A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community
Whether one is graceful and light on one’s feet or is rhythmically challenged with two left ones, learning to dance with a partner can take time and varying amounts of patience. In his new book, A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community, John Pavlovitz calls for courage and patience in leading congregations…and people in general… toward the marks of a bigger table, a different kind of dance. Radical hospitality, total authenticity, true diversity and agenda-free community are the author’s indications of a faith-filled community of believers that truly strives to welcome all. Like dancing together, the building of a bigger table takes patience and Pavlovitz offers an honest and transparent new book that is filled with autobiography, story-telling, and strategy for a hopeful path forward for those who wish to accept the invitation to be brave and bold in their faith community’s welcome and to be effective dance partners in the dance between religion and culture today.
The book’s introduction sets the table of reflection and vision on the day after the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The growing schism, in the author’s words, between the political and religious left and right fueled by the divisive tone of the election, prompted Pavlovitz’s acknowledgement that his own and his faith community’s efforts to build a bigger table of welcome for all people, are needed now more than ever. On this premise does this thoughtful and necessary book proceed with personal lessons, scars, and stories of and from mentors and others in John Pavlovitz’s life.
Part One of A Bigger Table circumscribes the author’s journey as a young person who discerned a vocation through the voice of a religious community that identified his gifts for ministry, but with some very common and traditional expectations born of very traditional evangelical theology and faith communities. His own personal and family journey led him to reconcile his own faith with grace and acceptance for family and friends who were gay, who questioned traditional evangelical faith, and who sought interfaith dialogue. Deep discomfort with a perspective that made room for radical hospitality and honest questions of faith were game-changers for the church Pavlovitz served, and in early years of ministry, Pavlovitz found himself fired from a ministry position, and liberated to serve with far greater authenticity and welcome. The conclusions the author draws about his own experience away from the journey of “going against the family” by drawing the circle wider, building a bigger table, or choosing additional dance partners.
Part Two of the book offers resonant and generative accounts of what it means to follow Jesus, the table setter, who calls his followers to the radical hospitality, total authenticity, true diversity and agenda-free community that are the legs of this roomy, broad and divinely set table. Pavlovitz firmly held conviction that “the Church will thrive only to the degree it is willing to be about making space for a greater swath of humanity and by recognizing the redemptive power of real relationships” is clearly and descriptively illustrated in this section. From radical hospitality that transforms both guest and host, to total authenticity that allows space for faith and doubt to converse and co-exist, the author shares powerful illustrations of what real, no-exceptions welcome looks like. From honest preaching that risks judgement and exclusion to every person being more than welcomed, but rather accepted, the author, without ever using the term, describes beloved community, and what he describes is compelling. Without a doubt, the community Pavlovitz describes is one for which many yearn, because, as he describes in equally compelling ways, so many have been hurt and excluded by the Church, and still are.
I can easily imagine encouraging pastors and congregations to read A Bigger Table and use the study guide and questions in the back of the book as a starting place for candid conversation. I can imagine a group of pastors doing the same as they seek to grow in their courage and resilience to face the challenges of being pastors with a vision for the challenging, awkward and yet very beautiful dance of living like Jesus. Any community willing to risk a truly bigger table will benefit from the stories of the missteps and the rhythms of the dance that Pavlovitz eloquently and honestly describes.
True diversity is described in a chapter of A Bigger Table that contains the most passages underlined in my copy. This paragraph, though lengthy, is among his most elegant:
…the Church should be the spot where all prodigals feel they’ve come home. It should be the building with the biggest table. We’ve been led to believe that the goal of equality is to somehow make differences disappear, yet in reality it is to be profoundly aware of them and to recognize them as beautiful and valuable and necessary. The virtue is not in ignoring our various distinctions but in celebrating them; not in pretending as though they don’t exist, but in believing that their existence makes us a better version of humanity as we live together in community Yes, there is much about us that is universal: the desire to be heard and known, the need to be loved and to love, the joy of finding our place and purpose, and the need to live into these without restraint. Championing equality is to see every person as fully deserving of such things and to work so that each can pursue them with as little obstacle as possible from both without and within. Yet we also need to realize and name the ways in wwhich equality is not a default setting in the world and to acknowledge the very real barriers many experience simply because of the color of their skin or their gender identity or their land of origin.
Pavlovitz’s own journey brought him from a place of a Christianity of appearances, conditions and expectations of doubt-free, question-free faith to something he describes as far more grace-filled and inclusive and accepting of messy, authentic faith. He writes, “My faith is not about fleeing something horrible, but running toward something beautiful.” His current work in faith as a pastor and a writer points to something that it is indeed beautiful. The author ends with a call for pastors to be brave in their leadership and voice of faith and writes throughout the book about the cost of discipleship. In what is surely a call to all people to be brave in these times, the author implores, “Never let the voices around you (as well-intentioned, sincere and loving as they may be) ever drown out the voice of Jesus.” Indeed.
Reading A Bigger Table feels like a conversation over a delicious meal with a close friend. Pavlovitz has an ease with words and story-telling that transports the reader back to the author’s childhood and adolescence, into his sense of call to ministry, and through the challenging journey toward a faith that is, in his words, a reflection of the “one flawed family that we belong to and the singular, odd, staggeringly beautiful story we all share.” May we all learn to dance together with the authenticity John Pavlovitz exhibits.
Jennifer Burns Lewis serves at the Visioning and Connecting Leader for the Presbytery of Wabash Valley in northern Indiana. A career pastor, coach, blogger and student of yoga, Jennifer is married to another pastor and they have two great young adult children and a sweet old golden retriever named Lucy.