Eerdmans, 176 pages
Reviewed by Henry G. Brinton
When Jesus gathered his followers for the Last Supper, he broke bread and said, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). He commanded his friends to do something at a table, not to think something in a sanctuary. Because this action of breaking bread and eating together is so central to Christian worship, Kendall Vanderslice embarked on a year of visiting dinner churches across the country — communities of faith that have a shared meal at the center of congregational life. Such churches are a growing trend in the United States, as Vanderslice discovered when she watched their number grow from five to more than 50 over the course of three years.
In fact, as I sat down to write this review, I came across an article from the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church that reported on “Fresh Expressions,” a dinner church initiative gaining ground across Florida. With a focus on simple meals and conversations around tables, the conference will launch 55 new dinner churches by this fall, offering meals in venues ranging from community centers to public school cafeterias to outdoor parks. While Vanderslice observed about 50 dinner churches across the country, the Florida Conference alone is now launching 55.
Vanderslice’s experience in the restaurant industry and expertise as a baker, combined with her study of food at Boston University and theology at Duke University, qualifies her to dig into this topic with appetite and insight. “We Will Feast” offers the reader a smorgasbord of dinner church experiences from Saint Lydia’s in Brooklyn to Garden Church in San Pedro, California. At Potluck Church in Kentucky, everybody 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 all over the city, where feasting with friends is combined with feeding the hungry. When Church in a Pub offers worship in Lansing, Michigan, restaurant servers walk around taking orders while the pastor offers Communion.
But this book is more than a survey of a growing trend. Vanderslice brings keen theological analysis to the dinner church movement, seeing it as a continuation of the desire of Jesus not only to feed the poor, but to delight in their presence. She understands eating, cooking and worshipping together as daily reminders of creaturely mortality, and she sees God’s handiwork in both the soil that produces wheat and a slice of freshly baked bread. For Vanderslice, dinner church services can actually unify the Body of Christ through the sharing of bread.
In every dinner church, Jesus is believed to be present at the table, and relationships deepen as people eat, pray and talk together. While Vanderslice does not predict that dinner churches will become the new model for churches everywhere, she does believe that they satisfy two basic human needs: to be nourished by food and to find companionship with other people. It is no surprise to her that Jesus established his church around a table, and that he asked his followers to eat together in remembrance of him. This book is a valuable resource for any church that wants to do a better job of gathering people around tables to be nourished in body and spirit, and to grow stronger as individuals and as a community.
Henry G. Brinton is pastor of Fairfax Presbyterian Church in Virginia, and author of the novel “City of Peace.”