Dinner Church Movement Sets the Table for Food, Faith, and Friendships

Pastor Tim Kim (center), members and guests of Root & Branch Church gather for a “dinner church” service Aug. 25, 2019, in Palmer Square Park in Chicago. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

On a near-perfect late summer evening, about a dozen people gathered on a picnic blanket in Chicago’s Palmer Square Park, spread between kids playing on playground equipment and young adults throwing a Frisbee disc on the lawn.

Accompanied by the crunch of joggers’ footsteps on the gravel path circling the narrow strip of green in the city’s trendy Logan Square neighborhood and the rumbling of a passing El train, one of the picnickers took a piece of pita bread and broke it in half.

“This is our body,” he said, passing it to the person sitting next to him. Each person repeated the gesture before digging into a spread of food from a nearby restaurant.

This gathering wasn’t just another group of friends soaking up the last days of summer outside.

It was church.

Root & Branch Church calls this service the Welcome Table. It’s part of a growing trend of dinner churches popping up across the country in churches in a number of denominations, conservative and progressive, urban and rural and everything in between.

The dinner church movement sees gathering together for a meal itself as worship, rather than just another church potluck after worship.

“It’s also really important to recognize that dinner churches are not a fundamentally new thing, this is not just like the latest cool iteration of church, and that eating together has been central to the church for the entirety of the church’s life,” said Kendall Vanderslice, author of “We Will Feast: Rethinking Dinner, Worship, and the Community of God.”

Food and faith have gone together since God formed humans from the soil to enjoy all God made, according to Vanderslice.

For Christians, the two also echo the Last Supper that Jesus shared with his disciples and the example of the early church.

“The story of Jesus’ ministry is a ministry that takes place through meals,” she said. “It’s not just about sustenance, it’s about delight and it’s about joy. And it’s about forming community.”

Still, there are a number of reasons Vanderslice believes the dinner church movement is growing now, particularly among millennials craving relationships and meaning. For one, she said, it fills a “profound need for community.”

“I think really that loneliness pervades every generation, and I think that loneliness is in part because the church has lost its focus on community,” she said.

Vanderslice began studying dinner churches in 2015 while in a graduate program in food studies at Boston University.

She spent three months attending Thursday night dinner church gatherings at Simple Church outside Boston. By the time she finished writing her thesis, she’d learned about 30 similar gatherings.

Pretty soon, she said, she lost count of the dinner churches starting every week, each unique to the needs of a specific community and context.

“I think there’s no one-size-fits-all model that can be sort of plopped down into any context and work,” she said.

Some dinner churches meet in restaurants. Others in gardens, growing the food they’ll eat together.

Nearly all the dinner churches Vanderslice has encountered were inspired by St. Lydia’s in Brooklyn, a decade-old congregation in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

The Rev. Emily Scott founded the church after noticing how rarely New Yorkers gathered for a home-cooked meal, according to the Rev. Elsa Marty, who now pastors at St. Lydia’s.

Believing that’s where connections are made, Scott started structuring services around a meal.

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Source: Religion News Service