At Georgia ‘dinner church,’ families cherish time of worship, food, fellowship every Wednesday

By David Paulsen
Posted Mar 15, 2024
Grovetown Mission in a gym

Grovetown Episcopal Lutheran Mission launched in 2018 and now gathers every Wednesday night for food and worship in a gym at Liberty Park in Grovetown, Ga. Photo: Grovetown Mission, via Facebook

[Episcopal News Service] Georgia resident Latoya Stewart first learned about Grovetown Episcopal Lutheran Mission when she and her three children were visiting a back-to-school fair at a local park. Members of the congregation were there giving away backpacks. That was back in 2018, the first year of Grovetown Mission’s launch. The Stewarts have been attending its worship services ever since.

“My children have grown up with the church,” Stewart told Episcopal News Service. “They don’t ever miss Wednesday.”

You read that correctly. Wednesday nights, not Sunday mornings, are the weekly worship time for Grovetown Mission. It has established itself as a lively “dinner church” in the city of Grovetown with financial backing from The Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. In November 2023, it received $20,000 as one of 38 worshipping communities supported by The Episcopal Church’s latest round of church-planting grants.

Grovetown buffet

About 50 people regularly attend the Wednesday night worship services of Grovetown Episcopal Lutheran Mission in Grovetown, Georgia, with members bringing dishes to share for the communal meals. Photo: Grovetown Mission, via Facebook

The Rev. Thomas Barron, rector of Grovetown Mission, describes the congregation as a diverse group of about 50 people, including a number of young families. “We all get to sit together and taste each other’s food, basically sit down like a family and talk about the day,” Barron told Episcopal News Service.

They come from different racial and economic backgrounds and bring a range of past experiences with religion. Some were drawn to Grovetown Mission as a rare LGBTQ+-affirming congregation in this city of about 17,000 people just west of Augusta. The congregation stands by is tagline of “there’s a place for you at our table,” Barron said.

They have come to see Grovetown Mission as a kind of extended family. “All of these folks have no problem loving each other,” he said.

Barron’s time as an Episcopal priest isn’t much older than his congregation. A native of Georgia, Barron comes from a nondenominational evangelical background. He previously served as minister at an evangelical church in Virginia Beach, Virginia, before a friend gave him a copy of The Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer. The prayer book’s liturgies and theology immediately resonated with Barron, as if he were coming back to a spiritual home he hadn’t known existed.

“I started reading it and discovered, wow, this is my theology. This is everything I believe,” he said.

While dealing with turmoil in his personal life, particularly his marriage ending in divorce, he decided to move back to Georgia and start over. He began attending St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Brunswick and was received as an Episcopalian in 2013, and he soon began discerning a call to the priesthood in the Diocese of Georgia.

At the same time, then-Bishop Scott Benhase saw an opportunity for a new Episcopal community in Grovetown, where the local population has increased by more than 50% since 2010. The city is home to Fort Eisenhower, and the region is rapidly growing as a cybersecurity hub. After Benhase ordained Barron to the priesthood in November 2017, Barron moved to the Augusta area and began laying the groundwork for a mission church in Grovetown.

“Based on the demographics, we really wanted to minister to younger families, particularly families with younger children,” Barron said. In early 2018, he and a small group of worshipers began meeting at a Lion’s Club in Grovetown. They chose Wednesday nights at first because they didn’t have anywhere to meet on Sundays.

They soon found more suitable accommodations in a community center at the city’s Liberty Park. A small room there held up to about 30 people, and they decided to structure the Wednesday night worship around communal dinners.

Thomas Barron

The Rev. Thomas Barron typically gives a short homily or leads a discussion of the Scripture readings after the meal at Grovetown Episcopal Lutheran Mission. Photo: Grovetown Mission, via Facebook

Barron researched similar worshiping communities around The Episcopal Church to help shape his evolving ministry in Grovetown. “I’ve always wanted to do something with food, gathering around the table,” Barron said. “I’ve always been fascinated with the concept of food and theology.”

The meals started with simple fare, such as takeout pizza and fried chicken. Soon, the congregation’s growing membership suggested bringing their own dishes to share. Members who didn’t have much money to contribute to the congregation could still bring some food each Wednesday evening, Barron said. Now the congregation has a rotation of themed meals, such as crock pot dishes, taco night and the ever-popular breakfast for dinner.

The family-friendly atmosphere is a large part of the appeal for Tierney Hall. She began attending Grovetown Mission about three years ago with her husband, Perry Hall, and their two sons, who are now 7 and 5.

“It’s such a nice, motley crew of people from all different backgrounds,” she said. “We rarely miss, and it’s just become part of our routine. We love the fellowship and the little community.”

The liturgy also is familiar to Hall, who grew up attending Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Augusta. At Grovetown Mission, the service is rooted in the Holy Eucharist that Episcopalians know from Sunday morning services, as Barron was able to adapt components of that liturgy to a dinner setting.

“It really is dinner and church. Everything is together,” Barron said. “And it has a certain flow to it. Dinner is very much part of the theology in the service.”

The congregation starts by praying a collect. Members then begin their meal, spending about a half hour to relax and enjoy the food. Scripture readings typically are scheduled around dessert time, followed by a homily or discussion. After the prayers of the people and the peace, the service turns to the Eucharist, which is distributed at the tables.

Many of the worshipers have very little experience with organized religion and are attending a church for the first time, Barron said. Others already have a background in the Episcopal or Lutheran faith. Some have turned away from Roman Catholic or evangelical traditions. “A lot of times, we’re a great fit for those people that are on the very edge” of religious belief, Barron said, noting that the services even have drawn some who identify as agnostic.

As the congregation grew and needed more space, it moved into a gym at the park’s community center. A separate area there is set up for a nursery, so parents of small children can focus on the worship service.

Stewart’s 16-year-old daughter, Amira, now volunteers to help monitor the nursery on Wednesday nights. Stewart also has a 12-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son. The dinner services have been a blessing for her, as a single parent.

“I get a break and I don’t have to cook one night a week. We can sit down and have fellowship.” she said. “It’s like family, like home. The environment is loving. It’s like a breath of fresh air.”

Perry Hall appreciates the family atmosphere as well. “I think we’ve got something that nobody else in the area offers,” he told ENS. “We’re a pretty close-knit group of people, and we pray for each other every night.”

A while ago, Barron conducted a survey of the congregation to see if it was interested in pursuing a Sunday morning service. The overwhelming recommendation was to keep the Wednesday night dinner services. Barron still thinks there eventually might be an opportunity to add a second, more traditional service Sunday mornings, but Wednesday nights will remain the central service of Grovetown Episcopal Lutheran Mission.

“The dinner became such a huge part of what everybody loved,” he said. “That’s become our unique identity.”

– David Paulsen is a senior reporter and editor for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at