By Kendall Vanderslice
photo credit: Alethia Williams
A new trend is emerging in Christian communities across the country. Modeled after the gatherings of first century Christians and grounded in the language of the Eucharist (a meal of bread and wine instituted by Jesus during his final Passover supper), dinner church communities gather to hold their church service over the course of a meal.
The table of the Eucharist has long been chastised as a divisive space. The institutionalization of the Christian church throughout history led to the creation of hierarchies, rules, and theologies that argue over both the mystical qualities and the logistical practicalities of the meal. In turn, the meal has become a place that maintains strict boundaries of “insider” and “outsider,” with different boundaries established by each local community and each Christian denomination. Yet in looking back to the social dynamics at play in the time of Jesus, it appears that the sacred meal was originally meant to serve as a radical, boundary-breaking communion demonstrating a subverted social order proclaimed by Jesus. The dinner church trend claims to tap into the early intentions of the Eucharist, building a community of belonging over the course of a meal.
For my Master’s Thesis, I studied Simple Church, a dinner church associated with the United Methodist Church, in order to better understand how the process of eating together changes participants’ understandings of church, the Eucharist, and community.
It is easy to romanticize the community-building power of the dinner table, but commensality, or the process of eating together, can also be used to maintain boundaries of difference. In my research, I sought to understand how a dinner church harnesses the positive power of commensality through the potentially divisive ritual of the Eucharist. I was particularly interested in the idea of comfort, and how feelings of comfort or discomfort affected church members involvement in and understanding of church.
Building off of philosopher Lisa Heldke’s idea of bodily knowledge (a knowledge embedded in our physical beings that allows us to “know” beyond cognition how to behave in particular situations – like how to sit at a table and eat) and Pierre Bourdieu’s theories of habitus and social capital, I found that Simple Church builds community through the creation of a new church habitus governed by a different set of norms and practices. By translating the church service from the sanctuary setting to the dinner table setting, Simple Church creates a comfortable environment drawn from the bodily knowledge of how to sit and eat rather than from a need to know how to participate in church ritual. This opens the service up to many who might not otherwise feel comfortable in the church setting, and creates a space for dialogue, for asking questions, and for disagreement.
The process of completing a thesis was a challenging but rewarding way to end my time in the Gastronomy program. I chose to do a thesis in order to feel out whether or not to earnestly pursue doctoral work. The research and writing process affirmed my love for the academic process, and the encouragement and support of both peers and professors in the Gastronomy program as well as the School of Theology affirmed that this type of research is not only interesting but truly needed. I look forward to seeing where this project will lead, and I am incredibly grateful to the Gastronomy program for guiding me through the process.
Read more about the intersection of food, faith, and culture at Kendall’s blog, A Vanderslice of the Sweet Life.