This is part two of a five-part series. Read part one here. -NLP
If I were to ask you what five words you associate with the word church, you might say words like pews, Jesus, music, prayer, or heaven forbid, committees. It is less likely, however, that dinner or farm would appear among those five.
This is no surprise. While many mainline churches offer meals to their congregants, dinner is not generally a main feature of Christian worship. Farming is even less common in churches, that is, unless you are a monk tending a bean patch. Yet for a few budding congregations emerging across the United States, dinner and farm are at the core of what they do. These food-based ministries are creatively situating themselves at the intersection of food and faith and reinventing what it means to be church.
Saying the phrases dinner church or farm church doesn’t inherently reveal what these churches are actually like. People who have never heard of them may have many questions about what a worship service entails, what is required of the congregants, or, more basically, whether these churches are even Christian. To get answers to questions like these, I participated in the worship service at four dinner churches and one farm church for a master’s thesis in the spring of 2018. Because I am reporting on academic research, the churches and pastors of this study will remain unnamed and unidentified.
Let’s begin with the basics: What is farm church or dinner church? The pastor of the farm church I visited had a glib but earnest response: “We are not a spirituality-themed garden club.” This highlights an important point. First and foremost, farm and dinner churches are churches, not spirituality groups or dinner parties. The pastors at all the churches I studied identified their communities as Christian congregations that read the Bible, follow in the ways of Jesus Christ, and worship regularly together. Each of them have sprouted from a mainline Protestant denomination—Methodist, Presbyterian, and United Church of Christ—and they advertise themselves as churches of their respective denominations.
That said, none of the farm and dinner churches look like traditional churches. Were you to walk into a dinner church tonight, instead of finding your seat in a row of chairs or pews, you would be invited to find your seat at a table. Before that, however, you would likely be given a task in the kitchen to help prepare that evening’s meal. At a farm church, you may be handed a shovel or a hoe and checked that you are wearing closed-toe shoes before being sent out to find your place in rows of lettuce and beets. You would get an hour of sun and soil before heading inside for a worship service of Word, prayer, and music.
The atmosphere, too, can noticeably vary from that of a typical mainline Sunday morning service. Many dinner churches in particular have what one pastor described as an “ancient feel.” The environment is simple and inviting, with tables placed intentionally around the room. Strung lights create a cozy ambiance. Candles flicker at the tables, inviting the soul to reflection. There are no bulletins, no altar, no worship band. People sing a cappella or along with a single guitar. The atmosphere harkens imaginations of what it must have felt like to be a part of the early Christian church. The point is to keep things simple—good food, good company, and deep faith.
The worship experience at all of the churches I visited proved to be a hands-on affair. Whether it’s coming early to help prepare the evening’s soup, having discussion about the scripture reading while chewing on the freshly baked sourdough bread, or picking green beans to give to the local food pantry (and yes, I did all these things during my visits), worship entails intimately involving the body in the experience of praising God and growing in discipleship with one another.
Even with all the emphasis on food, liturgy is still central to the worship experience. All five churches share in common some of the basic building blocks of a worship service: people pass the peace, music and song are played between prayers, and the pastor gives a sermon. The primary liturgical difference specifically at the dinner churches is that the sermon is shortened to allow for discussion over the dinner table. This appears to be a staple of dinner church: the sermon is not just given, but created through thoughtful conversation while the food is shared.
If one thing binds all of these churches together, it is the Eucharist. Unlike many mainline Protestant and evangelical churches where Communion is practiced only once a month or even less frequently, these farm and dinner churches celebrate Communion weekly. Especially for the dinner churches, the Eucharist is at the center of what they do. Jesus broke bread and ate with his disciples, and so these churches do precisely that: sharing the bread of life by enjoying a meal in community with others.
At some churches, communion is before the meal. At others, it is after. At one church, the pastor shared the Eucharist with only those who stayed to the bitter end of clean-up. When asked why he did this, he said that he believes that communion is what happens around the table when everyone is sharing the meal. The ritual itself is not as important as the discipleship that happens around the table.
All of these ministries are in their first five years of life, and in many ways they are creating the road as they walk it. What it means to be a dinner church or a farm church is still shifting and evolving. Regardless how they change over time, one thing is for sure: if you plan to visit a farm or dinner church, come ready to be nourished in your belly as well as your soul.