The dinner church is not an innovation; it is a recovery project. For the first three-hundred years of Christianity the Jesus Table was the most used sociological form of Christian gatherings. Today we are so far removed from the ways of the first church that we are blind to their ways of assembling and coming together. According to Dr. Paul Alexander, we are so much sons and daughters of the Reformers that we know not how to be sons and daughters of the Apostles
For all of our study of the New Testament, we have done well to grasp their theology, doctrine, creedal faith and values, but we have struggled to grasp their sociology of ‘doing church’.
We read the New Testament imagining the first christians were doing church like we us – sitting in rows facing in the same direction listening to someone up front teach the scriptures. That is a false assumption, our classroom sociology version of church was invented by the Reformers in the 1500s as a classroom model to teach the scriptures in an academic structure. Here we are 500 years later still doing church the same way, though our missiological situation is vastly different.
We need to rediscover and recover the missional design that connects people to the Good News of Jesus and each other.
We need church done around a table, a fellowship of sharing food and conversation like Jesus modeled for us throughout the gospels and what we see in the Book of Acts. We need to excavate the Jesus Table.
Dinner Church finds its roots in the Passover. A sacred meal actively remembering Israel being delivered and rescued by Almighty God from bondage in Egypt. What Jesus did during the Last Supper was to take the most important historic and impassioned event and alter it, bringing it forward into a ‘new covenant’ before the disciples eyes; new liberty, deliverance and freedom as found in the work of Jesus Christ. On that watershed night Jesus replaced the central remembrance event of Israels rescue with Himself – the Savior of the world. He did this with two words, “Remember Me!” While this was certainly a shock to the disciples, it also gave them a ‘way of doing church’ going forward.
Leonard Sweet and others have referred to this shift as the New Passover. It certainly had great impact upon the disciples, because immediately following the Ascension and Pentecost they instinctively started doing church around tables. While it appears they met for prayer at the Temple courtyard early on, that ceased to be mentioned after the early days in Acts. However, the presence of the table during their gatherings was consistent and undeniable until the time of Constantine.
While there is far more evidence of this than this article has room for, two quick examples are the book of Mark and the book of Jude. Mark was written by young John Mark who was not present for the events of Jesus’ life, but was sitting with his papyrus and pen while Peter was preaching week after week in Mark’s Mothers house – arguably the first church in Jerusalem. There they would practice the New Passover which included inviting the stranger, eating together, and remembering Jesus. By this Peter simply retold the many stories from the life of Jesus.
Some seventy years later when the book of Jude was written, false teachers were coming to their Agape Churches and misleading people they were sitting beside. The entire purpose of the book of Jude, was to warn the Christian leaders about these false teachers working at their tables.
More interesting proof of the centrality of the table and the New Passover practice comes from the Roman record where Pliny reported to the Emperor Trajan in A.D.98-117 about the Christian gatherings, “They were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day, sang a hymn to Christ, bound themselves not to commit any wicked deeds; after which it was their custom to partake of food, of an ordinary and innocent sort.”
It is clear to many theologians that the New Passover was the primary way of ‘doing church’ for those first three centuries.
Interestingly, it is rising again in our day. Why? While I have been privileged to see the rebirth of the Jesus Table, I am not the only one. In fact, many Christian leaders around the world have been drawn back to the Jesus Table in this decade. According to Dr. Mike Graves, at the exact time we were watching the Agape’s take root in Seattle, other leaders were watching it birth in New York City, Sarasota Florida, and California. In other words, from the four corners of the United States new passovers were birthing simultaneously.
I see a few reasons for this timing. First, is that a sense of isolation is rising steeply in our land, and the Dinner Church has always been effective at inviting and including the isolated, the stranger, the family-less, and the liminal as their first liturgy. Jesus intentionally left this assumption of the first Passover in place when he birthed the New Passover.
Secondly, throughout Israel’s history the Passover was always reinstated when a domination structure overtook the nation. According to Alan Streett, “The initial Passover was birthed at the exact moment God was breaking the domination of Egypt,and came back whenever a domination structure rose to tyrannize the people of God. Around those Passover tables they remembered the God who delivered them from the Tyrants of the past and called for him to do it again. This was happening again when Jesus came as the people were suffered under Roman oppression.The Jesus Table is a liberating space of redemption and life. Click To Tweet
This is of interest today because there are growing systems suppressing and oppressing many people; some are spiritual and some are physical. Systems keeping poor people poor are one such example. The New Passover, stands against oppression in all forms, and breathes hope, help, and lift as everyone aligns themselves under the Kingdom of God around these Jesus Tables. When the threat of domination rises – the Jesus Table also rises.
Thirdly, the modernists forms of ‘doing church’ is waning. Not only are we closing 96 churches a week. We are watching 53,000 people walk away from church attendance every week. In short, a majority of Americans are needing a more meaningful, engaging Christian experience if they are going to give weekly time to it. It is our belief that a large family table could be that ‘more meaningful’ Gospel experience for many who live in our towns.
We have watched a new dinner church open at the rate of one-per-day in the US, and have observed that the average new dinner church is running 75 people by the end of the first year. Which just so happens to be the median-size church in America. Further, with the growing and dominant secular population in America, we would do well to consider the way of ‘doing church’ used by our first century patriarchs and matriarchs when they were outnumbered by the pagan, barbarian, and gentile populations of their day. Against those odds their Christian ranks swelled from a movement of hundreds to a movement of tens-of-millions while they were using the Jesus Table / Dinner Church sociology of church. It sure looks to us like history is preparing to repeat itself on our watch. Let us hope so!
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.