We live in a day that holds deep assumptions about the way church is done.
We assume exclusive religious spaces, teaching-centric gatherings, congregational liturgies, and musical worship experiences. The reformers gave us these ideas of church five hundred years ago, and we have become serious disciples of their ways.
Interestingly, this approach is not found in the scriptures.
Nor is it how church was done for the first three hundred years of Christianity.
An Overlooked Piece of Christian History
The apostolic era practiced church primarily around dinner tables. Whether it was the house churches introduced in the Book of Acts, or the Agapé churches introduced in the Epistles, church happened around tables of food at dinnertime. The dinner table setting of the first Christians is usually overlooked in today’s theological discussions, but its implications are very deep and worthy of serious reflection.
Jesus himself used the dinner table and dinnertime throughout his ministry. J. Crossen states that if one were to watch a day in the life of Jesus, he would mostly see him healing and eating.
Jesus performed much of his salvific work from a dinner table. Many of the parables were told from a dinner table. Numerous kingdom metaphors assumed a dinner table.
It is not a mystery then why the Acts house churches and the Gentile Agapé churches functioned around dinner tables; they were given that pattern by Jesus himself.
During the Last Supper, Jesus took an annual dinner event and turned it into a vision for doing church by telling his disciples to begin doing what they were doing whenever they met, to continue to gather the poor and the stranger to their table, and to “remember” Christ instead of remembering the rescue event from Egypt. In so doing, Jesus embedded the gospel into the dinner table sociology, and his disciples obviously caught that vision.
The gospel found a comfortable home at the dinner table and at dinnertimes. The familial setting of the dinnertime table made it easy to gather people to the family of God. During the three hundred years when Christian gatherings were dinner churches, the church grew from 20,000 to over 20 million. In other words, many sinners met their Savior over tables of food.
Our Sociological Problem
There is something winsome about inviting people to dinner that cannot be paralleled by inviting them to a teaching event. In our day and age, still so influenced by the Reformation, we desperately need to meditate upon what we are actually asking the unchurched population to come to when we invite them to this thing we call church. We must follow up this meditation with another: would inviting our neighbors to dinner be more compelling?
In fact, take a moment right now to think about one of your neighbors who isn’t a part of a church. Imagine inviting that person to come with you to a worship gathering.
Now, start over. Instead, imagine inviting that same neighbor to come over for dinner with your family.
To which invite do you think you are more likely to hear yes?
For people who have an understanding of church in their background or have a primed interest in Christianity, the proclamation event would be considered. But for people with no church sociology in their background or those having low interest in the Christian message, a proclamation event holds little appeal.
With this in mind, I propose that the American church has a “sociological problem.” There is nothing wrong with our gospel, but our way of doing church does not match the sociological realities of our non-church-going neighbors, who now dominate almost every zip code across our nation. And yet, the Church is called to lead all types of people to Jesus—not just those who would already fit in our gatherings.
We cannot focus only on the those who already understand church sociology, we must do church for our secular neighbors, too.
Jesus told an interesting parable about what to do with “new wine.” He stated that new wine required “new wineskins,” because to put new wine in old wineskins would burst the skins and spill the wine. I see this parable being lived out across the land. New outreach ideas are filled with an assumption that the new people will soon be brought to Sunday morning worship gatherings. And when they refuse to come, the church is disappointed and stops the outreach. In other words, the wineskin is broken and the new wine is spilled.
Church after church is trying to create new wine, but are unquestionably trying to put it in the same bottle they are used to, rather than a new sociological construct (a new form of church) that better fits the sociology of the new people. Some churches have even gotten into an endless loop of looking for an effective outreach that will merge well with their Sunday proclamation event. They have never stopped to consider that their proclamation event is what needs to be changed rather than looking for a more effective outreach. The sociological construct that the Reformers gave us has been great for many of us, but it simply does not match the sociological realities of those we are called to reach.
Dinner With Sinners
There is a very interesting verse for us to consider in Revelation 3:20 that reveals an ongoing desire of our Lord:
“Behold I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and DINE with him, and he with Me.”
If these poetic words mean anything, it suggests that Jesus still wants to have dinner with sinners. It is clear in the New Testament that Jesus loved having sinners, publicans, tax-collectors, and the like at his table. In fact, that habit brought more than a little controversy from the religious class. But he wasn’t dissuaded; he continued to be “a friend of sinners” and welcome them at his table. And, interestingly, he still wants to have dinner with sinners.
The only question remaining is, “Who is going to set his table?” Could it be that setting a table for sinners, seculars, and strangers to have dinner with Jesus might be one of the great callings of the church? What if when Jesus was telling Peter to “feed his sheep,” he wasn’t speaking metaphorically, but was actually directing him to a physical table?
All of these questions, verses, and more are what informs the dinner church movement. And true to the Reformation era, groups that decide to work with Jesus at one of his dinner tables find their rooms filling up with strangers, sinners, the poor, and the new Gentiles (Seculars). Let me say it one more time: Jesus still wants to have dinner with sinners.
Dr. Verlon and Melodee Fosner have led a multi-site Assemblies of God dinner church in Seattle, Washington since 1999 (www.CommunityDinners.com). They joined the FX team in 2016 and founded the Dinner Church Collective. In this decade when more churches in the U.S. are declining than thriving, and when eighty churches a week are closing, Verlon and Melodee sensed that a different way of doing church was needed for their 85-year old Seattle congregation. It soon became obvious that they were not the only ones in need of a different path. There is a lot to be gained when church leaders begin to see open doors in the American landscape that they had previously overlooked. Therein lies the journey for those who will forge a new future for the American Church.