Serving up supper & scripture in Salem
The Rev. Debbie Earthrowl, pastor at the Salem United Methodist Church and planter of Thursday Nights, said it all started with a conversation in early May 2014. Three young mothers approached Rev. Earthrowl, saying they wanted to experience church with their children, but were discouraged by previous church experiences.
Rev. Earthrowl wondered what it would be like to have an hour one night a week to gather for dinner and worship. The Saturday after her conversation with the mothers, she attended a new faith communities event, where she spoke to the Rev. David Masland, Upper New York Conference Director of New Faith Communities. Inspired by the event, she approached her congregation the next day, asking if anyone would sign up to make meals. The list quickly filled up, and Thursday Nights began the following Thursday.
The first week, 40 people attended. Since then, approximately 70 people call Thursday Nights their main worship experience. Rev. Earthrowl said the gathering has brought many people to the church, while others enjoy it in addition to Sunday worship.
“The one interesting thing too is … when we started that, our Sunday morning attendance increased, from people that were connected with the church before but they started coming more regularly,” Rev. Earthrowl said. “I think part of it was the excitement of something new going on again. We start a lot of new ministries from time to time, but I think this one really touched a heart for people.”
Rev. Earthrowl decided to host this gathering on Thursdays because it seemed like a good mid-week time to get together as well as to accommodate activities at the church on other nights.
“It is a loving place to come and we talk about and experience new ways of serving Christ every time we get together,” Rev. Earthrowl said. “Hearing God’s word is so exciting for us every time. And to think of all the new ways that we can share that with all ages is amazing.”
Thursday Nights begins with a meal – prepared by volunteers who sign up for slots each month – and then moves into worship, which always involves scripture. Some nights there are activities, such as cookie and ornament decorating, stories, skits acted out by the children, videos, or music. One night, Rev. Earthrowl set up the sanctuary like a mini-golf course with marbles as golf balls and tongue depressors as clubs.
“I think it’s just so exciting to have a place where people can come into the church and not have all the stereotypes there that might keep them from coming to worship and be able to come in,” she said.
Delaney Armstrong, a sixth grader who goes to Thursday Nights with her family, said she enjoys going “because it’s fun, and we learn a lot about God and Jesus.”
Rev. Earthrowl said she feels that Thursday Nights gives attendees “a connection with God that they haven’t had before.” She recalled one night, when she was about to read a Bible story, when she was interrupted by Judson Wohlleb – a fifth grader who attends Thursday Nights with his family – who told her, “Debbie, I just love Jesus.”
“That’s what’s really powerful, especially for the children that had not been to Church before the Thursday supper worship; it’s their first experience hearing about God, hearing about Jesus and talking about what that all means,” she said.
And Thursday Nights has become a family affair for the Wohllebs.
“Our kids are homeschooled and we still wanted them to be a part of the community, and we didn’t attend church already, and so this was a nice way to get involved and learn about church … ” said Sarah Wohlleb, Judson’s mother.
After becoming involved with Thursday Nights, Sarah found out she was pregnant. Once her daughter was born, she had her baptized during one of the Thursday Nights gatherings.
“This group has become her second family,” she said.
Rev. Earthrowl said Rev. Masland has been very supportive of Thursday Nights. She said she is very excited that the Conference lifts up new faith communities and sees them as something of value.
“We’re taking a look at a variety of ways to look at new faith communities; they all don’t look alike by any means,” she said. “And that’s exciting, too, because it can be what’s right for your community and your congregation and the community that you serve.”
For those feeling called to plant, Rev. Earthrowl has this advice to offer: “You should feel free to try anything you feel God is calling you to try because we just have no idea how powerful it can be.”