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A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic and Hopeful Spiritual Community (Expanded Edition with Study Guide)

John Pavlovitz
Westminster John Knox Press, 232 pages

The word “Christian” is often synonymous these days with bigotry and discrimination, John Pavlovitz notes. His response is to call churches to a wider way of inclusion, laying out his vision for such a church using the metaphor of a bigger table as a remedy for our patterns of exclusion.

“Expanding the table,” he cautions, “isn’t for the faint of heart or the impatient, which is why so few people actually attempt it, but there is something transformative on the other side of it.” He writes skillfully about the tension he experienced between being the pastor he wanted to be, and the pastor the church expected him to be. This expanded edition of his book adds a series of discussion questions for small groups, useful for churches that may want to begin this work of deliberate inclusion. Each week’s suggested program combines scripture, prompts for deeper thought, and ways to connect with others.

John Pavlovitz’ journey and ideas will be familiar to many from his earlier version of this book, his blog and his presence on Twitter.  He invites pastors to be table-setters, who welcome people into genuine community, instead of being managers of buildings and budgets.

Even after leaving his evangelical church, his background continues to shape his view of the church. “Most churches,” he says, “start like this: start with a Main Person, who will drive the whole thing…[then] Put a Ministry Team around the Main Guy.” This limited view of the church makes the book less useful to those who serve in longer-established congregations, in churches without abundant funds and high tech equipment, or in city churches with new neighbors around them.

His vision of the “bigger table” of the church is focused on the LGBTQ+ community, where he rightly notes that the church has a wealth of work to do to be fully inclusive. He doesn’t seem to notice that women, immigrants, and Black, Asian and other people of color still labor for full inclusion in the church.

Pavlovitz is passionate about inclusion, and, in his enthusiasm, he somehow believes this is new work. He fails to give credit to the people who have been working for decades for the full inclusion of the LGBTQ+ community in church life. He sometimes sounds as if he’s the first person to discover that people have been excluded from the church. “Right now,” he writes, “I am two years into the daily work of building faith communities that embody radical hospitality, true diversity, real authenticity, and agenda-free community.”

If you want to delve into a book on this topic, you might seek out the writing of someone who is two decades into this work, or find the voices of people who find themselves on the margins of the church. There’s an odd irony in giving a book contract, and paying big money to a straight, white man to talk about inclusion when there are so many other people who can speak from their own experience to this deep need in the church.

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Mary Austin is the Pastor of Gaithersburg Presbyterian Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland.