I attended my first dinner-church service on a warm Thursday evening in the summer of 2015. As part of my coursework in Food Studies, I’d just completed a semester-long project on the formation of relationships over a meal – what anthropologists call “commensality.” The invitation to this service intrigued me. My own love of the Eucharist made me curious about how my gastronomic studies might be relevant to my commitment to my faith.
Two friends had invited me to their classmate’s new church, Simple Church in Grafton, Massachusetts. “They worship over dinner,” these friends told me, “and practice Communion as a full meal.” That evening we sang standing around the perimeter of the church’s fellowship hall while children danced along. We supped on soup made from produce grown on a nearby farm and fresh bread baked by the pastor. We read Scripture, then we discussed it together. Finally, we closed the evening with generous pours of grape juice, a parting reminder that feasting on Christ’s body and blood draws us together as community and sends us out to commune with our neighbors as well. Here was Eucharistic theology in practice.
That evening pulled together my interests in commensality and Eucharistic theology, sparking a research project that would take me across the country over the next two years. I started with three months doing ethnographic research at Simple Church, interviewing congregants and participating in the community while seeking insight into how the act of eating together shifted their understanding of worship, of church, of the Lord’s Supper, and of God. How did this practice shape their theology?
One by one, I learned of other churches worshipping in similar ways—churches from a range of denominations, in a range of geographic locations, made up of a range of ages and socioeconomic backgrounds. Each pastor had a similar story: they longed for a church that addressed the physical needs of the community and that offered a safe entry into church life for those who were hesitant to spend Sunday morning in a pew.
The table seemed the most natural choice, and it conveniently came with theological and historical significance as well. The New Testament books of Acts and 1 Corinthians speak of the church gathering in the context of meals—quite literally eating and drinking in remembrance of Christ—and Tertullian’s records of the early church affirm the significance of meal-based worship as well.
I travelled the country to visit nine of these “dinner” churches, from Brooklyn to Seattle, San Pedro, California to Madisonville, Kentucky, and to record their stories for my book We Will Feast (recently released by Eerdman’s). While every church has its own feel, its own culture, the concept is the same: connect with others in a language spoken by all—food. Serving a hearty meal at a table with real napkins, dishes, and silverware, the services aim to feel like a dinner party, fostering conversation among men, women, and children who might otherwise never meet.
These churches encompass a range of denominations, both conservative and progressive, and they meet in a variety of settings: in church basements, restaurants, gardens, and art galleries. Found in urban, suburban, and rural areas, they attract wealthy, middle class, and unhoused neighbors. Their ecology is defined by what they do rather than where they are. The intergenerational and multi-ethnic congregations create engaging dialogue; and the meals become a space where diners can disagree and still maintain close relationships.
While my own theological convictions differ from almost every pastor I researched (and they differ from one another drastically as well!) I was welcomed and cared for by every community. I witnessed congregations implementing a way forward in the midst of significant theological and political disagreement, refusing to succumb to the polarization all around them. In the midst of Eucharistic debates during the Reformation, John Calvin wrote of the cruel irony that the very meal intended for unity of the church became the greatest source of division instead. By worshipping around the table and practicing a full meal as Eucharist, these churches attempt to recapture the communion-building intention of the sacrament and offer hope for churches disheartened by the divisions that seem never to end.
Kendall Vanderslice is a graduate of Boston University (MLA Gastronomy) and Duke Divinity School (Master of Theological Studies). This article is based on her book We Will Feast: Rethinking Dinner, Worship, and the Community of God (Eerdmans 2019).
A recent article in The Atlantic proclaimed ”an epidemic of empty churches.” And the very same week the Washington Post asked, ”Does a religious community need its own building to flourish?”
Both authors pointed to the reality that buildings are often a problem, and finding the right solution will require congregations and their leaders to do a careful assessment of their resources — but also of their place in the community and their own culture and theology.
Some congregations are wondering if rented space or ”pop up” space or a corner table at the pub might not better suit today’s needs. In their infancy, congregations have long sought out spaces that are otherwise empty on Sunday. I remember worshipping in a National Guard armory as a child – at least until our growing new congregation could build a sanctuary and Sunday School buildings in a growing suburban neighborhood. There were lots of those in the 1950s and 60s – both the neighborhoods and the new church and synagogue buildings.
While some new congregations today are intentionally choosing not to occupy a typical religious building, the Post’s Michelle Boorstein notes that others who started that way have decided that it does make sense to have their own space.
Others that have their own space, of course, are wondering what to do with it. As the Atlantic’s Jonathan Merritt notes, a lot of congregations close up shop every year, and some of them leave buildings behind. Others occupy buildings that were designed for congregations and communities far different from today’s reality.
Some of those mis-matched congregations sell their property to another congregation or to a developer. The sight of condos in former church buildings is more and more common!
Others find ways to make their space serve both the congregation and the surrounding community in new ways. All sorts of social service organizations benefit from the affordable and convenient spaces offered to them by congregations. Religious buildings are often strategically located near the people they serve, and the partnership allows congregations to extend their ministry.
There are even emergencies when one congregation can help another – as when a Warwick RI congregation lost its building to fire – or when spare space helps a whole community – as we see in many disaster situations.
Sanctuaries can also be a beacon of hope and reflection even when the congregation’s members aren’t present. Groups that occupy historic buildings can find assistance in making that possible from organizations like Partners for Sacred Places. There are often resources out there that congregations might not otherwise think of.
But like any decision a congregation has to make, its own unique history, culture, and theological commitments will shape how it chooses and uses its dwelling place. It’s important to understand who you are! Explore our tools, read more from existing research, and find new frames for thinking about your own work.
 In fact, congregations without a building are more likely to close than are those with a building. For an excellent and reliable discussion of the factors that predict congregational closures, see the 2008 report “Dearly Departed: How Often Do Congregations Close?” by Shawna Anderson, et al., Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 47 (2):321-328.
Immigration has become one of the most difficult issues facing people throughout Europe and North America. And congregations are on the front lines in many ways. Whether offering services to immigrants and refugees once they arrive or protecting those facing deportation, being involved with these neighbors also brings congregations into conversation with a larger public and with legal authorities.
Governmental agencies are a part of the community ecology that is invisible most of the time to most religious leaders – but they shouldn’t be. There are, of course, building inspections and financial regulations. And when congregations choose to become part of the social safety net, they almost inevitably interact with local welfare agencies.
Choosing to provide sanctuary to an immigrant under threat is another matter. Each community of faith will need to know what its local laws allow, what its own theology and commitments call for, and what resources are at hand.
All of that is now on vivid display at Bethel Church, a small Protestant congregation in The Hague, in The Netherlands. Because they wish to protect an Armenian refugee family from deportation – and because Dutch law forbids police officers from entering places of worship during services – Bethel has been conducting round-the-clock services for more than a month.
That’s not easy. In addition to assembling the resources to safely house this family, they also needed people to lead the services. With the help of the General Council of Protestant Ministers, they have signed up more than 300 volunteer clergy who rotate duties. Meanwhile, they are also filing petitions with the government and talking to the press.
None of that was probably on the congregation’s previous list of available assets, but their experience can provide an example for other congregations considering such a mission. They said yes because this was something in keeping with their theological commitment to hospitality; and then they discovered resources they didn’t know they had.
Support in the US often comes from local coalitions that are part of the ”New Sanctuary Movement.” But don’t forget that denominational organizations are part of the picture, too. Bethel’s connections to their Dutch Council of Ministers was crucial. In the U.S., the Presbyterian Church USA is among those providing excellent guidance for churches considering providing sanctuary. Among their cautions – talk to an attorney. Across the Atlantic, the Conference of European Churches has a strong theological statement about why this work is important.
Being a neighbor in these difficult times requires faith communities who are willing to count the cost. When they do, they just may find that the resources at hand are more than sufficient.
Thinking more about your congregational resources? Struggling to imagine how a new ministry might fit your congregation’s culture? Explore our tools, read more from existing research, and find new ways to think about your work.
Mike Mather has spent most of his adult life pastoring churches in neighborhoods most people would call ”deprived.” Not Mike. When he greets someone at the food pantry or on the street, he’s more apt to see their gifts than their ”needs.” And he sees those things in part because he asks the right questions.
I’ve gotten to know Mike over the last couple of years, and I’ve constantly been amazed at his ability to make me think hard about what I assume about the resources in a community or a congregation. Now he has a new book that shares that wisdom. It’s aptly titled Having Nothing, Possessing Everything. Anyone who is seriously thinking about the resources available for doing congregational work would do well to add this to their reading list.
Early in the book, Mike shares a story that makes the point. The workers in a South Bend food pantry had been used to asking the usual screening questions when new people came in, questions that amounted to ”how poor are you?” But they had started to wonder about where the hidden ”assets” might be in the community and started asking new questions. When they asked Adele, ”What three things do you do well enough that you could teach someone else?” she thought about it and responded, ”I can cook.” They challenged her to produce a meal for them (and paid her) and discovered that that was an understatement! With access to the church kitchen and an expanded set of community connections, that meal soon became a thriving catering business.
Not all the stories are that straightforward. It’s not always easy to cultivate unexpected gifts, and the gifts we find may not easily fit the preconceived programs and practices we are used to. What Mike and his congregation and his neighbors have learned, however, is to let the gifts lead the way, with programs and organizations following, but only if they multiply the dividends.
In fact, Mike is remarkably unworried about whether his neighbors actually join the church. He thinks of them and their gifts as part of the parish anyway. It’s a different way of counting resources, but the abundance is real.
From the outside, Allen Temple Ministerios Hispanos (ATMH) is unimposing. Located deep in poverty-stricken East Oakland California, ATMH’s neighbors include two fellow protestant churches, a bar and a liquor store. It’s the week before Thanksgiving. Inside the Baptist church, Esther, the pastor’s wife and church leader, is finishing up the announcements for the close to 40 faithful parishioners. The church of immigrant and second generation Latino/a members will be able to participate in various opportunities to feed the poor and homeless on the days leading up to and including Thanksgiving. Esther stresses that members of Allen Temple should not approach the events with other churches or organizations with the need to lead but to show up with humility and to do the work that needs to be done. During the sermon after the announcement, Pastor Isai briefly speaks to violent history of Thanksgiving in the Americas. Dropping the occasional word of English in a largely Spanish language sermon, he seamlessly transitions to the spiritual importance of giving thanks to God. The congregation, solemn during the reminder of the violent history of Thanksgiving, lights up as the spiritual meaning of the holiday is discussed. The church rings out with the call and response Baptist churches are known for. By the end of the sermon, the whole church is ready to act together in the spirit of worship and fellowship.