Simple Church: The Dinner Party

October 1st, 2017

Simple Church got started with a simple question: What if Church is a dinner party? Now, three years later, we are an established faith community in Grafton, Massachusetts. with two new dinner church plants in the works and a growing network of dozens of dinner church affiliates across the country.

When I was at Harvard Divinity School in 2014, I became weary with church. Weary might not be the word. I was bored with church. And I knew that if I was bored with church, so were other millennials who, unlike me, had not committed themselves to the work of the church. I went from living in a place where people often introduce their friends by name, location, and denominational affiliation (“This is my friend Betsy from Houston. She’s Baptist.”), to a region of the country so secular that most people I met didn’t have any desire to go to church. I also noticed the stress local congregations were under to simply maintain their aging church buildings. Church after church I visited in New England needed to complete major repairs, despite obvious decline in numbers. Which means major fundraising. Which means visible stress. The underlying question beneath the surface in many of the faith communities I encountered was: How in the world are we going to keep paying for this?

Simultaneously, a bunch of my friends and I started a weekly tradition at divinity school. On Thursday we would pack into each other’s tiny apartments, eat good food, talk, sing, and laugh until two in the morning. Every week I would leave those potlucks and know there was no way I was going to sleep that night because of pure excitement and buzzing joy. As I tossed and turned in bed on those nights, a question repeated over and over again in my mind: Why can’t church make me feel this passion?

So in April of 2014, when I was asked by The United Methodist Church in New England if I wanted to start a new worship community, I said yes immediately. The North Grafton United Methodist Church had closed, but they maintained a parsonage on five beautiful acres of farmland and retained the money from the closed church for a new church start in Grafton. I didn’t know what I was going to do off the bat, but I was eager to create a faith community where I would feel at home.

Just before graduating, while I was still wrestling with what the new church would look like, I had a late-night jam session with a friend. He shared with me that his mother was ill, and the church that she was attending was telling her that she was still sick because she wasn’t being faithful enough to the church. This twisted vision of “prosperity” filled me with holy anger, and as I was biking back home that night, an entire idea fell into my brain. I knew what God was calling me to start in Grafton. Our community was going to have simplicity as a guiding spiritual practice. We were never going to own a church building, to minimize our environmental impact and keep our costs low. We would use rented and borrowed space for a shared meal on Thursday nights. And we were going to call it Simple Church.

My wife and I moved to Grafton, and I began the work of inviting people to Simple Church, going door to door and inviting them to our holy dinner party. Within three months, I felt like we were ready to start hosting weekly dinners.

During this preparation in Grafton, I was told by several people that I needed to get in touch with Rev. Emily Scott of St. Lydia’s in Brooklyn, who ran a radical and innovative ministry that she called a “dinner church.” I visited St. Lydia’s three weeks before we began, and I was blown away by how closely her church matched my vision for what Simple Church could become. I started to think of Simple Church as part of a growing movement of dinner churches and began to see the Eucharist as central to my call to ministry.

Before our first meeting, I searched the web for how to bake bread, and I made a few loaves for us to share. A few dozen of us gathered in my backyard to break bread, dance, sing, eat local vegetables, pray, and have conversations that matter. We used cloth napkins and glassware, and I didn’t make a bulletin or print out song sheets so that there was nothing to throw away at the end of the night.

Inspired by St. Lydia’s, our service was bookended by the Eucharist, beginning with the bread and ending with the cup—so that the entire service consisted of Eucharistic worship.

Early in the launch, I thought about how we as an intentionally small church could achieve financially stability. I looked to the wisdom of the monastics, who were self-sufficient through prayerful work at trades throughout the centuries. I began volunteering at a local farm in exchange for vegetables, and I began selling our bread at farmers markets. By living frugally and sustainably and practicing our monastic funding model, we have been able to free ourselves from the financial burdens that many churches face.

Last year we welcomed Rev. LyAnna Johnson from Texas to join us as our church planting apprentice. After working in Grafton for a full year, she will launch our second branch in October of this year. We are partnering with Whiterock UMC in East Dallas to plant our third branch in 2018, and we plan to start new branches using our apprenticeship model each year into the future.

If this way of doing church feels compelling to you, or if you want to experiment with dinner church in your existing congregation’s worship life, we want to work with you. Join us as an affiliate congregation, and we will share all our resources with you and invite you into our open source network of sharing and support. I am thrilled to see what we build together through the work of the Holy Spirit.

Church has gotten complicated. But it doesn’t have to be. Set a table. Cook some soup. Invite your neighbors over to pray for each other and ask each other the important questions. I think you’ll find that the Spirit shows up for dinner, too.

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