers, an equestrian ministry in Iowa has brought horses and given kids free rides, and a chef at a local assisted living complex has selected one night to cater street tacos. At one of the picnics last summer, 150 people came—more than a fourth of the community.
Jacobsen has multiple examples of people who have been touched by this Wednesday night ministry. Before COVID, he recalls introducing himself to a man who had come for a meal and was sitting alone. A few months later, the man showed up at worship on Sunday. He returned multiple times, eventually thanking Jacobsen for talking to him at the dinner and revealing that he was dying of cancer. “When I pass, could you just say a prayer for me?” the man asked. He lived for a couple more years, and when he died, he had a church family that mourned his death.
Another person who’s become deeply involved with the church is a woman who was living on the streets in Duluth and facing addiction when she felt God was calling her to move to Elmore. She did, and she began an Alcoholics Anonymous group that meets at the church. She now has a church family, a home, a vehicle, a job, and a strong faith.
Jacobsen also points to a Hispanic family that some church members heard about and wanted to help when they learned that the mother had breast cancer. So the church put on a benefit for the family, which then started attending worship. A couple of weeks after the benefit, the family made tamales and led songs in Spanish as a thank you to the church and community.
The dinner church vision is catching. Vernon Center UMC is one of the other churches Jacobsen serves. While this congregation was without a pastor, members started to invite their community to pizza parties that have drawn crowds.The church is now planning a community Christmas party for next month and is exploring ways to bring a gentle spiritual witness to their meals.
Jacobsen said it’s been a joy to see Elmore UMC reclaim its energy and focus, and as he thinks about what’s next, he’s now asking the question: How do we help these new people we’re reaching go forward in discipleship and faith formation? Jacobsen is a strong proponent of the dinner church model and hopes to continue to grow the Wednesday ministry. “Most of us have a hard time inviting people to Sunday worship services,” he noted. “On the other hand, most Christians find it easy to say, ‘Would you like to come to dinner?’”
One thing he’s clear about: Jesus didn’t tell instruct us to build rectangular buildings, put in benches, meet once a week, and form committees.
“We’re going back to basics: the table, grace, relationships, joy for proclaiming the gospel,” Jacobsen said. Referencing Ezekiel 37, he added: “A lot of times we believe God’s done with us...We have to have faith to believe that God can make dry bones live again—one plate of food at a time.”
Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.