This spring, people of faith have been gathering around tables and being nourished in body and spirit:

  • In April, Christians had Communion on Maundy Thursday, remembering that Jesus broke bread at the Last Supper and said, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19).
  • Jews had Seders in their homes as a part of Passover, eating symbolic foods as they remembered the Exodus from Egypt.
  • And in May, Muslims are fasting for Ramadan and then breaking their fasts with family members and friends at festive iftars at the end of each day.

In all of these observances, people are practicing their faith by eating at a table. And while shared meals have been part of the religious practice of numerous groups for thousands of years, they are being given a new focus in Christianity through the “dinner church” movement.

Dinner churches — churches that have a shared meal at the center of congregational life.

These communities of faith are discovering the truth of an observation made by Harley Camden, the fictional Methodist minister in my mystery novel City of Peace, “Think of how much better the world would be if people actually sat down and ate with each other.”

Harley Camden is imaginary, but Methodist dinner churches are not. In the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church, a dinner-church initiative called “Fresh Expressions” is gaining ground across the state.

With a focus on simple meals and conversations around tables, the conference will launch 55 new dinner churches by September 2019, offering meals in venues ranging from community centers to public school cafeterias to outdoor parks.

“Fresh Expressions” is part of a larger movement that has been studied by Kendall Vanderslice in a new book called We Will Feast: Rethinking Dinner, Worship, and the Community of God.

To write the book, Vanderslice spent a year visiting dinner churches across the country, and discovered that in all of these congregations, relationships deepened as people ate, prayed and talked together.

From Saint Lydia’s in Brooklyn to Garden Church in San Pedro, California, she found that dinner churches satisfy two basic human needs: To be nourished by food and to find companionship with one another.

To the book, Vanderslice brought experience in the restaurant industry and expertise as a baker, combined with a study of food at Boston University and theology at Duke University. She discovered that:

  • At Potluck Church in Kentucky, every participant brings something to the table, and a former mayor worships alongside people who struggle to pay their monthly rent.
  • In Seattle, Community Dinners are held throughout the city, meals in which feasting with friends is combined with feeding the hungry.
  • When Church in a Pub offers worship in Lansing, Michigan, restaurant servers take orders while the pastor offers Communion. In all of these congregations, stomachs are filled and Jesus is believed to be present at the table.

Will dinner churches become the new model for churches everywhere? Probably not.

But in a Christian community torn apart by theological debates, dinner-church services offer the possibility that the Body of Christ can be unified through the sharing of bread.

Christians across the country can benefit from gathering around tables and being nourished in body and spirit, in meals that help them to grow stronger as individuals and as a community. When have you been particularly inspired by a meal? Join the conversation through a comment below.