Happens at the Table
A Feature Review of
We Will Feast:
Rethinking Dinner, Worship, and the Community of God
Paperback: Eerdmans, 2019
Buy Now: [ Amazon ] [ Kindle ]
Reviewed by Andrew Camp
In today’s fragmented and fractured culture, we are encouraged to stay loyal to our “tribe” with little interest in engaging people with differing beliefs and lifestyles than our own. We hunker down. We avoid. We dismiss and even shun people outside of our tribe. The church is not immune to this fragmentation and fracturing. Churches at an institutional level and individual believers are confronted with deep, hard questions of who we are and what we are called to be as the church in today’s culture. While some are choosing to engage, others, rightly or wrongly, are choosing to hunker down, adopting a fortress mentality.
But what if as the body of Christ we chose a different story? Instead of succumbing to fracturing and fragmentation, we aspired and moved toward justice, wholeness, and including?
“Something powerful happens at the table,” writes Kendall Vanderslice in the introduction to her first book We Will Feast. And something powerful truly does happen at the table when people gather to break bread and share a glass of wine. Strangers become friends. The overlooked is seen. Everyone is nourished more than just physically, but emotionally and spiritually.
Because something powerful happens around the table, what would happen if church was organized around the table? People across the nation are exploring and embodying this very notion in the Dinner Church Movement. It is this movement that Kendall Vanderslice explores in her book, We Will Feast: Rethinking Dinner, Worship and the Community of God.
The book began as a research project for Vanderslice’s Master’s degree in gastronomy, examining the connection between sharing meals and forming friendships. Even though she was supposed to remain as an unattached observer/researcher, Kendall could not help but be transformed by what she was witnessing and experiencing at her first dinner church, Simple Church. What started as a research project inspired her to want to learn more, leading her to pursue a theological degree, and then travel across the country visiting various dinner churches.
Emerging from this is her book. A book about the theological richness of food while also a book about shared tables, shared stories, shared community, and most importantly shared humanity.
The Bible opens with God creating everything, including man and woman, and placing them in a garden, replete with fruits and vegetables to savor. And yet, there was one tree that God forbid Adam and Eve to eat from. You know the rest of the story. Adam and Eve could not resist. They eat, and instantly fracture and fragmentation invade not only their relationship with God and with each other, but all of creation. Because of eating, creation fell into disarray.
And yet…something powerful happens at the table.
As Vanderslice reflects, “One small meal had brought death into the world, and through death Jesus reclaimed the meal as a sign of the continuation of life” (14). Instead of allowing food to remain as a means of fragmentation, God, through Jesus, uses food to re-member us—to bring us back into the shared life he created us for.
Food, however, is complex; and the issues, dizzying. From agricultural and husbandry practices, to diet, to psychological issues, to cultural and religious issues. As Vanderslice writes, “It can be overwhelming to know where to start” (19). Instead of waiting to eat together until we figure out the answers to important questions, dinner churches are wrestling and figuring out the answers as they eat. The answers are usually messy, much like cooking and eating together as a crowd.
As Vanderslice travels across the United States, she finds dinner churches addressing the fundamental problems of our day. At Saint Lydia’s church in New York, she finds a church aimed at reversing the individualized trend of Western society, helping her congregants regain the sense that as humans we are inherently communal beings. This is not easy because sitting down with others who are hungry, tired and lonely, one never knows the wounds that are going to be shared. Eating together requires a level a vulnerability that simply sitting in a pew listening to a sermon does not.
When she visits Southside Abbey in Chattanooga, she finds a church wrestling with the ever pertinent question, “Who is my neighbor?” As the church found out, this question is easier asked than actually lived out in a way that genuinely reflects the community. As Vanderslice attests to, “Southside Abbey is a place where neighbors come together to learn from one another, to see one another, to acknowledge their shared home in the house of God” (73).
At Community Dinners in Seattle, Vanderslice experiences the true power of the feasting Jesus time and time again talked about in the Gospels. Feasting is the reminder that even in the midst of suffering, there is much to celebrate in what God is doing in bringing his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. And true Christian feasting requires that we tear down the social stratification that we are so used to, but instead embody those words of Jesus found in Luke 14 to invite the poor, the crippled, the people we could not normally invite, feasting together as equals.
Or in Lansing at Sycamore Creek, Vanderslice experiences a church that loves the place it is in and not where it wishes it could be. As Christians we are called to go and make disciples, but many of us, myself included, look longingly at this call to escape where we are. However, as Vanderslice writes, “It is not a call to find adventure in Jesus’s name but a call to love the place from which we came and to care for the needs of those who ache within it” (117). And one way to achieve this is through the act of eating together, getting to know the real needs of the peoples in our communities.
Through the various dinner churches Vanderslice visited and the countless people met and stories shared, quite possibly the most profound lesson she saw embodied was the unity these churches experienced in the midst of radical diversity. Just like the Holy Spirit did on Pentecost, allowing unity to be experienced through the diversity of languages spoken, dinner churches are experiencing the power of a unity not based on conformity and blandness but one of a richness found only in diversity.
However, as Vanderslice returns to over and over again, dinner church is not easy. It requires intentionality, shared responsibility amongst all members, and it forces everyone participating to examine long-held beliefs about the church and about the table. Dinner church is not for the faint of heart, nor is it for everyone. Nor is dinner church the one, simple answer that will cure the church’s problems. But whatever tradition and church you and I find ourselves in, the American church desperately needs to think and practice eating together. In her book Vanderslice presents the inspiration and vision for the real possibilities of what happens when the body of Christ eats together.
For something powerful happens at the table.
Andrew Camp has an M.A. in Spiritual Formation and Soul Care from Talbot Seminary. He is also a professionally trained chef, most recently as the sous chef at Silver Restaurant in Park City, UT until it closed in 2015. Since then, he has served as the Spiritual Growth Pastor at Mountain Life Church in Park City. He and his wife, Claire, live just outside of Park City with their two young daughters, Hazelle and Hannah.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
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