Talk Sparks Salem Church Church Invites All Comers To A Meal Of Fun And Community

Pat Jobe

The church will not die.

Say what you like about preachers and Bibles and church houses, there is something there that always speaks of a real and present spirit.

Consider the Salem Dinners Unplugged, a truly innovative approach to worship, teaching, and getting folks off their cell phones.


Salem United Methodist Church in Bostic is offering dinner at 6 on Wednesday evenings and an hour of no cell phones spiced with scripture readings, reactions to scripture readings, conversation, deep questions, and even games and riddles.

While many rural churches are grieving a loss of members and attendance, Salem is trying a truly unusual approach to the message of the Gospels.

It goes beyond a free meal.

One visitor, Tanner Balkcum, was asked what he was doing there.

He answered, "The sign said, 'Food.'"

He said he was only half joking.

The evening included grandparents, parents, and children; and cell phones parked in a box on each table. Participants got their cell phones back at the end of the hour, much to the relief of many of the teens in the room.

Yes, the evening was even attended by teenagers.

Goodness, gracious.

The Rev. Sam Burleson, among the evening's hosts, read Luke 18: 15-17, the one where Jesus said only the innocence of little children will allow the practice of kingdom authority.

Burleson asked, "How are children different from adults?"

One youngster immediately said, "They are better at riding scooters." Tanner's wife, Lieza, was there with an arm injury she had gotten from riding a scooter.

But the more serious answers to the question popped up all around the room.

"Children aren't so bogged down in pragmatics," Hayden Trull said. "Children love big. They are all about love."

Tanner offered, "They are more trusting, if they live in a good home."

For that hour, Salem Church felt like a very good home.

Church member Mike Saunders said the hope of the new Wednesday night program is to meet people where they are, even if they have never been to church.

David Hislop, the Rutherford County Food Systems Coordinator, was the cook for the evening. His roasted chicken, potatoes, and tomato and watermelon salad went over real well. He had taken some friendly kidding from folks the week before for making "Yankee" green beans. Apparently folks who grow up in the north think green beans are supposed to be crisp. Southerners like them mushy, or at least not quite so crisp.

While food is a major part of the ministry, it is multi-layered and fun.

Burleson's wife, Erin, is also an ordained United Methodist minister and she closed the hour with a benediction. She said, "I never know if I'm supposed to be blessing the food or being thankful for it, so tonight let's do both."

Sam Burleson said, "It's a space where the church can intentionally teach us how to have civic conversations. We want to model how families can have difficult conversations around the dinner table. It is a place where families can have this kind of interaction. That's our intention for now but we hope to eventually open this to conversations in the broader community around race, politics, and other major pressing social issues."

He added, "The dinner table is a place when Jesus modeled this."

Burleson borrowed some of the techniques from The Disciples of Welcome, which is an organization encouraging deep conversation all over the place. They call it "the people's supper," and organize these kinds of conversations in people's homes. The format is Salem's.

"The Disciples of Welcome movement wants to create a lot of conversation. They do this in homes, with people who are very specifically invited. We just want to bring it to Rutherford County. We want to bring the voices of the next generation. We embrace the messiness (of involving young children.) It's a space where the spirit fills in the gaps," Burleson said.

The church's Director Of Family Ministries, Rev. Travis Smith, added, "We live in a world of division and conflict; and there is one thing we can all agree on and come together over and that's food. This church is a place to create community."

Smith is also executive director of Blue Ridge Hope, a nonprofit which offers counseling, community building and service around issues of grief, change and wholeness. It's on the web at

The multi-generational aspect of the evening was embodied in Catherine Washburn, who has been a member at Salem for 60-plus years. Her daughter, Jenna Bailey, and her great granddaughter Alexis joined her. When Alexis considered the question of how children are different from adults, she said, "Children have better imaginations."

Next to Catherine Washburn were Mr. and Mrs. Jeff Harshman, who have only joined the church in the past few months. Research shows that two signs of a healthy congregation are members who have been there a long time and a steady stream of new members. Salem has both.