And it’s easy to see why they’re increasing in popularity. They’re lean, nimble, local and cheap to run. And they embrace all the great stuff of life like commonality, conviviality, the sharing of life and the valuing of all voices.
But I’m also aware of the criticism that dinner churches don’t do Bible teaching very well. I’ve heard it said that their emphasis on conversational sharing is a kind of groupthink that just results in a pooling of existing knowledge.
Theologian Letty Russell disagreed with this. She liked to refer to ‘church in the round’ and she claimed such churches are better able to do the important work of discipleship than larger, more traditional churches. That’s because, as Russell saw it, church in the round fosters deeper conversation, deeper sharing, and deeper learning. She wrote:
“The metaphor of the church as a round table speaks of people gathered around the table and in the world in order to connect faith and life in action/reflection (the round table), work for justice in solidarity with those at the margins of society (the kitchen table), and to welcome everyone as partners in God’s world house (the welcome table).”
It’s only when we face each other, valuing the contributions of all, that we can get closer to becoming all that God intended us to be.
Sian and Stuart Murray agree. They call it multi-voiced church, a gathering where all get a say and no one’s contribution is overlooked. And they agree that people grow into better disciples of Christ when they belong to multi-voiced congregations:
“Active participants in healthy multi-voiced churches are much more likely to be confident in sharing their faith with others, ready to engage in social action, hospitable to their neighbours, alert to pastoral opportunities beyond the church, and able to participate in gracious dialogue with people of other faiths or none.”
But, while that might sound good in theory, one of the criticisms I’ve been hearing of table churches is that the teaching isn’t generally that great. That is, as I said earlier, multi-voiced gatherings can be more a pooling of ignorance than a deep learning experience.
Even Stuart Murray acknowledges this. He says, “Many struggle with the low quality and predictability of contributions.”
That said, he cautions against the temptation to revert to mono-voiced church. Agreeing with Ephesians 4:12-13 that the church is to “equip God’s people for works of service… until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature”, Murray says that such maturity “comes not from over-dependence on worship leaders or listening to endless monologues, but ‘as each part does its work’ (v. 16), contributing distinctively to the harmony.”
But how? There’s got to be more to multi-voiced church, or church in the round, than everyone just getting to share their opinion. We’ve all been in meetings like that, yearning for someone to help us make something beautiful out of the whiteboard full of opinions, speculations, and brain farts.
What role is there for the biblical gift of teaching? If it’s not to deliver mono-voiced sermons, what do teachers do?
I am of the view that one of the goals of the church meeting is for us to search collectively for the purpose of Christ.
Since we believe that Christ alone rules in the congregation, the task of the local church gathered (around tables or in pews) is to find the mind of Christ for their life and mission. And I believe that finding the mind of Christ requires a corporate interpretation of scripture. No one person can do it all on our behalf. The Bible needs to be exegeted by the whole community to ensure nothing of Christ’s purpose is overlooked.
This isn’t to say I don’t prize the individual reading of scripture. I’ve just finished writing a book about the need for us to recover the practice of Bible memorization. But the private interpretation of scripture by individuals must always be subject to congregational hermeneutics, to the mind of the whole community, gathered in the presence of Christ.
Here is one place for the Christian teacher — to help us move from mere brainstorming to a truly congregational hermeneutic. As Lesslie Newbigin once wrote,
“Jesus manifestly did not intend to leave behind him simply a body of teaching. If that had been his intention he would have surely written a book like the Qur’an instead of the book we have. What he did was prepare a community chosen to be the bearer of the secret of the kingdom. This community is his legacy… a community which would continue that which he came from the Father to be and do – namely, to embody and to announce the presence of the reign of God.”
So, what would it look like for teachers to lead churches in this way? Let me suggest a few possibilities.
TEACHING SHOULD HAPPEN IN A CONVERSATIONAL CONTEXT
For a start, any teaching that occurs at a table church should happen in the context of myriad ongoing gospel conversations within the congregation throughout the week. Teachers should not only teach at the church meeting, but be involved in relationships where conversations about the gospel are central all week long.
This is the unseen, but essential work of the teacher, inspiring the congregation to engage in deep thinking and regular conversations about the reign of God, stimulating the missional imagination of everyone in the community. This can take place face-to-face at social gatherings and pastoral visits, but it can also happen remotely using WhatsApp or Signal or another chat facility.
TEACHING SHOULD BE CONDUCTED IN A CONVERSATIONAL FORMAT
The mono-voiced churches are taught by preachers who apply the exegetical historical-critical skills learned in seminary and study the text in its original language, so they can arrive at the meaning of the text all by themselves.
Forgetting the fact that after more than 100 years the historical-critical method hasn’t yielded the singular meaning of the text yet, the more disturbing aspect is the excessive individualism that is promoted by the assumptions that undergird it. Mono-voiced preaching can actually encourage the person in the pew to be isolated from further conversation and testing of the Scriptures within the congregation.
Dinner church teachers need to foster a form of progressional dialogue, where they host the discussion and keep the group on topic and in the scriptures, but allow all voices to make a contribution. They shepherd the learning experience. Also, it’s possible that churches might opt for a blended mono/multi-voiced approach. Stuart Murray writes,
“How many monologue sermons do we need? How many can we digest and act upon? What if we have one well-prepared sermon each month and spend four weeks reflecting together on its implications? Might we then treat sermons far more seriously than we currently do and make more creative use of our time?”
TEACHERS SHOULD ADOPT A CONVERSATIONAL TONE
If your dinner church has designated teachers who bring a presentation to the congregation, I would encourage them to adopt an inclusive, conversational tone. I would also advise against there being only one person who ever fulfils this role.
Doug Pagitt says, “There is something dangerous in the life of the preacher who regularly tells others how things are, could be or ought to be… When I bring up an idea, I frame it with a phrase like, ‘it seems to me’ or ‘this is my take on it’ or ‘from the perspective I have.’ This language is helpful both for the community and for me.”
TEACHERS SHOULD PROMOTE A CONVERSATIONAL HERMENEUTIC
As I said earlier, finding the mind of Christ is a congregational activity, too great for any individual to do it all on our behalf. Learning Christ is a communal activity.
And yet, living as we do in a highly individualistic culture, we find ourselves thinking of the church as a gathering of individuals. We forget what Edwin Searcy said, that the church is inherently a communal disciple. Teaching is for the church as a single body, rather than to individual circumstances. This is why I’m not a fan of us listening to sermons online. A sermon belongs to a church, not to the preacher. Teaching like this assumes that the gospel for individuals is a call to become a member of the Body of Christ. All teaching in this mode should be designed to build up the congregation (gathered and dispersed) as a disciple of Jesus in its own right.
As Doug Pagitt writes, “Progressional dialogue doesn’t mean groupthink, discussion, or even agreement. It means we listen to one another in such a way that what we think cannot be left unchanged. We hear what others in our community are saying and have no choice but to let it impact our thinking.”