A few weeks ago, with the start of a new semester (and academic year), I had the students in my Introduction to Christian Worship class fill out 3 x 5 cards with information about themselves so that my teaching assistant and I might know them better. The last question that I asked was, “Why are you in this class”? Besides the obvious, “It’s required for my degree program,” I had two students respond with “So I can learn more about dinner church.”
I must admit that I knew vaguely about “dinner church,” also known as “dinner party church.” To address the students’ interest in some fashion, it was clear that I needed to do some homework. Fortunately, the internet is abuzz with examples of Christian communities around the world engaging in this practice, from St. Lydia’s (affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) in Brooklyn, NY, the generally acknowledged founder of “dinner church” and the newer “waffle church” (http://stlydias.org/worship/), to more recent experiments. In most cases, these meal practices intentionally include the observance of the eucharist.
St. Lydia’s leadership designed the worship-centered meal to imitate what they believed to be early Christian practice. “We bless our meal with the earliest known Eucharistic Prayer called the Didache, drawn from the second century. Our pastor . . . chants the prayer. The congregation sings a response during the blessing, then shares the bread saying, ‘This is my body’” (http://stlydias.org/worship/dinner-church/).
Other dinner churches are more casual. Paul Nixon of The Epicenter Group and author of Weird Church (Pilgrim Press, 2016) notes that in some cases there is only the “subtlety of symbolic act.” He contends that “[i]f there are no words spoken, it isn’t technically Communion for the liturgy police at denominational headquarters—and so it’s legal in every tradition, with or without clergy. And yet the symbols are so powerful, that once we are in on the meanings, how necessary are words? Who is to keep Communion from happening?” (http://epicentergroup.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/WHAT-IS-DINNER-CHURCH-1.pdf).
Closer to home for me, a United Methodist church plant in Grafton, MA, called “Simple Church,” operates on a dinner church model, though it is looking to expand its offerings with “pancake church” to be intentionally invitation to children and “pizza church” for youth. The church’s leadership, which borrows or rents sites for its gatherings, currently seeks to establish affiliate “Simple” churches that utilize the conceptual and liturgical resources of the Grafton community.
Simple Church defines itself as a “eucharistic community” since its worship is built around the “eucharist ceremony,” which is “intended to be a radically participatory act of thanksgiving where we recognize our unity in Christ and the gift of creation through communal acts of worship, conversation, and eating good locally grown food.” The first part of the eucharistic ritual consists of a brief rehearsal of the “bread” portion of the institution narrative followed by the passing of bread to each person with the words, “This is my body, this is our body.” The action then shifts to the several tables where those in attendance sit to eat bread and hot soup. One of the leaders reads a passage from the Bible and encourages conversation on the scripture reading for the day at each table. Then, after singing together, a leader recounts the “cup” portion of the institution narrative. A cup is passed with the words, “the cup of forgiveness,” and individual glasses are filled. Glasses are raised together in a toast with the word, “Thanks.”
For those of us sympathetic to the “liturgy police,” this may seem less eucharist and more eucharistic, less sacramental meal and more fellowship meal. Undoubtedly, those who lead and participate in dinner church see this as the “real thing.” What do you think?