Dwight and Julie Weber have served some of the nation’s largest Free Methodist churches such as the Spring Arbor (Michigan) FMC, First FMC in Seattle and Crossroads Community Church in southeastern Michigan. Now they are new residents of Elkhart, Indiana, where the local Free Methodist church closed earlier this year.
The Webers moved May 1 into an apartment in an economically, ethnically and socially diverse neighborhood of Elkhart where they are launching the Mission Igniter Michiana network to serve a region that includes portions of northern Indiana and southwestern Michigan.
“Where we are in our journey is really in the risk part. It’s really stepping out by faith not knowing where God is taking us,” said Julie, who is well-known among many West Coast Free Methodists as the executive assistant to the Pacific Northwest Conference superintendent.
Instead of planting a church, the Webers see their work as starting a network with two streams.
One stream focuses on “fresh expressions of church” and will come alongside churches of different denominations and encourage “them to mobilize their people to step outside of the church and look for ways that they can join God in reaching people who have no interest in attending a traditional church.” Dwight became familiar with the Fresh Expressions movement (freshexpressionsus.org), which has pioneered the concept of dinner church, and began to implement some of its ideas while in his previous position as Spring Arbor’s executive pastor of discipleship.
Dwight met for coffee with one Elkhart area pastor who had become discouraged in his ongoing efforts to encourage church members to reach their community. The pastor shared that the church had recently started a Wednesday night meal to help homeless and lower-income people in their community.
“I said as we met, ‘Now you realize that what you’re doing is a dinner church,’” Dwight recalled. “I began to talk about what a dinner church is, and his eyes just totally lit up, and he said, ‘This is the most exciting thing I’ve ever heard, because this is exactly what we want to do, but we didn’t know how to do it.’”
The second stream focuses on forming microchurches, which the Webers define as “indigenous bodies of Christ” that are “formed and expanded with no connection to a traditional church.” No church buildings are needed.
“Our vision is that they would take place in factory breakrooms, teachers’ lounges, restaurants, cafes, fitness centers. Anywhere people naturally gather is where we’re hoping to plant these,” Dwight explained. “We’re planting churches. We’re just not planting brick-and-mortar churches. We’re planting people groups.”
The Webers are inspired by Florida’s Tampa Underground network of more than 200 microchurches, and they hope to see microchurches throughout the Michiana region known for Notre Dame University and being “the RV Capital of the World” because more than 80 percent of recreational vehicles are produced there (fmchr.ch/elkrv). Their initial efforts focus on the 58 percent of Elkhart County residents who indicated in a survey that they have no religious affiliation.
Dwight said the region has many good churches, “yet the growing percentage of ‘nones’ and ‘dones’ is increasing with every year.”
Dwight has started and overseen discipleship groups in several of his pastoral positions, but Mission Igniter Michiana is aimed at people who would not connect with a traditional church’s groups.
“Our frustration is: In most of our church work, we’ve basically just brought Christians together to be Christians,” he said. “We haven’t seen lost people come to faith through that kind of a network as much as we’d like, because it’s most likely done in the concept of the local church. It’s done in the building.”
Mission Igniter Michiana’s two streams may seem confusing because one stream strengthens other denominations’ churches and the other establishes microchurches within the region’s two Free Methodist conferences (Wabash and Southern Michigan). The Webers, however, see both streams as essential to reaching the approximately 1 million residents of Michiana who do not have a relationship with Jesus Christ.
“Early on as we prayed about it, even before we moved here, the Lord gave me this picture of two streams coming together, but having two very distinct streams that would be different,” Dwight said. “As I was writing the first draft of our brochure, I discovered that Elkhart was a city with two rivers.”
He made another discovery while walking around their new neighborhood near downtown Elkhart.
“It dawned on me that we are right in the middle of where those two rivers come together,” he said. “God put us right in the middle of where those two rivers are as we strive to bring these two streams of outreach together.”
The Webers’ interview with Light + Life occurred the month after they moved to Elkhart, and they already had made several key connections in the region.
For example, Dwight offered his volunteer services to the All Pro Dad program at participating schools in the region. He eventually was connected with a grateful principal who promised to expand a school’s program, which had only met four or five times a year, to monthly meetings with Dwight’s help.
“Before we even moved here, Dwight and I had been driving around Elkhart and just praying through the different communities, and as we did that, we seemed to always land on the same elementary school and their parking lot,” Julie said. “We really didn’t even know where we were, because we were just driving around, and we kept praying in this one elementary school parking lot.”
The school to which the Webers were repeatedly drawn on their prayer drives turned out to be the same school where Dwight was asked to help lead the All Pro Dad monthly meetings.
“That was such a God encounter and a God connection,” Julie said. “That’s something that only God could orchestrate.”
The Webers believe these divinely orchestrated connections can be linked to the 600 people in their prayer network. Visit fmchr.ch/djweber to sign up for email updates from the Webers or to support their ministry. The Southern Michigan Conference has given a two-year grant that covers approximately 47 percent of the couple’s ministry efforts, but the Webers are raising their own support for the rest of their expenses.
Jeff Finley is this magazine’s executive editor. He joined Light + Life in 2011 after a dozen years of reporting and editing for Sun-Times Media.