Dinner churches are increasing in popularity as many Christians find themselves drawn to a church experience that is more informal, communal, egalitarian, and one that involves hospitality and conviviality. If you’re not familiar with dinner churches, I write about them here.
While a dinner church is everything a traditional church should be – a gathering of believers, meeting in Jesus’ name and around his word, to worship God and build each other up in the faith — there are certain peculiarities that dinner church leaders need to bear in mind. The temptation is for a dinner church to be more like a dinner than a church.
So how would Jesus run a dinner church? That’s not such an obtuse question because Jesus actually gives us quite a bit of advice about how table fellowship should occur. In Luke’s gospel alone, he turns up to ten dinner parties, during which he reveals, either by his words or his actions, how he would run a dinner church. I’m going to look at five of those meals in this post, and the other five in a later post.
Here’s a series of tips for dinner church leaders, drawn from dinners in Luke’s gospel.
1. Feel Free to Eat with the “Wrong People” (Luke 5:27-32)
Recently, a friend was telling me that when he was younger, he volunteered to play a punk rocker in a church skit. He turned up to the church sanctuary wearing leather, his face adorned with safety pins, his hair colored and gelled into a mohawk. To his astonishment, he was barred at the door by a steward. He was only admitted after he explained he was in character for a performance of ‘The Parable of the Good Punk Rocker’. Even if we haven’t been physically barred from entering the building, many of us know what it’s like to be made to feel unwelcome in church because we’re too this-or-that for the congregation.
In Luke 5:27-32, Jesus attends a meal at the home of his new disciple, Levi the tax collector. Levi must have been the wealthiest of Jesus’ disciples because his own home was spacious enough to host “a large crowd of tax collectors and others” (v29). We know all about tax collectors. They were despised by the common people as Roman collaborators. They were known for relying on the military might of the occupying oppressors to gouge a handsome commission on their transactions, getting rich off the backs of the poor as a result (hence Levi’s large home). But they were also the objects of the scorn of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who considered them unclean for fraternizing with Roman Gentiles and trading in Roman currency.
But who else is at this banquet beside tax collectors? While the Pharisees and teachers refer to them as “sinners,” Luke can’t bring himself to call them such, preferring the more neutral designation, “others.” Who are they? The term translated as “others” is vague. It could mean something like the riffraff, people of low repute. Although, some scholars have speculated whether the term is being used like the Hebrew equivalent myrxa, which in the Talmudic writings refers to Gentiles. That certainly seems to fit the context here. Jesus has turned up to a large feast at a wealthy tax collector’s home and is supping with collaborators and Gentiles. No wonder the Jewish religious elite were aghast, complaining to Jesus’ disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”
It seems religious authorities have always avoided sharing a table with unseemly characters. I was once in Amsterdam for an international conference and bumped into a group of fellow Australians, members of the God Squad biker gang. They were long haired and long bearded and kitted out in leather gear, looking just like outlaw bikers. We ended up having a drink in an outdoor café across the street from the conference center when an Anglican bishop, another fellow Australian, sat down at a nearby table. The God Squad guys were being pretty boisterous and jovial and when I greeted the bishop (who was wearing his clerical garb) they were thrilled to learn there was another Aussie in town and loudly invited him to join us. I thought it was a kind offer, but the bishop politely declined. He sat alone not far from us for the rest of our time there. I recall looking at him sadly. I couldn’t understand why he would refuse the offer, even just long enough to be introduced to everyone. I concluded he didn’t want to be seen with us in such a visible place by other conference attendees.
One of the first rules of dinner church is that you need to be willing to share your table with whoever attends. Whoever attends. You might be able to ignore or marginalize (or even block) someone in a large public gathering in a church building, but a dinner table is a different story. In a dinner church, attendance is conspicuous. At a dinner church, food is shared and glasses are topped up and conversation flows. All must be made welcome.
We need to be willing, as Jesus was, to eat with the “wrong people.” His presence at a feast attended by Gentiles and “unclean” Jews at the home of a traitorous collaborator was utterly scandalous. But Jesus took the view that intimacy isn’t equal to endorsement. For him, the enjoyment of table fellowship with “sinners” was not tantamount to sanctioning their behavior. In fact, he justifies his decision to the Pharisees by saying, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (v31-32). Jesus seems entirely aware of his fellow guests’ sin, even using the metaphor of “sickness” to describe it, but his presence with them isn’t tacit approval of that sin. Rather, it is the beginning of their road to repentance and healing.
2. See Social Faux Pas as Opportunities for Ministry (Luke 7:36-50)
I grew up in a middle-class family in the suburbs. There is nothing fine, upstanding folks like my family hated more than a social faux pas. Speaking with your mouth full? Unacceptable. Asking rude questions like, “How much money do you earn?” Absolutely not. Belching, farting, or blowing your nose at the table. Awkward.
Faux pas is French for “false step” and if you made a false step in my extended family it was noted and commented on forever (like the time my grandmother got drunk at Christmas dinner and blurted out a really embarrassing secret about her new husband – I’m cringing as I write this).
Social blunders or breaches in etiquette happen in every culture. Don’t touch a child’s head in Thailand. Don’t point at someone in Cambodia. Don’t mistake a Canadian for an American anywhere. And the world over they are usually greeted with the same stony silence of social disapproval. How else does a culture educate people about what’s acceptable and unacceptable?
So Jesus’ behavior in this story in Luke 7, where he becomes embroiled in a totally awkward breach of etiquette, is so interesting. Far from socially isolating the one who violates a convention, Jesus takes the opportunity to bear witness to the kingdom. And, referring to my earlier point, if you’re going to be willing to eat with the “wrong people,” you need to be prepared for the odd faux pas. But when someone puts their foot in it, instead of disapproving scowls or awkward silence, try doing what Jesus did and seizing the moment.
The faux pas in question in Luke 7 is the appearance of a woman “who lived a sinful life” (v37) at a dinner party hosted by a Pharisee named Simon. Eating was often done outdoors in courtyards to which the public had access. When a respected Pharisee hosted an up-and-coming teacher like Jesus, his neighbors knew they were welcome to hang around at the edges of the courtyard and listen into their erudite conversation. Knowing that his meal with Jesus was being observed by a small crowd, Simon takes the opportunity to humiliate the Galilean teacher. He neglects to welcome Jesus with a kiss, as was the custom. He doesn’t have his servants wash Jesus’ feet. And, rather than seating his guest beside him at the head of the table, he allows Jesus to recline further down the table. All these actions are faux pas, but they are intentional. They are designed as a spectacle for public consumption. He wants the crowd to see how little respect he has for Jesus.
But it is the unintentional faux pas that causes the bigger stir. The so-called sinful woman is outraged at the treatment being meted out to Jesus and breaks from crowd at the edge of the courtyard in a ham-fisted attempt at righting the wrongs committed by Simon.
Sobbing emotionally, she throws herself at Jesus’ unwashed feet, her tears turning the dust to mud. Without a towel or a cloth, she lets down her long black hair to wipe Jesus’ tear-stained feet as she kisses them in devotion. Finally, she opens an alabaster jar and anoints his feet with perfume. To the casual observer, her display is melodramatic, emotional and sensual. In other words, it is highly inappropriate in a setting like this. In Middle Eastern culture a woman never lets her hair down in the presence of any other man than her husband! Simon is disgusted. To him, the fact that Jesus has not recoiled at her revolting behavior is proof enough that he is not the holy prophet his supporters claim.
But far from recoiling, Jesus accepts her faux pas as an act of consecration and turns the tables on Simon. He uses his defence of the woman to highlight the social humiliation he has experienced at the hands of his pious host, telling him a parable that highlights Simon’s self-righteous. He ends the conversation by turning to the woman and proclaiming, “Your sins are forgiven” (v48). This it turns out is the greatest faux pas of the night. Luke points out that the other guests were astonished by this and began talking among themselves, saying, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” (v49). At the end of the night, all they want to talk about is Jesus’ claim to be the forgiver of sins.
Don’t recoil at the inappropriate behavior of your guests. Don’t greet a breach of etiquette with stony silence. Defend the guilty person. Practice space-making. Be a non-anxious presence. And look for the ways in which the faux pas presents an opportunity for learning, not for the perpetrator but for the judgmental.
3. Feed Everyone Who Turns Up (Luke 9:10-17)
In Luke 9, Jesus miraculously feeds a crowd of 5000 men, and who knows how many women and children, with only five loaves of bread and two fish. Of course, this miracle was designed to do more than feed hungry people. Like all Jesus’ miracles, it was intended to demonstrate his extraordinary power and validate his teaching and his claims to have come from the Father. And it worked! While Luke doesn’t bother with the crowd’s response to the miraculous sign, John’s gospel tells us they exclaimed, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world” and plotted to make him king by force (John 6:14-15).
But this isn’t to say the feeding of the 5000 wasn’t a supreme act of hospitality. It was. They were in a remote place. There was no opportunity to find food for sale. Without a miracle, they would all have to travel home in the dark (which was highly unlikely) or sleep in the open air with empty stomachs. Dividing the food and distributing it among thousands of people shows Jesus’ empathy toward the crowd, his compassion for others, and his generosity toward those in need. And that generosity should serve as an example to us to be consistent in our own empathy, compassion, and care toward others.
Maybe you can’t feed 5000 people with next to nothing (although you’d be an awesome dinner church leader if you could miracle up fish sandwiches for everyone whenever you needed to), we can still live in constant awareness of the needs of others. And our dinner churches should be able to make the promise that we feed all comers, whether they’ve brought something to share or not.
I can recall many nights at our previous dinner church when a bunch of guests turned up and we didn’t have enough food to go around. My wife and I, and some of the other leaders, always saw it as our duty to serve our guests first and eat a few meager leftovers. As we were locking up and farewelling everyone, it wasn’t uncommon for one of the leaders to smile and say, “Oh well, I guess it’s drive-thru burgers on the way home, then.”
4. Make Time to Be with Jesus (Luke 10:38-42)
I mentioned earlier that the temptation of some dinner churches is to be more like a dinner than a church. In the midst of all the laughter and conviviality, and all the hard work and service, we need to be conscious of the need to meet with Jesus. The fourth meal we see Jesus attending in Luke’s Gospel is at the home of Martha. She has invited her sister Mary to join them and Mary soon finds herself so entranced by Jesus’ teaching she abandons any convention about helping her sister with the meal preparation. She “sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said” (v39) and soon Martha could bear it no longer. She complains to Jesus about her sister’s behavior.
Jesus’ replies, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (v41-42).
Jesus’ point is that spending time with him should take precedence over whatever other tasks are pressing. He says something similar in Matthew 9, when asked why his disciples don’t fast: “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast” (Mt 9:15). He knows that his physical presence among them has an expiry date. Time is of the essence. The priority is to enjoy his company, sit at his feet, soak in his words. There will be time enough later for fasting or working hard in the kitchen.
Today, we live on the other side of Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection and ascension. We believe Jesus is very present when we gather, but not physically present as he was to Mary and Martha. In that sense we take a little from column A and a little from column B. We are both Marys and Marthas. We are called to work hard in the service of others, to prepare food, to be good hosts. And we are called to sit attentively at Jesus’ feet. I know what it’s like to feel like a Martha, being so focused on setting up the meeting, preparing the table, fiddling with the lighting, the sound, welcoming new people, yada, yada. I know what it’s like to end the night feeling like I helped host a great dinner party, but that I didn’t soak in Jesus’ presence.
Paul berates the Corinthians for turning their dinner churches into dinner parties. He accuses them of dividing into cliques, not sharing the food properly, and even getting drunk, saying, “I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good” (1Cor.11:17). He then gives them a form of words to use in their meetings that will sanctify the meal and elevate the moment from conviviality to worship: “For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me’… ” (v23-24). Today, we know these as the Words of Institution and they are used in traditional churches services everywhere. But their original intent was to quarantine a section of the meal as an offering to Christ. These words call all the Marthas from the kitchen and all the carousing Corinthians from the bar and insist we pause and focus on the sacrifice of Jesus.
Paul’s dinner churches included food and hospitality and joy and laughter. But they also carved out time to be with Jesus. Later, in his letter to the Corinthians he writes, “When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up” (1 Cor 14:26). Come and spend time at Jesus’ feet. There will be time enough for cleaning up later.
5. Piss Off Self-Righteous People (Luke 11:37-53)
Okay, Jesus doesn’t come out of this dinner party looking great, I admit. He is invited to the home of a Pharisee where he eats a meal with what appears to be table full of religious leaders and experts in the Law. But instead of winning them over with his charm and witty repartee, he proceeds to berate them mercilessly. In fact, he unloads on them! Six times he pronounces woe upon them. He accuses them of being ungenerous to the poor and neglecting justice. He claims they keep people ignorant and burden them with religious legalism. He calls them hypocrites, unmarked graves, and foolish people, and declares, “Inside you are full of greed and wickedness” (v39). Gulp.
The long-held convention at a meal in the Middle East is to never humiliate the host. You never criticize the food or the conversation. In fact, you praise your host lavishly regardless of how meagre the meal might have been. Earlier, we noted how in Luke 7 Jesus remained silent while Simon the Pharisee humiliated him at his table. Jesus only spoke out about his treatment later when defending the woman who had anointed him. He knew you don’t criticize your host. But here in Luke 11, Jesus seems entirely unrestrained by convention. What changed?
The religious elite had turned up the heat on their condemnation of Jesus. They were openly calling him a false prophet and claimed he got his miraculous power from Beelzebub, the demonic lord of the flies. They then had the gall to demand that he prove he was a true prophet of God by doing a great public miracle. They were testing him, trying to make Him look bad. So, in verses 47 to 51, he attacks them for being part of the pharisaic tradition that has rejected the true prophets of God throughout history, a somewhat veiled defense of himself against them. But the main concern in his speech is their treatment of ordinary people. To use a contemporary term, he is charging them with perpetrating a toxic religion.
These are Lee Grady’s eight signs of toxic religion. They describe the Pharisees to a tee, but if you’re trapped in this stuff today you need to get free:
- Toxic religion views God as a cold, harsh, distant taskmaster rather than an approachable, loving Father.
- Toxic religion places emphasis on doing outward things to show others that God accepts its adherents.
- Toxic religion develops traditions and formulas to accomplish spiritual goals.
- Toxic religion becomes joyless, cynical and hypercritical.
- Toxic religion becomes prideful and isolated, thinking that it’s righteousness is special and that you cannot associate with other believers who have different standards.
- Toxic religion develops a harsh, judgmental attitude toward sinners, yet those who ingest this poison typically struggle with sinful habits that they cannot admit to anyone else.
- Toxic religion rejects progressive revelation and refuses to embrace change.
- Toxic religion persecutes those who disagree with their self-righteous views and becomes angry whenever the message of grace threatens to undermine his religiosity.
Jesus had no time for this kind of religion and he condemns it in no uncertain terms.
I’m not proposing you spend part of your dinner church meeting berating the attendees for their hypocrisy. But I am imploring you to foster a faith community of honesty, integrity, humility and grace. By virtue of their smaller size and more intimate setting, dinner churches can more easily strive to be communities of vulnerability and grace than traditional churches can. Please strive to be so.