CHAMPAIGN — The weekly tailgate at CU Church gets underway an hour before the Thursday evening service.
Who's invited? Pretty much anyone.
Held in a white tent outside the church, the tailgate has been providing a once-a-week dinner for several homeless folks as well as serving as a social gathering for the church congregation, neighbors and others who stop by.
It's one way this new church is reaching out to the community and living its mission to love God and love people, according to Jason Epperson, the senior pastor.
"Our real purpose is we want to serve our community," he said.
Some 20 to 30 percent of the offerings and donations that the Champaign church receives are used to help support local service agencies and international missions, plus specific urgent needs — such as a local family in crisis — identified by members of the congregation.
Giving time is also considered important at CU Church.
Church leaders are asked to spend at least 10 hours a week in community service, and members of the congregation are likewise encouraged to do service or mission work, Epperson said.
The church now has hundreds of people doing service work who weren't doing it before, he said.
"We really want to see less homelessness in our community, less poverty, less people committing suicide, and (more) finding the love of Jesus," Epperson said.
CU Church got its start last year with a small group gathered in a local living room, he said. Its first service in its current (and temporary) location at 602 W. Church St., C, was held last fall.
Also the chaplain for the University of Illinois football team and a former youth pastor at First Christian Church, the 41-year-old Epperson is a married father of four.
After leaving First Christian Church, he served on the leadership team at Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Ky.
The Louisville church provided the backing for Epperson to come back to Champaign-Urbana accompanied by two others, Daniel Dabney and Matt McGuire, to plant the new church that became CU Church, Epperson said.
Since its start, this church has strived to be less an institution and more an extended family, and it has grown in its first year. People who left other churches make up about half the congregation, and the rest weren't previously going to church at all, Epperson said.
Letting this church go the way of serving God's people may be the key to its appeal, he said.
"When a church does what God's asked it to do, and someone becomes a part of it or sees it, it kind of awakens something inside of them, and what it awakens in them is what they've been created to be," Epperson said. "And it excites them, and because of that, they tell other people."
Each service lasts about an hour and includes music, preaching from the Bible, Communion and time for people to connect with each other and share how they're connecting with God, Epperson said.
CU Church is housed for now in the former Champaign Christian Science Society building owned by the Champaign school district. That building will be torn down to make way for Central High School's expansion, and the church will need to move out by next March, Epperson said.
But its running out of room there anyway, even with four services a week — the one on Thursday evening and three on Sunday — he said.
Church leaders would like to see CU Church remain in the city's center or, perhaps, find a location in northwest Champaign. The next move will likely be to another leased space, which goes hand in hand with the church's desire to invest more in its community than in a building, Epperson said.
Additional church launches may also be forthcoming, Epperson said.
"We're already thinking and praying, where else in our community can we plant a church," he said.