"If we're going to reach people who aren't part of the party that we're throwing, we need to throw a different kind of party."
The Rev. Zach Kerzee of Simple Church in Grafton, Massachusetts, easily moves from talking about parties to talking about church. For him, parties and church are closely related; one idea usually involves the other.
This is not new in the Christian world. Jesus valued parties. We get far more stories about Jesus informally joining in parties than stories about Jesus attending large worship services or formal events. Jesus was really good at getting himself invited to dinner parties. Gatherings around food were hotspots for Jesus' ministry.
What was remarkable about Jesus' dinners was that, rather than being chances for Jesus to define social boundaries, they were opportunities for Jesus to expand social boundaries.
Jesus shared meals with people assumed to be in the lower tiers of his society, like tax collectors (Mark 2:15-17, Luke 19:1-10). He also broke bread with the powerful and elite when he shared meals with Pharisees and other religious leaders (Luke 11:37-54, Luke 14:1-24).
His company likely shared differing political affiliations. Jesus expressed that he shared differing opinions from those with whom he gathered. The diversity of his company made things awkward at times, but that never seemed to keep Jesus from sitting down to share bread with somebody else.
Kerzee, fellow pastor LyAnna Johnson, and Simple Church value the idea of bringing diverse people together. It is one reason they gather in the ways that they do.
Simple Church started with an idea that was, well, simple. According to Kerzee, the church began with a concise focus: "We're going to meet on Thursday nights for a potluck meal and that's going to be the whole thing. Church around a dinner table."
They call their model "dinner church."
WHAT IS DINNER CHURCH?
The rhythm of Simple Church's gatherings allows for open participation. They begin with prayer and sharing communion together. Then they eat. Afterward, they "write the sermon" together as church members simply share their own experiences and ideas related to a particular scriptural focus.
The meals, unsurprisingly, are simple: generally soup and bread. Ingredients come from a local farmer who grows produce on land leased from the church. Church members make the bread.
Meeting around a dinner table gives space and opportunity for the members of Simple Church to share ideas and stories with one another. "By creating space where we can disagree and still love each other, there's power in that — there's grace in that," Kerzee said.
"There's not a group of people any more different than our church. We vote for different people. We have different positions. Some of us believe in God, some of us don't. Some of us consider ourselves evangelical, some of us don't.
"The only thing that I can think that would bring us together would be the power of the Holy Spirit, because none of us would be friends apart from church," he said.
In a commuter community like Grafton — where much of the workforce travels to Boston — it is easy for people to hide in their houses when they are home. Simple Church, and its dinner church model, provides an opportunity for residents to connect in community.
It was a challenging start for Kerzee, as he grew the church the old-fashioned way: by going door to door.
"I felt like a complete idiot 90 percent of the time," he said.
But his invitations enticed many hoping for meaningful connection, and recently Simple Church and Rev. LyAnna Johnson opened a second "campus" in nearby Worcester (meeting on Tuesday nights). A third campus opens in East Dallas, Texas, in early October, 2018. Josh Esparza leads that effort.
As part of its ethos of simplicity, Simple Church does not own a building. Church meals take place at various locations, allowing for space to meet the needs of the people gathered.
Similarly, the pastors seek to keep the congregation free of financial entanglements. The congregations are supported through a "monastic funding" model. Monasteries of antiquity often produced products like wine in order to fund their communities. Simple Church produces artisan bread, websites, and runs a wood-fired pizza truck.
"I really don't have to go door to door anymore," noted Kerzee. "We sell the bread at the local farmers' market and that is a great opportunity to meet people. We evangelize through bread."
The bread that supports their community provides a great analogy for who they are, according to Kerzee.
"Bread has flour, water, salt and yeast. There couldn't be four ingredients more different than those. The flour and the water: one is chalky; one is wet. Salt makes you thirsty. Water quenches thirst. Yeast is this weird living thing we ingest in our bodies. It's the weirdest mix of ingredients. But it's because the ingredients are so different that they're able to come together and make bread. If they were all the same, you wouldn't have bread. You'd just have a bowl full of flour."
The mix of ingredients that forms Simple Church creates a special kind of intimacy. It inspires closeness and a spirit of generosity amongst church members.
One church member recently donated half of her belongings to a person the community had been praying for. The congregation raised several months' rent for her.
Kerzee claims that the congregation's diversity is what makes such caring community possible: "It's only because we're different that we're able to come together in communion."
For more information on Simple Church and their movement of dinner churches, check out their website (designed in house). For other ideas about how people are being church differently, explore our Innovative Communities section.
Written by Ryan Dunn, Minister of Online Engagement for Rethink Church.
[Posted May 15, 2018]