On the weekend of April 13th, I headed up to Wilson, NC for a conference on evangelism led by Dr. John Vest of Union Presbyterian Seminary
. The conference was held at First Presbyterian in Wilson, and it began with “Barbecue Church.” Barbecue Church is something that is passionate calling for John Vest. He cooks up a feast of BBQ and then leads a worship service where a church dinner (BBQ and all) is in the midst of the service. Or is it a dinner where worship happens? The intention (for us churchy folks) is to draw a very clear line between table fellowship at a dinner and the fellowship and communion of the Lord’s Supper. The intention (for less churchy folks) is to give an opportunity to encounter a holy moment organically within a good meal shared with old friends and new friends. It is a time for community, holy community, holy communion to be built up around table in the midst of the world.
I enjoyed the service/dinner (and I loved the music by the Jordan Lake Swimmers)
, but I have to say that my personal preference still is to keep church and dinner a little more separate. (I am, after all, a churchy person.) However, I am intrigued by the idea of such table fellowship as an outreach to those for whom church is not a familiar – and may not be a positive – concept.
When I was a student at Union, a high point of the week was Wednesday worship and dinner. At 11:00am on Wednesday, the seminary community gathered in the chapel for a worship service very much like the Sunday morning service in many churches. We sang three hymns; the choir sang an anthem; a fine sermon was preached by an upper-level student or visiting guest; and the Lord’s supper was celebrated. Directly after the worship service, we all walked as a body to the dining hall and shared the best meal of the week there. (The highlight of those meals was when the local Korean-Presbyterian church came to worship and eat with us a traditional Korean feast.) In those meals, it was clear that the communion of the body of Christ continued as we journeyed from one table to the next. The work and blessing and practice of community, forgiveness, love and hope continued as we sat down to table. The presence of God was differently but equally present at each table.
Much like the lunch table at a middle school (and what is seminary but middle school with more Ancient Greek?), our lunch tables give us opportunity to invite or exclude. We can beckon the new kid, the stranger, the guest in our midst to come sit down with us, or we can make sure that there is only room for our friends. We can sit down at table and make no distinction between insiders and outsiders, or we can make sure that the outsiders stay outcast. We can give and receive welcome, or we can withhold that welcome.
Beginning with Peter’s encounter with Cornelius in Acts 10, the practice of the church at table (in theory, if not always in practice!) has been one of radical inclusion. Such inclusion is life giving, and it is the kind of inclusion that Jesus modeled for his disciples again and again. Jesus’ sharing table with those whom others called sinners provoked howls of rage from the self-righteous. Sitting with sinners and saints together, Jesus did not distinguish between the two like everyone else did and still seems to do.
If you have ever been – in middle school or elsewhere – the one on the fringes or the one who is not quite sure if you belong, being invited to sit down at a table is life giving. Seeing people clear a space for you at the table and welcome you is life giving. In my own faith journey, I remember quite clearly those times in which I was welcomed in such a way, and those moments of memory and thanksgiving had an out-size influence upon my faith journey.
In the same way, turning your back to the one looking for a place to belong can be devastating. Our challenge as church at table, at worship, at work, in study, and just about everywhere else is to be that place of welcome. Making intentional room and welcome at the table without regard for whether someone (returning to middle school again) is cool or not is a holy practice. As a church at table and at worship and at worship at table, making a place of welcome without regard to the many divisions which too often fragment our society is a holy practice. Welcoming those who may not be welcome elsewhere is a holy practice. Welcoming those with whom you disagree is a holy practice.
It is with joy that I look forward events such as our church picnic on May 20th. I encourage you to look for the presence of God there, reach out to sisters and brothers known and unknown to you there, practice love as part of the Body of Christ which is our church. Make the table a welcome table.
Grace and Peace,
Below are photos from Union Presbyterian Church’s event at First Presbyterian in Wilson, NC.
Winter Park Presbyterian Church is a creative, loving, and inclusive church family located in busy mid-town Wilmington, NC.