It was 5:01 PM on a frigid Sunday evening, February 2021. I was in the front row of a beautiful historic sanctuary. The purple pews and carpet had become the temporary home of our two-year-old church plant, North City Church in Minneapolis.
The pandemic displaced us from the local elementary school. We were attempting some semblance of normal here in another church’s sanctuary and online.
I paused and looked up from my sermon notes to steal a few glances over my shoulder to see who might have braved the cold to join us for worship. The 200-person auditorium was empty, save one congregant, Connie, a faithful charter member. I turned to lock eyes with our worship coordinator as she strolled up on stage to start our service. She nodded as if to acknowledge this was a significant moment, albeit a humbling one.
At that moment, something set deep in my soul, the conviction, “This is not who Jesus called us to be.”
That Sunday in February felt like a necessary death that would bring new life. I wasn’t sure how, but I was sure God would lead us to a different way to live out our mission of loving our neighbors in the way of Jesus.
Holy Desperation Led Us Back to Our Original Vision
After that Sunday, the leaders of North City and I set out on a vulnerable mission, one of holy desperation. We knew the way we were doing church was not connecting with our neighbors, let alone our congregants. Deep in our souls, we knew we needed a different way of expressing our mission. We needed to be a church for people who were far from that empty sanctuary on that cold February evening.
The pandemic was a crucible for our little church plant. Pre-pandemic, our church had grown from thirty to seventy regular participants in six months. Yet even in that steady growth, something was missing.
We hadn’t discovered who we were yet. We were “doing church” as we knew it. People were coming (mostly Christians from other churches), but it always seemed like we were sampling the receipt we hadn’t quite perfected yet. There was a missing ingredient.
North City Church started with a seed of a vision. That vision seed was the word table. We were taken by how Jesus loved others around tables, the sheer volume of time he spent around them with others (nearly 30% in my estimation), and how often people’s journey of following Jesus started around a table.
The early church seemed to take these pages from Jesus’ playbook so why couldn’t we?
Although we started a typical Sunday gathering, we experimented with our Table vision. We tried backyard BBQs, neighborhood ice cream parties, and even Fifth Sunday brunch church. All of these were exciting and felt like the leading edge of our call, but they also left us with a crucial wondering: should those things be our main thing?
We wondered, instead of centering on the kind of church we knew, could we center on the type of expression we had seen glimpses of in the gospels, the early church, and our missional experimentation?
Then, March 2020 came.
After several months of lockdowns and a good chunk of a pandemic, we faced the same questions in more dire circumstances. After that difficult Sunday with only one person in the room, we knew we only had one more hand to play, and we had to go all in. As we prayed and discerned how to spend what resources, time, people, and money we had left, one word echoed in our prayerful ears: table.
In late April of 2021, I preached one of our final full sermons. I remember being in near tears, rhetorically asking the remnant of our congregation.
“What story do we want to tell in 5, 10 or 50 years? Imagine If we tell people in the future our mission was to love our neighbors in the way of Jesus, and they ask, “how did you do that” and our best response is: great sermons, awesome worship music, and hip graphic design…. Will we be able to say with conviction that that was a faithful response to our call? There has to be something more, and what I hear you saying, North City, is that “more” looks a lot like church around a table. A table filled with God’s presense, our brothers and sisters in Christ, and the stranger.“
The result of our discernment was a call to be a “table-centric church.” In truth, we had complete confidence in the call and little idea how to act on it. By God’s grace, I knew a guy. His name was Chris Morton.
Chris was an acquaintance whose smiling profile picture occasionally graced my Facebook feed. One day in April 2021, I noticed a post about a “dinner church class.” Chris’ post set off a frenzy of googling and deep diving into the dinnerchurch.com website.
A couple of Facebook messages later, I had access to a fresh expressions online dinner church training. A couple of days later I was on the phone with Verlon Fosner, begging him to let our team fly out to Seattle for an on-the-ground training immersion with his network of Dinner Churches.
Trying to convey the urgency of our need for training, I said to Verlon “we are building this plane as it’s taking off.”
We were graced with holy desperation to learn, desperate to act on this Holy Spirit calling to be a church around table for people who were far from church as we knew it.
Early Experiments and New Faces
Our team landed in Seattle in June with a barrage of questions for Verlon. We had already experimented with three weeks of dinner church in a local park. It was awkward, amazing, and beautiful. People started coming. On the first Sunday, there were just 25 anxious yet hopeful participants. Sixteen of those people were new. Sixteen!
Yes, the first time we tried Dinner Church, over half the participants had never been to our church before. The following Sunday, there were 50 participants, and the next 70.
Over the next several months, Verlon and the Dinner Church resources from Fresh Expressions helped us build the plane God has lifted off the runway. We learned how to structure the community dinner experience to make the stranger feel most comfortable. We learned about Jesus stories and how to communicate to people who hadn’t set foot in anything resembling a church in over twenty years. We learned how to feed the crowd well. We learned how to bring in worship and prayer. The Fresh Expressions resources were an invaluable guide in our journey to the church we are today.
A Growing Movement
This past Sunday, in the same park where we launched, we dined in holy merriment with more than 100 strangers, friends, and church members. Jesus has saved people.
Jesus has healed people.
Jesus has brought back his estranged family members. Some people had wandered away during the pandemic. Others had been wandering for nearly a lifetime.
We feel we have caught a wave of the Spirit’s work. One sign of this was when other groups of mission-minded Christians started asking us about what we were doing and how they could do it too. Last year a dinner church spun of our community on a local college campus, a new church plant in our denomination is experimenting with dinner church, and an established sister church has decided to have a community dinner every Fifth Sunday.
I regularly talk with people drawn to starting a dinner church. Their story is often similar. They say things like, “I feel like God has put the idea of table on my heart for a long time, and this expression seems so close to what I imagined.”
Conversations like this have started to happen with such frequency that I began to develop a vision for a collective of dinner church pastors around the country and world. Such a group has also been a goal for Fresh Expressions. I am pleased to join the Fresh Expressions team with the hope of cultivating the resources and relationships a community of people trying to catch the wave of the Spirit’s movement in their own communities.
Equipping for Movement
I know that I still need training and education in the Dinner Church approach, as well as it’s history and theology. This Fall, I’ll be joining the Dinner Church School of Leadership, which provides graduate level training on these topics. We’re also actively working on starting our next Dinner Church in our city. The stream of churches in starting their own Dinner Churches here Minneapolis keeps coming.
The Dinner Church School of Leadership is designed for folks like me who find themselves caught up in a movement of God’s Spirit to recover church around a table. If this interests you at all, I’d love for you to join me as a classmate.