Maybe Forrest Gump’s mother was right about that box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.
My favourite memory from Supper Club occurred just before Christmas 2019. We were all gathered, quite literally in an upper room, around a very large dinner table. There were about 30 of us. The food stretched far enough that everyone had just about enough. A box of chocolates went around, and I watched as each person in this diverse, eclectic group selected the chocolate they wanted. Feeding people always warms my heart. Some of these particular people had experienced rejection at the hands of the Church—so what else could we do other than pass them a box of chocolates? A little chocolate-covered blessing was given and received. Welcome to Supper Club in the Diocese of Montréal (pictured above).
Supper Club is our experiment in Dinner Church ministry. It has been operating one way or another for more than five years now and has continued to evolve over time. This ministry has given us a compelling example of how rewarding it is to create a community around dinner and conversation and, along the way, to learn what the Church can be.
Serving dinner is at the heart of many missional initiatives. The Dinner Church movement began from a missional impulse to connect with unchurched and de-churched people, and from a desire to rediscover the agape meal of the New Testament. In the Diocese of Montréal, Supper Club meets once a month over dinner and conversation. It is a community that was durable and compelling enough to take us through the isolation of COVID.
The food itself is an important part of the equation and is worth paying attention to. As our Supper Club community tends towards younger adults in Montréal, the food is always vegan and locally sourced. This might be different if you are working with young families, for example, where you likely want to serve child-friendly food. Think about the food you serve and the people you are serving and align the food offering with their values and lifestyles. In the same way, decide if you or a team of people will prepare all the food or if you want to include your participants in food preparation and make that part of the whole event. Sometimes a lot of life can be shared, and community built, while chopping onions.
The point behind all this eating and drinking is that Jesus spent time with people eating and drinking. It helps form community and creates a relaxed atmosphere in a way that isn’t possible for a coffee hour after church. It is a way of giving a gift to people rather than demanding something from them. A hot dinner shared together is a beautiful way to care for people, and it can provide a framework for great conversations about life, God, and Jesus. And please pass the bread.
The Art of Gathering
Our Supper Club did not come into being because we put up a sign somewhere. It took, and continues to take, regular, persistent work on the part of our leaders to gather and keep this community together. This coordination includes phone calls, social media posts, and emails. Persistence is the key. This is an important lesson from our Supper Club experience we want to extend to the wider church, particularly applicable in any situation where we continue to try to attract people to church, yet despair if they do not come. This community was gathered together and nurtured by some very intentional actions on the part of its leadership, and this work should not be underestimated.
An Open Space, an Evangelistic Space
There is no one pattern for Dinner Church, so what is the difference between a Dinner Church and a potluck supper in the parish hall? This difference lies in its purpose. You will gather, check in, sing songs, listen, share and eat but all around a focused purpose. You can create any purpose you want for your event, depending on the kind of people you are in contact with. Supper Club draws together a mix of people, including established Christians who are looking for something different and a conspicuous number of people who have left established Christianity for various reasons. Your conversations will explore life, faith, God, and Jesus, but from a much wider perspective than some might find comfortable. But that is Supper Club.
An open space, over a glass of wine and dinner, a wide-open conversation. Those of us who are integrated into the Church sometimes need to refrain from correcting others and instead open our ears to what is being said. When you do that, you discover something powerful, missional, evangelistic. For when you listen, you discover that people need to work out their faith verbally and explore their beliefs in a non-judgmental environment. This is the evangelistic power of Dinner Church. Let people talk it out, but do not correct them. When you suspend judgement and listen, you hear the stories of people being chased out of Church because they are gay, or of people losing the faith of their childhood and searching for a new one. You hear about rejection. You hear of bitter disappointments, and prayers gone unanswered. I have learned so much about why people leave the Church and give up on faith. These are essential stories for us to hear and make space for in our community, and Sunday morning is not the right time for them. It can feel like a risk to allow these stories. But people need to spread their spiritual and theological wings and begin to figure out faith for themselves. Sometimes the best response to whatever people wish to share is a simple one: pass the chocolates.
This is why it is important that Supper Club is church and not only a gathering of friends for dinner. Our conversations have a focus. But unlike Sunday morning church, Supper Club creates a space for people to express themselves and begin to work out just what it is they believe. Give them that space and watch what the Spirit can do.
But What About the Liturgy?
I am regularly asked whether Supper Club has a liturgy. The answer is: sometimes. We do have music, we do pray, and we eat. We check in with each other. We have celebrated the Eucharist, but Supper Club style, simple, stripped down, around the dinner table. We’ve told Godly Play stories and wondered together. The possibilities are endless, limited only by your imagination. Some expressions of Dinner Church do use liturgies, but the focus tends to be on sharing the stories of Jesus in creative and open-ended ways. Instead of preaching at people, we engage with people. Keep that in mind when you plan your expression of Dinner Church. Remember that it IS church, indeed is a way the very first Christians met. But it is not a formula you just repeat over and over again.
A Measure of Success
It is never easy to measure the success of a missional event, but at our last gathering before COVID there were so many of us crammed around the table we thought we would run out of food (we didn’t!). We cannot be said to be creating new Anglicans or getting them to take envelopes, though some do find Supper Club compelling enough to support it financially. And some have found their way into Church, each in their own way. But we have created a community which has been a source of refreshment to some and belonging to all.
I see the greatest measure of its success in my own life. After the COVID lockdown was declared, we immediately met online in the now-ubiquitous Zoom space and ate “together”. We just wanted to be together in any way we could. I even cooked vegan food for myself, in keeping with our ethos. I wanted to keep in contact with these people, I needed to. For somewhere along the line this eclectic group of people became my friends, people whom I valued deeply and needed in my life. When I had an accident, broke my ankle and ended up having surgery, I wanted them to know. For this is my community too.
And in the fullness of time, someone passed the box of chocolates to me. I chose a caramel crème. I will always be grateful to Supper Club for what they teach me about all that church can be.