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Why did the early church focus more on food than sermons? And how should that affect how we do church today?
Join us for a fascinating conversation with scholar and author Dr. Mike Graves. Delve into the early church’s expression of the agape feast and how it informs and prophetically influences today’s dinner church. This episode is perfect for church planters, church history nerds and everything in between.
Dr. Mike Graves is author of Table Talk: Rethinking Communion and Community. He serves as scholar in Residence at Country Club Christian Church in Kansas City, Missouri.
In the early days of Christianity, gatherings centered around shared meals and inclusive table fellowship. This way of “doing church” reflected Jesus’ practice of eating with all and building community around tables.
As Dr. Mike Graves explains, “the earliest followers of Jesus didn’t really invent anything. Jesus didn’t look around and say, ‘Guys, you’re going to be followers of me and I’m going to show you another way of being on this planet.’ He was a Jew living in a very Hellenized world.” The Greco-Roman world commonly had dinner clubs and associations that met for meals, discussion, and community. Likewise, early Christian gatherings followed much the same format, often in homes.
But over centuries, traditional churches have drifted away from these intimate, participatory gatherings toward more passive worship experiences. Today’s Dinner Church movement seeks to recapture the spirit of the early church by once again making meals and conversation the heart of church life.
Below, you’ll find key ideas and quotes adapted from this podcast interview, as well as questions for you to reflect on in your own ministry journey. Dr. Mike Graves Dr is author of Table Talk: Rethinking Communion and Community. He serves as scholar in Residence at Country Club Christian Church in Kansas City, Missouri. He explains how the agape feasts and table fellowship of the first Christians offer prophetic witness to today’s churches. Drawing on extensive research into ancient church practices, Graves notes that early church meals fostered radical inclusion, intimate community, participatory conversation, and joyful celebration.
The Nature of Early Church Gatherings
As Graves describes, “Everybody in the empire were members of…dinner clubs. You could call them dinner clubs, you could call them associations.” These groups would meet for fellowship, dining, and philosophical discussions.
The early Christian gatherings operated much the same way. As host JD notes, this differed greatly from more passive worship experiences today.
Graves emphasizes that in these intimate dinner gatherings, “You weren’t somebody who snuck into the back of the sanctuary, sat on the back pew and left during the postlude. You were at a dinner, you were going to get to know these people and they were going to get to know you.”
Recapturing Inclusion, Intimacy, and Participation
What key elements have been lost that dinner church can help recover? Graves points to three prophetic witnesses:
- Inclusion – Early Christian groups willingly violated social norms to include women, slaves, rich and poor alike. As Graves states, “It was more radical in its inclusion.” The dinner table intrinsically fosters this breaking down of barriers.
- Intimacy – With just 12-30 people reclining for a meal, early gatherings fostered deep community and friendship. This differs greatly from anonymity in modern sanctuaries.
- Participation – Rather than passive observation, every person actively contributed to dinner church conversations and activities. As Graves puts it, “The participation model totally changes because of the architecture and because of how the whole thing is structured.” Leadership was more prompting and facilitating dynamic dialogue rather than lecturing.
JD affirms that dinner churches today powerfully recapture these elements through welcoming diverse neighbors to the table and cultivating authentic faith sharing.
Joyful, Thankful Meals
Beyond inclusion and participation, Graves stresses how agape feasts brought tremendous joy. Unfortunately, today’s communion rituals often become very solemn affairs. But early Christians saw the Eucharist as a celebration of God’s abundant blessings, not primarily a time for mourning over sins. As Graves puts it, “Eucharist, communion, dinner church is a joyful expression of the abundance of God who is among us.” Recapturing this joyful spirit of thanksgiving around meals is an important witness dinner churches can provide.
Continuing a Timeless Tradition
In the end, dinner church represents a return to the roots of Christian fellowship. The ancient vision of joyous, inclusive, intimate community centered around tables continues to bring people together today. By prompting participation, transforming relationships, and cultivating gospel joy, the dinner church movement offers a compelling, timeless model for being the church.
- How might your church experience be different if it revolved around a shared meal like the early church? What could be gained or lost?
- Do you think a dinner church model promotes deeper intimacy and inclusion than a traditional worship service? Why or why not?
- What are some practical steps your church could take to increase participatory conversation during services or small groups? How might this impact your community?
- How often do you experience true joy and celebration in your church gatherings? What contributes to this feeling of joy, or what diminishes it?
- If you were to design a dinner church gathering in your context, what are some creative ways you could foster inclusion, intimacy, participation and joy? What would be the biggest challenges?