Correction (March 11): St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Delray Beach, Florida, has a growing dinner church ministry called Seekers, which gathers people for worship during a meal. St. Paul’s canceled a different ministry, one that gathered families for a regular meal, more than a year ago.
By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
Preparing for Eucharist on campus at the University of Pennsylvania does not always mean settling into pews. Depending on the time of day, it might mean chopping vegetables for dinner.
Since February, Episcopalians at St. Mary’s at Penn have practiced “dinner church,” in which participants enact the liturgy during an evening meal. They’ve seen how the model has brought young adult newcomers to church in New York City. Now they are the latest of several Episcopal parishes to try it out.
“This is specifically aimed at college students and young adults,” said the Rev. Mariclair Partee Carlsen, rector of St. Mary’s at Penn and Episcopal chaplain at Penn. “Some of these kids are from halfway across the world. They don’t get to go home very often, and this can be a very lonely place. So this, I hope, is a place where community and family can develop.”
The idea behind dinner church is to worship as the early Christians likely did: around a table with food, prayers, reading of holy texts, and sharing in the Sacrament.
In the 21st century, organizers believe the format might make worship more personal and inviting for people who might never attend a formal worship service. That’s proven true at St. Lydia’s Lutheran Church, a five-year-old Brooklyn dinner church that has become an inspiration and prototype for others, including St. Mary’s at Penn.
“There’s very little about the worship service that’s prescriptive in terms of what you need to believe,” said St. Lydia’s co-founder Emily Scott, “so having a meal as the basis of the liturgical practice seemed like a really wonderful starting place.”
At St. Mary’s at Penn, diners arrive at the parish hall at 5:30 p.m. on a Sunday and cook dinner to be ready around 6. Some have already attended an 11 a.m. service at St. Mary’s, but others regard dinner church as their commitment for the week.
The liturgy begins with singing, candle-lighting, and a Rite II consecration of bread. Conversation flows freely as dinner is served and lasts about 25 minutes. Then Scripture is read, followed by an informal homily by Carlsen and an opportunity for diners to respond. This is when people bond, not only around a shared faith, but also the common experience of feeling closeted as believers on campus, Carlsen said.
“It’s not easy being a student, especially these days, and to be a Christian,” Carlsen said. “So we talk about that. And we talk about the struggles of that.”
After the dialogue, diners clear the table and then reconvene for a prayerful litany and blessing of the Eucharistic cup. It’s a format Carlsen adapted from her visit to St. Lydia’s on a summer night last year, as part of a group of clergy.
While some have tried to replicate St. Lydia’s formula, dinner church has not always had staying power outside New York. St. Michael & All Angels Church in Portland started a dinner church service within the past year but discontinued it amid poor response.
St. Lydia’s, where Scott says most congregants are highly educated people in their 20s and 30s, has thrived. The congregation recently started a second service on Monday nights and signed a five-year lease on a 1,000-square-foot location. Other ministries, including a Bible study, a theology book group, and a community garden, have grown from the dinner worship.
St. Lydia’s meets some particular needs of New Yorkers, Scott said. Since apartments in the city are small, the experience of cooking and eating with friends is rare — and relished when it happens.
“Most of our congregants are single and live far away from their families,” Scott said, and for them dinner church “is a way of being nourished in a group.”
Image: Early-evening worship at St. Lydia’s Church, Brooklyn