In 2009, Saint Lydia’s, a Lutheran church in Brooklyn, New York garnered national attention when it began holding a weekly service over dinner. Longing to dispel feelings of isolation often reported among young New Yorkers, founder Emily Scott decided to model her service around the early church practice of having a meal together as Eucharist.
Meanwhile, the Assemblies of God Community Dinners in Seattle, Washington, the Disciples of Christ Potluck Church in Madisonville, Kentucky, and the Episcopal Southside Abbey in Chattanooga, Tennessee, began experimenting with their own ideas of meal-centered worship. One by one, communities began to emerge, though many remained unaware of others participating in the movement.
In the years since, the model has exploded from four to over forty congregations across North America and Europe, with new communities emerging on a weekly basis.
While every church has its own feel, the concept is the same: connect with others in a language spoken by all—food. Serving a hearty meal at a table with real napkins, dishes, and silverware, the services aim to feel like a dinner party, fostering conversation among men, women, and children who might otherwise never meet.
These churches encompass a range of denominations, both conservative and progressive, and they meet in a variety of settings: in church basements, restaurants, gardens, and art galleries. Found in urban, suburban, and rural areas, they attract wealthy, middle class, and unhoused neighbors. The intergenerational and multi-ethnic congregations create engaging dialogue; and the meals become a space where diners can disagree and still maintain close relationship.
Throughout the evening, they read Scripture, sing, and pray, but most importantly, they eat. Central to the process of eating is engaging in dialogue, providing space to respond to the Scripture or sermon.
This new way of doing church, which Saint Lydia’s fondly coined a “dinner church,” is modeled after the earliest gatherings of Christians as described in Acts 2: “They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts,” (Acts 2:46). Tertullian further describes these early church meetings, called Agape feasts, all based on the idea that Jesus’ Last Supper was intended to be a model for how Christians worship together.
“For the first 300 years, Christianity was done around dinner tables more than any other way,” says Verlon Fosner of Seattle’s Community Dinners, who uses the writings of Tertullian as a model for his services.
Something very powerful happens when meeting in this manner. By intentionally pulling together a diverse group of people around the shared need to eat, it is impossible to worship without acknowledging the variety of needs and experiences of those around the table.
The Apostle Paul chastised the Corinthian church for stratifying their services based on socioeconomic status, stifling diversity at the table. The poor were left hungry while others got drunk, turning the worship gatherings into places of division rather than methods of unification (1 Corinthians 11:17-34). For contemporary dinner churches, returning to the table for worship aims to reclaim the social boundary-breaking power of the Eucharistic meal, signifying a commitment to unity in Christ’s Body.
“If we say we come together at the Lord’s Supper, at the table, what does that look like if we spin it out into something more tangible?” says Alex Raabe, pastor of Table of Mercy in Austin, Texas. “All of our physical eating becomes spiritually nourishing, and our spiritual nourishing becomes physically fulfilling even outside of church.”
Despite inevitable disagreement during dinner table discussions, participants share a loaf of bread and worship together. “The meal allows for that to happen,” says a regular participant of Simple Church in Grafton, Massachusetts. “It feels natural. If you were to sit down at a table without a meal, you would feel like you were having a meeting, or like you were deliberating on something. The stakes would feel a little higher; people might feel a little more on edge. But eating, it reminds you of all the times you’ve eaten with friends before, or with family. It evokes a comfortable experience that I think allows people to be more real with each other.”
Each congregation has found a unique way to fit the dinner church model into its denomination’s patterns or its location’s restraints, but all have achieved a similar mission: seek unity in the midst of diverse individuality.
“Whenever I get overwhelmed by the whole thing,” says Zach Kerzee, pastor of Simple Church, “I just remember that in the end, all I’m doing is throwing a dinner party.”
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