In the parish hall, a table lay spread with a white cloth, fragrant evergreens and twinkling lights. Sounds of peeling, chopping and the banter of cooks spilled out of the kitchen. A few people bustled around, arranging chairs, setting out napkins, and filling pitchers of water.
At my parish, in the dark days of December, we’re trying to birth a new thing. We’re starting a service called Table Grace, a weekly meal accompanied by communal prayer, song and conversation about scripture.
Since I arrived at St. Mark’s nearly four and a half years ago, we’ve had a single Sunday morning service, down from three Sunday services in years past. When I was interviewing for my position, I mentioned to the search committee that for a single priest, the three service schedule was a clergy killer. One of them said, “It’s a congregation killer, too.” For a long time, St. Mark’s had held two services on Sunday morning. They added a service in between with the intent of attracting young families. From what I can gather, it worked for a while, but mainly drew from parishioners already engaged with the church.
A few families regretted the change to a single service, either because the new arrangement didn’t quite fit into their schedules, or because they were particularly fond of the language and structure of the service to which they had grown accustomed. Many in the congregation, though, appreciated what they described as “being all together.” The Sunday School program flourished under the new schedule. We saw better attendance at a single service than we likely would have seen at three, or even two, separate services. It is tough to find worship energizing when the church is only one fourth full, or for newcomers to feel comfortable in such a sparsely populated setting.
I give my congregation a lot of credit. They have demonstrated remarkable flexibility and hospitality when it comes to our worship life. I would even call them brave. When I arrived here, I sensed some hurt about the fact that the last time they tried to introduce a new worship experience, it didn’t lead to the growth that they had anticipated. That experience, however, has helped to cultivate a healthy understanding around the fact that there’s no magic bullet that will make us grow exponentially or that will save our community from decline.
From the beginning of my time in this parish, I’ve been clear about my intent to start another kind of worship service; that was part of the initial rationale behind holding one service on Sunday mornings. It took a while to figure out what shape that new offering should take, but over the past six months or so, volunteers began coming forward and ideas started bubbling up. It seemed that the time was right to make a new beginning at St. Mark’s.
We took stock of our gifts. We have a lot of good cooks in our community. We have found that the kind of conversations that unfold during meals tend to be of a different quality than when people are standing around coffee hour chatting. Our members seem more comfortable inviting their friends to share a meal at church rather than a straight-up worship service. There’s an introverted quality to many of our members, they tend to be more comfortable sharing table fellowship than they are working a room. They love to engage in thoughtful conversation. They relish the chance to get to know someone more deeply.
We looked at our location. We are a half a mile from the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, and we also draw a fair number of students from Marquette University, a few miles away. Our neighborhood is home to many students and young professionals. By and large, people in these demographics are not naturally inclined to show up for church at 9:30 on Sunday mornings. We also have a number of retirement communities in our area, as well as several people in our parish who are older and eat many of their meals alone.
A planning team has been meeting for the last several months to figure out the shape of our new service. This group includes longtime members, as well as newer members, older members and younger members, including a college student whose baptism we celebrated on All Saints’ Day. They bring various gifts to the table—the insights that come with being new to church, the insights that come with being very familiar with a church community, organization, skills in the kitchen, an eye for what makes a beautiful and welcoming table, musical talent, thoughtfulness, good humor and wisdom.
This group has committed themselves to thinking through the holy details of a new service. We have tried out different musical styles; we’ve discussed the best ways to pray around a table, and how to encourage participation without forcing anyone to go out on a limb that does not seem secure. We’ve talked about what kind of food we will offer. We’ve considered how to involve others in the making of the meal, the setting of the table, and the welcoming of guests. We’ve talked about how to invite others to join us. We’ve even talked about how the Packers football schedule might affect turnout. We contacted St. Lydia’s, a Dinner Church in Brooklyn, and they were very generous in sharing what they’ve learned over the last few years of gathering a church around a table.
On Sunday, December 2nd, the First Sunday of Advent, we tried out Table Grace for the first time. We said evening prayers together, lit candles and sang songs. We blessed the food and sat down to eat. We shared fellowship and then engaged in conversation about the scriptures for the day. The table was full. The room was warm. The conversation flowed. The food was good, and there was plenty to eat, even though we had to keep adding chairs to the table. The Spirit of God moved among us.
The Advent offering of Table Grace was a pilot test for the weekly meals that will begin in Epiphany season. The goal was to introduce the new format to people who were already involved in our community, so that they could offer their feedback and invite others to join us. Part of the impetus behind hosting a soft launch for the service was to relieve anxiety within the congregation about what this new thing might look like. It will be a while before we’ll know if this new effort is bearing fruit. Change can be difficult even in communities that sense a real call to do things in different ways, especially if they have tried new things in the past and been discouraged. I wanted the folks of St. Mark’s to get a taste of what these meals might become before we started inviting guests from the wider community.
In a way, what we were doing that Sunday night in the first week of Advent was helping to prepare the way for something new. We offered prayers that God might begin a new thing in us.
As we cleaned up after the meal, washing dishes, shaking out table linens and putting away chairs, participants exchanged cheerful and hopeful words. Since that night, several who were in attendance have offered helpful suggestions about how we might improve upon the experience.
My congregation understands that no one thing that we might try is going to save us. It’s God who saves us. They have, however, ventured into the vulnerable position of allowing themselves to be vessels of God’s salvation by inviting strangers to share the friendship of the table that God spreads for all of us. In the darkness of winter, we see the beginnings of blossoms swelling on our branches.
Photo by Per Ola Wiberg, http://www.flickr.com/photos/powi/2081228827/in/photostream/, December 12, 2012. Used under Creative Common License.