Jesus did a lot of ministry around the table, from sitting with the disciples for the Last Supper to sharing a meal with Zacchaeus. He knew that gathering in this way was an opportunity to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary. Following Jesus’ example, United Methodists are transforming mealtime into a sacred space, one where worship is the entrée.
All are welcome
Christy Wright, a seminary student at the time, remembers the phone call well. Stressed out and wanting to meet new people, she called the pastor of Simple Church, a United Methodist congregation that meets around various dinner tables and extends an online invitation that simply says, “reach out to the pastor to let him know you’ll be there.”
Wright called and asked, “Hey, can I come to dinner tonight?”
The reply of, “Absolutely. I’ll set a place for you,” is the reason Wright fell in love with Simple Church and table ministry.
“That idea of having a place set for me, as a stranger, was very comforting,” says Wright, who is now coordinating pastor at Simple Church, an appointment she received when Zach Kerzee, Simple Church’s founding pastor, moved to another congregation.
Simple Church, with two Massachusetts congregations that meet weekly (pre-Covid), calls itself a dinner church, inviting those who have a “complicated relationship with the church” or “no relationship with the church.” Touting no steeple or pews, but a table, where “we’ll set a place for you.”
The weekly dinner/worship service is designed around the meal, with the bread and the wine (which is typically juice or seltzer) as the bookends. A prayer is followed by passing a freshly-baked loaf of bread so that all break off a piece. A short sermonette, as it’s called, sets the stage for group conversation, “the digestion of the teaching,” explains Wright. After the meal and discussion end, worship ends with sharing the cup.
“We use it almost as a toast,” Wright explains. “We say, ‘This is the cup of reconciliation and we are grateful.’”
When Jeff Campbell first visited Simple Church two years ago, his first impression, he says, was, “this is not fake.”
Rather than sitting in rows facing forward, they sat in a circle. After listening to the pastor speak for a few minutes, the group asked questions and shared thoughts.
“And in the middle of the conversation, you’re saying, “Pass me the potatoes.’ It’s like it cuts out the middle man and puts you right in the middle of connecting and worshiping,” Campbell points out.
The sacred act of eating
“There are few things in humanity more intimate than having a meal together,” states the Rev. Steve North, pastor at Lifeline Toledo, a United Methodist community in the West Ohio Conference that, among other things, serves a monthly group dinner for more than 200 (pre-Covid). “When we are gathering around tables, vulnerability is possible and intimacy goes deep and it becomes this holy place. It’s a space where the Holy Spirit can do something.”
“It’s the everydayness of the table that … draws out people,” notes North. “And people may find their way to vulnerability and openness, the kind of things you want to happen when you enter the temple. At the table, we are who we are and we are accepting of the other.”
Nancy Breidenich started attending Simple Church at its Worcester, Mass., location after traveling to the area one year ago to help care for her newborn granddaughter. One year later, she’s still in Worcester because of Covid, and she’s still active at Simple Church, although gatherings have moved online.
The format of meeting around the table is nontraditional, admits Breidenich, who attends a Catholic church in her Kentucky hometown. “But it doesn’t matter where you are. It’s about recognizing God’s presence there and what better way to do it than with food?
“People care and it’s nice to see people connecting and having fellowship,” Breidenich shares. “That’s what church should be.”
Making mealtime at home holy
The dinner table does not need a pastor at its head to become a holy space.
To make mealtime sacred in her own home, Nan Gibbons, who attends Simple Church Worcester, employs a lot of what she experiences with the congregation. She and her adult children pray, sing and “do roses and thorns,” she says, explaining the activity is to share the best and the worst of the day or week. They also take turns posing a question to the group.
“You have to be gentle, just like church. You have to make a way to create a safe space. You aren’t trying to achieve something, you’re trying to know each other and understand each other and help people feel heard. A way to create a sense of belonging is for people to feel heard.”
As a single person, Wright has questioned how she can turn her time at the table into worship when she is alone. Meditating before mealtime, listening to music and finding liturgy online to use are ways she creates a sacred space.
“Even chewing, and having your mind centered on that, can help,” Wright says, adding that the activity doesn’t matter as much as recognizing the Holy Spirit is with you.
“The point is that God makes an ordinary meal extraordinary.”
Crystal Caviness works for UMC.org at United Methodist Communications. Contact her by email. This story was published on November 11, 2020.
For more information about Lifeline Toledo, watch this UMC.org video.