This post is a part of a series on what it looks like to be a Slow Church that Pastor Joe has begun on his personal blog which can be found at www.noggingrande.com. Many of the thoughts from the Slow Church blog, book, and conference have informed the conversations we’ve begun here at New Hope, and it seemed like a good idea to share these thoughts here where folks from New Hope could consider them as well.

As we converse as God’s family, rooted in particular places, we learn to think and speak theologically in a distinctive vernacular that fits who and where we are. Maybe by recovering the ancient formative practice of the common meal, our churches can bear witness to the possibilities of diverse and peaceable conversations in a deeply fragmented culture.

– Slow Church, p. 211.

The Dinner Table

I grew up around the dinner table. More than any other memory I have from my childhood, I find I recall countless evenings spent around the table in our kitchen. I don’t remember much about the food (though it’s almost always been good in my family), but I remember stories, and laughter. I remember thoughts about the events of the day, and lessons learned. It’s not be overstating it to say that most of who I am today was somehow formed by the daily ritual of gathering together as a family for dinner.

But as I reflect on the importance of a shared meal for my growing up, I realize that this has been a reoccurring theme throughout my life. Adoptive parents of friends who invited me to eat. Homes where people opened their tables to me made me who I am. My deepest friendships in Columbus grew in the evening hours of shared meals and table fellowship, and the one thing we could never change, even when we tried, at our Sunday night gatherings for youth ministry at {2:42} was the dinner. For 8 years of ministry I gathered every week with teens and adults and shared a meal. There may be no holier place in all the world than the space around a table. It’s where Christ is shared, over and over and over.

At the heart of Slow Church seems to sit a dinner table. Christopher Smith and John Pattison are asking us, directly and indirectly, “What would it look like if the church was shaped like a dinner table?” The question is a provocative one, and worth a long, slow breath and space for our imaginations to run wild for a bit on the whole idea.

Fast Church Like Fast Food

Consider for a second the alternative.

Even growing up, there were evenings where mom or dad would bring home a bag of food and we’d dig through it for our order and eat what we needed for that day (at one time both of my parents worked for McDonald’s, so I grew up with the Golden Arches and complete sets of Happy Meal toys). Did we get the calories we needed for that evening’s meal? Sure. Is it better than having nothing at all? Absolutely. But beyond that we were left wanting for the richer things of life.

When we shared fast food dinners we could eat our meal our own way. What did I order? Did they remember to get it plain? Is this mustard? Once we had what we needed, we essentially sat down, dug in, and ate until we finished. As soon as that last fry was plucked from the bag we were done. We crumpled up our trash, chucked it in the can, and went on our way.

FastFood_DinnerIt reminds me of the seasons in my life where I looked for a church without being a part of a community. I could pop in, look for what I wanted, and when service was over, pop out and be done for the day. When we shape our church’s this way, we train people to view their church experience like a transaction of spiritual calories.

Did I get what I needed?

Yep?

Ok, on with the day. See you next week.

The kicker of course, is that McDonald’s is massively successful. People eat it by the tons, every day. And just like there’s a McDonald’s on every corner, it’s very difficult to judge the speed of a church based on its size because some of the largest churches around might just be crushing ahead a breakneck speeds, filling people with spiritual calories on Sunday morning, and leaving them empty for the rest of the week.

The Church of the Table

The church of the table is different. For one, people who are committed to sharing meals together are committed to returning to the same place and the same time, often times even when it’s inefficient, for the sake of sharing a meal with one another. In Slow Church, Chris and John talk about the way food takes on the flavor of its locale, and the family that shares a meal around a table will take on its own culture too. The quote above speaks to how churches begin to speak the dialect of their community, but only as they are committed to living there, and returning over and over again. Theological questions take on new meaning in the context of the neighborhood. Reconciliation is a wholly different thing when it happens in the context of long standing relationships. But all of this takes time and a commitment. It takes a dedication to become a part of where the church is planted. To know people. To know the history. To understand the struggles and the celebrations of the people. It’s not efficient. It will take time, and it won’t look like success, but it will be transformative, like all those meals around the the table growing up.

Dining_room_MealWhen people gather around the table for a meal, they share whatever’s there. People pay attention to what the others have and make sure they don’t take too much if others are yet to take from the dish. There’s no Super Sized portion out of the gate, but a generous attempt to ensure that everyone has what they need. The church that gathers as though around a table stops looking for a Super Sized spiritual experience and starts seeing the faces of the people around them. Are they receiving the love of Christ? Do they know they are welcome? Can we experience this together? As Christine Pohl spoke about at the Slow Church Conference, as we gather and God supplies an overabundance of what we need in Him, we can respond through generosity and hospitality to those around us, in our church and in our community, because there’s always more than enough around God’s table.

Similarly, as we share dishes and pass plates, we obscure boundaries that separate. The first night of the conference, Willie Jennings spoke about they way our culture has been sectioned and parceled and sold, defining what’s yours and what’s mine. Dividing you from me. The dinner table erases those lines. Where the fast food church delineates between your order and mine (Did you order that Sunday School class, because I ordered this hymn sing?), church around the table passes the dishes around the table, and this is our meal. We share it. We experience it. We talk about it.

Imagine a church that lives like this.

A church that is committed to gathering, and sharing. A church that circles up to face one another and tell stories of faith, and struggle, and hope. A church that waits for everyone to be seated, and sees when someone is missing, and notices when a new face has gathered around the table. A church that is committed to the same table, the same space, day in and day out. Around the table, we realize where there are hurts in our relationships and in our community. Around the table, we realize where people are in need, and we look around at what we have and how we can help. It might be romantic, but I’ve lived it for more of my life than I’ve not, and I’ve seen the power of the kingdom around the table.

Clearing the Table for Dinner

I grew up around the table.

But eventually I moved away from home, and so did my sister, and my parents started eating in the living room more and more. Over time, the kitchen table became a space where clutter found a home. Empty baskets became filing systems. Boxes, bags, papers, covered the surface and made gathering around the table a chore that wasn’t worth the effort. Even at holidays, it became easier for us to set up a TV tray and eat our plate of food in a room full of people, but all by ourselves.

Slow_Church_Cluttered_TableThis year, though, my parents remodeled some rooms in their house, and they moved the table. Now, no longer positioned to be a catch-all, it stays relatively free of clutter. Besides that, it’s in the main living space in their house now, and it connects the place they hang out, watch TV, or listen to music with the kitchen. And a funny thing has happened—they’ve started using the table again. When my family visits and it’s time to eat, we naturally sit at the table again. My mom and my dad, my wife and my son, all around a new table in a new space, sharing life in new ways.

So the question becomes, how have we cluttered up the church so that we can no longer gather, or invite others to have a seat? What do we need to clear out, or where do we need to move the table, so that people feel it’s natural to gather, and sit, and see one another again, and to share the meal at the Lord’s Table together? What would it look like for the church to commit to moving the table to a space in between the kitchen and the living room, between the holy space and the community, so that people felt inclined to slow down, to sit, to share, and to partake of the good meal of the Lord’s Table?

Slow Church Reflections: Part 1 – Gathering Around the Table
Tagged on: