Dinner Church: An old model may be the answer to church renewal
By the Rev. Greg Mamula
Recently, I attended the 2018 Fresh Expressions National Gathering in Reston, Va. Fresh Expressions is an international movement that seeks to assist churches in thinking through new “expressions” of church. This year’s conference theme was “From the Steeple to the Street.”
Among several pre-conference sessions available, my interest was piqued by the “Dinner Church Encounter: Considering Jesus’ Dinner Table Theology,” a day-long training by Verlon and Melodee Fosner, founders of the Dinner Church Collective. The Dinner Church concept has recaptured the imagination of the American church in recent years.
Dinner Church “desires to be a meeting point for church leaders who are looking to expand their church into nearby social circles that are presently being underserved by the body of Christ,” Verlon Fosner said. “While the Dinner Church vision finds its theological roots in the house church of the book of Acts and the Agape churches found in the Epistles, its present-day resurgence reveals that this way of doing church still resonates with secular populations two millennia later.”
According to the Fosners, they were serving a declining church in the Seattle area in the early 2000s, when they realized something had to change, or their congregation would cease to be solvent in 2004. They presented this hard truth to their congregation in 2002, they say, leading to a season of deep prayer and contemplating assumptions about “doing church.”
The season of prayer and discovery, they say, pointed them toward the New Testament and Jesus’ model of table fellowship. They discovered that many U.S. churches remain deeply shaped by Reformation Era approaches to community, primarily centered around preaching. While they were quick to recognize the importance of preaching and scripture reading, they argued that an over-emphasis on these discipleship habits led to overlooking the centrality of the dinner table in the life of Jesus and the early church. An effort to rebalance the scales of church community, Dinner Church includes eating together as a central element, alongside preaching and Bible reading as core discipleship habits.
The pre-conference training included six sessions with a few guests who described their personal experience with Dinner Church.
“Dinner Church is not an outreach; Dinner Church is a church,” said Isaac Olivarez, discussing the Thursday night Dinner Church that he established in the Five Points neighborhood of Denver, Colo.
Olivarez emphasized that low socio-economic communities benefit from the Dinner Church model because it welcomes people who may not attend an established traditional congregation but are willing to attend a meal in a community center or store front.
During meals in Five Points, Olivarez encourages parishioners to listen to the stories of neighborhood individuals and, in return, to share their own encounters with Jesus. At the end of each Dinner Church experience, he provides a short sermon.
Via Dinner Church, Olivarez has become pastor to several homeless, low-income and other marginalized people in Denver. The congregation provided much-needed furniture for a family.
Session participant Mark Cyderman described how Dinner Church is reshaping ministry in Detroit, Mich. Because Dinner Church is one of the least expensive ministry models available for new church planting, several congregations have risen up in Detroit based on the model. Many of the congregations are led by volunteers, he said, and other churches in the area help with pre-made meals.
Cyderman said that Dinner Church is effective evangelism. Trying to verbally convince an individual of his or her need for Jesus today is a difficult intellectual exercise, he said, but showing people who Jesus is through meals, stories and love has led to many conversions and baptisms. He said that those connected to Dinner Church start to volunteer and serve like any other established local congregation.
Kendall Vanderslice, who has visited more than 50 Dinner Churches across the United States, shared several ways in which Dinner Churches can develop liturgies for their congregations. Liturgy is simply an intentional, meaningful process centered around meals for Dinner Church services.
Verlon Fosner concluded the training by encouraging those in attendance to give Dinner Church a try. The Dinner Church approach to church planting and freedom is Baptistic, allowing for autonomy of the local church, autonomy of pastoral leadership, dependence on scripture and biblical application, and encouraging fellowship among churches through association.
While Dinner Church might not be appropriate in every context, this old model just may prove to be the new expression of church in America.
The Rev. Greg Mamula is associate executive minister of American Baptist Churches of Nebraska.