I pastor two Community Dinner Churches in Seattle, Washington and work full time as a Street Minister with Operation Nightwatch. My ministry context is with the socially isolated, poor, and marginalized of the city. Capitol Hill Community Dinner Church meets in the parking garage of a Salvation Army’s woman’s shelter downtown. White Center Community Dinner Church meets in a parking lot next to a busy bus route and drug store. My street ministry includes visiting homeless encampments, connecting people to services, developing relationships, and praying with people living on the street. These ministries and churches all welcome the poor into the kingdom of God. The people who don’t consider my work ministry or church are usually “church people”. People who attend church on Sunday, Wednesday Bible study, and prayer meetings are often confused by dinner church. The people who call Community Dinners their church are folks that don’t have traditional backgrounds or experiences. People who have a hard time fitting in to society find community at these Jesus tables.
The church is frustratingly absent in both of my ministries. The dinner church is often dismissed by pastors and ministry leaders as a feeding program or outreach. My relational style of street ministry is often seen by evangelical churches as “soft” or “watered down”. Attending my denomination’s webinars on “how to be the church in a time of pandemic crisis” or “tips for doing church online” is a painful reminder that my ministry and the people it serves aren’t part of evangelical ecclesiology. It is frustrating for me to even try and share my ministry with other church leaders from traditional backgrounds. I am often met with ridicule and dismissed.
The Assemblies of God lists sixteen fundamental truths as it’s foundational statement of faith. Number eleven on the list of these core doctrines is The Ministry: A divinely called and scripturally ordained ministry has been provided by our Lord for the fourfold purpose of leading the church in evangelizing the world, worship of God, building a body of saints being perfected in the image of his son, and meeting human needs with ministries of love and compassion. These four definitions of ministry are all displayed within the context of a dinner church.
God is present and active in the dinner church, often challenging the theology of those with economic and social power. Recently, as we were concluding the evening with prayer, the discussion turned to fundraising. Isabelle is a formerly homeless women and domestic abuse survivor. She went through the Salvation Army’s housing program and now works in the kitchen for their adult recovery center. She loves to bake and is using her gift to bless the dinner church. After praying for God’s provision, Isabelle wanted to know about our budget, and how we were funded. I gladly explained our budget and all our church’s revenue streams. The two pastor friends of mine began to tease me, saying, “you’re the campus pastor, you better get on it and start raising money.” These jokes caused Isabelle anxiety. She has always addressed me as pastor and plans to tithe the first chance she gets. Isabelle perceives the community dinner as her church. Caring for the needs of the poor is central to the mission of God. “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world (James 1:27 NIV).” Isabelle and the other guests at dinner church understand who God is and how he works in the world. In our discussion of church fundraising Isabelle was unable to see why it was humorous that I was a pastor in charge of raising money.
My interactions with dinner church and street ministry speak to the upside-down nature of God’s kingdom. “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous (Luke 14:13-14 NIV).” The dinner church is an opportunity to reflect the radical fellowship of Christian community. Where the morally, socially, culturally, and ethnically different worship, pray, and disciple each other. The parable of the Great Banquet in Luke 14 describes a ministry that turns outsiders and guests into leaders and hosts. “Once again, therefore, the challenge comes to us today. Christians, reading this anywhere (Luke 14:12-24) in the world, must work out in their own churches and families what it would mean to celebrate God’s kingdom so that the people at the bottom of the pile, at the end of the line would find it to be good news (1).”
Chapters 11-15 of the book of Acts tells the story of two congregations. The established and traditional church of Jerusalem and the new, creative, adaptable church of Antioch. “Now those who had been scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, spreading the word only among Jews. Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord (Acts 11:19-21 NIV).” “The congregation in Antioch was more diverse ethnically than Jerusalem, and the blending of cultures resulted in a model of church that was, at best, surprising to the folks in Jerusalem. Because the new form of church was less bound by traditions. They read Scripture with new lenses. The Antioch church enjoyed the flexibility and vibrancy that comes with upstarts (2).”
Like the church of Jerusalem and Antioch, tensions exist between the dinner church and traditional proclamation-based churches. In Acts 15:1-3, Paul and Barnabas are in sharp dispute and debate with the Judean church for teaching that “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved (Acts 15:1 NIV).” The church in Jerusalem welcomes Paul and Barnabas to hear the reports of what God is doing in Antioch and to consider the issue of circumcision. “The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” (Acts 15:6-11 NIV).” While tensions existed between both churches, they needed each other. “The stability and depth of Jerusalem, together with the rather cutting-edge evangelistic ministry of Antioch, provided effective outreach to a world hearing of Jesus for the first time (3).”
My hope is to bridge the ecclesiastical divide between dinner church and the Sunday morning proclamation event-based gatherings. The negative response I have experienced from traditional church leaders has lowered my motivation to seek restoration and renewal. I feel a responsibility to speak to the mainstream from the margins, for Isabelle and her community to disciple and lead the church back to the dinner table and back to Christ. A community that cares for the poor, the outcast, and the isolated honors God, and bears witness to his divine justice. Both expressions of church can benefit each other and expand the kingdom of God. God wants to rebuild and restore his church, so that all of humanity may seek him.
The Holy Bible, New International Version, 2011, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan.
(1), Luke for Everyone. N.T. Wright, 2004, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. P 179.
(2,3) From the Steeple to the Street. Travis Collins, 2016, Seedbed Publishing, Franklin, Tennessee. P 119, 121.