Verlon Fosner

We Need Dinner Churches Now More Than Ever

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Our nation has been battered by significant societal tidal waves in the past few months. First, we watched a virus sweeping across the country, that shut down our businesses, shut down our churches, shuttered us inside our homes, and sequestered our lives. Then we watched our financial system experience a crash similar to the scope and scale of the Great Depression. If that weren’t enough, we then watched in horror the killing of George Floyd, which led to millions of Americans pouring onto the streets of our cities to express their grief and protest. These waves have left many traumatized and bewildered. Church leaders have been bewildered too. What does a church do to find traction in days like these?

COVID and its Residual Effects

The consequences of the shutdowns are now at our shores. According to FEMA, an estimated forty percent of businesses are not expected to reopen.[1] It is estimated there will be a forty-five percent increase of homelessness,[2] with a staggering and unprecedented number of families joining the homeless ranks, probably by the Fall of this year.[3] Further, an estimated 75,000 Americans will die from overdoses and suicides as a result of the shutdown.[4]

For many years following the housing crisis of 2008, the number of families relying upon food banks swelled to forty percent.[5] An increasing portion of our population needing food assistance is mounting once again; our TVs are showing huge lines of cars in front of food banks in our large cities. Similarly, there has been a forty percent increase in SNAP (food stamps) since the pandemic started.[6] Some cities are considering decreasing their social services as their economic advisors are suggesting it will take up to six years for them to recover.[7] It is looking more and more like the mitigation efforts will cause more loss than COVID itself.

Inside the church world, some denominational leaders are bracing for a significant percentage of their churches not reopening.[8] This is a blow to the American Church, as we have already decreased the number of churches in America by 75,000 over the past twenty years. So, now to potentially lose more is a grievous thing. It appears that Church life in America, like so many other things, is never going to look like it did only a few months ago. While many churches have pivoted to online gatherings, most leaders sense that permanent adjustments will be made to the ecclesial landscape.

A Distracted Church

These national waves have caught most church leaders off-guard – in large part because we have been distracted. Most churches, especially Evangelical churches, have been so engaged in their Christian subculture that they’ve become disconnected and insulated from the growing angst and raw need in their towns and neighborhoods. COVID has become a wake-up call to be sure. We have heard society begin referring to us as ‘non-essential’. Wow, are we really ‘non-essential’? Have we truly been reduced to teaching organizations that can be shut down along with other teaching organizations? If that is true, then perhaps we deserve the label ‘non-essential’. But I think down deep, most of us know that Jesus called us to be more than gatherings that are dispensing scriptural information. Here is a leadership question worth a long discussion: What would we need to be doing for society to call us ‘Essential’? How could we shift our way of doing church so that government leaders would never feel they could navigate a crisis without us being open? Corona will have served the Church well – if it makes us determined to outgrow the ‘non-essential’ label.

What would we need to be doing for society to call us ‘Essential’? How could we shift our way of doing church so that government leaders would never feel they could navigate a crisis without us being open? Click To Tweet

An interesting lesson for the church comes from the last pandemic in 1918. When Lenin came into power after the Bolshevik Revolution, he made it unconstitutional for the Russian Orthodox Church to continue doing good works for the poor.[9] He wanted the Communist Party to become both Father and Mother to the proletariat – a warm blanket on a cold night. And after the pandemic, when the financial suffering of the Russian populace was significant, the weakened citizens let Communism fill the void. Sadly, the Russian Church seemed relieved to back away from their service of good works to the Russian people, and with little apparent remorse headed off to a large clergy conference that same year to debate the color of their priests’ vestments.[10] I fear the American Church is in a similar position; many are content to focus their efforts on Sunday gatherings and back-burner their service and social engagement into the needs of their towns.

This is the moment of change for the American Church. By those words non-essential we have been called out by society. Do we hear it? And the Spirit is speaking too. Do we hear Him? This is the time for us to return to a more potent vision of doing church. Hebrews 10:24-25 says:

Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.

It is obvious that doing church for the First Church was initially focused on their good works for society, and their gatherings were in place to strengthen and motivate even greater good works. Do you think the American Church could ever win back social engagement as our first purpose? Do you think we could ever position our Sunday gatherings to primarily strengthen and motivate our people for greater service and good works throughout our neighborhoods? I propose that any group who rewires and reorganizes themselves in this way would quickly be deemed ‘essential’ by government leaders.

The Worldwide Church has made great strides over recent decades to regain meaningful engagement with our neighbors as part of our divine calling. The Lausanne Congress held in Lausanne Switzerland in 1974 convened the theologians and Christian leaders of the world to acknowledge that the church had lost its gospel traction, and then map a way forward so as to regain it. After much prayer and discussion from voices representing all seven continents, they crafted what came to be known as the Lausanne Covenant:

Never again shall the gospel be conceived as proclamation without social engagement, and in equal measure.[11]

The covenant gained immediate and deep resonance and is still one of the most talked-about turning-points in recent Christian history. The reason this covenantal statement has been so enduring and used by 85% of Christian organizations worldwide is that it effectively pivots the church back to a social engagement primacy, without canceling our proclamation gatherings. The scriptural alignment associated with this is profound; it has directed us back to the age-old vision of church. And as it turns out, that age-old vision is still compelling – even in times of crisis – especially in times of crisis.

A 2000-Year Tradition of Feeding

I mentioned above that the First Church focused their attention on social engagement. But how did they do it? We have all read the stories about the feeding of the 5,000 and the 4,000, so we know that feeding people is part of our Christian heritage. We also know from the book of Acts that they engaged heavily in healing and feeding the poor. But the oft-overlooked part is how commonly their feeding of the stranger and isolated were fused with their church gatherings. In other words, doing church meant lifting the isolated during the gathering. This vision of church flowed from the life of Christ Himself; he used the dinner table in a very intentional and salvific way. Theologians are increasingly writing about how Jesus followed a pattern of healing by day and having dinner with sinners by night. These Jesus tables were places where tax collectors, prostitutes, and the scurrilous people were welcomed, over and against the religious assumption of the day.

Doing church meant lifting the isolated during the gathering. This vision of church flowed from the life of Christ Himself; he used the dinner table in a very intentional and salvific way. Click To Tweet

This truth deepened when Jesus hosted the Last Supper on the night prior to his arrest. It was there that he directed his disciples to “do this in remembrance of me”, and by that he meant, ‘do table like this and talk about me’.[12] The Last Supper was more than a final moment, it was a vision of gathering for the disciples going forward. Jesus lifted up the historic Passover as a template of doing church which included the historic understanding of the invite list – the stranger, widow, orphan, and the poor.[13] What Jesus did that night was to launch the New Passover, and that New Passover assumed that the stranger and isolated would always be present. We can see from the book of Acts that the First Church instinctively adopted this New Passover as their manner of doing church – and the stranger, the poor, the widow, and the sinner were now eating and remembering Jesus with them. Such was the assumption that when the Corinthian Church started excluding the stranger and the poor in their gatherings, it brought a stern rebuke from the Apostle Paul.[14]

Even beyond the pages of scripture, the Jesus Table was reported in the Roman record as the primary manner of Christianity, as well as other contemporary writers of the day such as Tertullian, Celcius, and Pliny. In short, doing church was synonymous with feeding the stranger and poor, and including these guests in the prayers and remembrances were expected. This sociology of church continued for three-hundred years. Though this vision of doing church was coopted in the fourth century by Rome, the deep bond between Christianity and feeding the stranger has survived. Dare I say a majority of churches through the centuries has assumed it to be their duty to feed the poor, at least until the past few decades. Even though many have feed the needy. There is something profound that occurs when a group recovers the historic Jesus Table and fuses the activities of feeding the strangers at the same time they are growing the saints – everyone experiences Christ together. That was the heartbeat of the Agape’ Feasts of old and continues with the Dinner Churches of today. The New Passover is still compelling.

There is something profound that occurs when a group recovers the historic Jesus Table and fuses the activities of feeding the strangers at the same time they are growing the saints - everyone experiences Christ together. Click To Tweet

Scalable in Times Like These

Prior to COVID, we estimated that a new dinner church was opening every day in the West. With those numbers in view, the Spirit is clearly rebirthing an old sociology of church in this day for a reason – our churches need new traction and many of our neighbors need a Jesus Table. This is something almost every church can engage in. Raising up a dinner church congregation one evening of the week while continuing to serve their Sunday congregation is a perfect union. The established church provides stability to the new dinner church, and the dinner church inspires a new sense of mission in the hearts of the Sunday congregants.

Interestingly, there are approximately as many isolated neighborhoods across our nation as there are churches. This means that every church has a neighborhood, where elevated percentages of isolated people live, located only a few blocks from their church campus. And these isolated neighborhoods are places where a Jesus Table would likely thrive and fill up quickly. Further, most churches can afford a dinner church far easier than they realize, as the average cost of a well done Christian feast is only $3/plate. And that is a pretty small price to pay for a church who is willing for Jesus to give them another congregation.

Jesus Tables Past and Future

These are serious days. Long futures are being decided in short foggy intersections. This is not a time for the Church to be obsessing over gatherings; this is a time for us to fully engage in the sore lives of our neighbors and cities. This is the kind of moment when dinner churches have caused the gospel to take a significant place in society. Christianity grew from a movement of hundreds to a movement of millions while using the Jesus Table as their primary manner of doing church. That insight should mean something to us. For established churches to plant Jesus tables throughout their town would enable them to regain traction in their communities that had been long-lost. And as those churches care for neighbors at their tables night after night, even their critics might notice and say, “look at those Jesus people go!”

– – – – –

[1] FEMA Editorial Team. AccessCorp.Com. April 14, 2020

[2] Harmeet Kaur. CNN Online. May 15, 2020

[3] Andrew Buncombe. independent.uk.co. Author quoting Sara Rankin, Seattle U. April 10, 2020

[4] Mallory Simon. CNN Online. May 8, 2020

[5] Bill O’Reilly. on The O’Reilly Show, aired April 2013.

[6] www.usda.gov/media/pressrelease/April 4, 2020.

[7] Matt Rodewald. Phoenix City Estimates Paint a Grim Post-Coronavirus Future for Cities Economy. Fox 10 Phoenix. April 28, 2020.

[8] Dr. Chris Backert. FXUS leadership meeting. April 20, 2020

[9] Rick Rusaw & Eric Swanson, Eric. The Externally Focused Church. Group Publishing Inc., Loveland CO, 2004. 118.

[10] Leith Anderson. A Church For The 21ST Century. Bethany House Publishers, Minneapolis Minnesota, 1992. 226.

[11] www.Lausanne.Org/LausanneCovenant. Note: Author quoted a version of the Covenant via an Oxford UK lecture, rather than an exact text within Lausanne.Org.

[12] Leonard Sweet. From Tablet to Table: Where Community is Found and Identity is Formed. NavPress, Colorado Springs CO, 2014, 14.

[13] You and your son and your daughter, your male servant and your female servant, the Levite who live within your gates, the stranger and the fatherless and the widow who are among you…and you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt. -Deuteronomy 16:11-12.

[14] 1 Corinthians 11:18-33.

Verlon Fosner

Verlon Fosner

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.

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