Abundant Grace Dinner Church

Kristie Webb FinleyExperimenting Our Ways into New Ways

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Abundant Grace Dinner Church in Plainsboro/West Windsor, New Jersey, has a vision:

In the abundant grace of God, guided by the example of Christ’s love, inspired by the Holy Spirit, we gather together around the table to worship, feeding the body, mind, and soul.

That vision translates into a church community that looks and feels very different from the traditional church gatherings most of us grew up in. We meet midweek, first of all, not on Sunday. And we meet around a table, enjoying good food together as we worship. We gather around the table to witness to the grace of God shared in community through Scripture and proclamation, the sacraments, prayers and songs. We gather around a meal that feeds our bodies as well as our spirits and our souls.

Of course, the idea of churches having meals together as part of their worship is not unique. The early Christians had meals together. And many other churches today are reclaiming that part of our Christian heritage. In fact, as I was beginning to dream about and vision what Abundant Grace might be like, I had the opportunity to visit St. Lydia’s Dinner Church in Brooklyn, New York—and saw many of the things I had been envisioning in action.

Unlike most other churches, our Abundant Grace Dinner Church has a temporary feel: we set up and tear down each week (which is sort of resurrectional!). Each time we meet we physically see that we are able to create community, and that we are not dependent on a building. What’s important is not the bounty on the table but rather the bounty around the table as God’s children gather.

Many of the young adults in the Plainsboro/West Windsor area are, by the nature of their jobs, transient. Their next job will take them to another city. This makes it difficult to find community and friendship and to become part of a traditional church. Our hope is that as these young men and women discover that they can create community here, they will do so at the next stop in their journey too. They will become confident Christian community builders.

Abundant Grace is also for people who have been shamed out of the church because they could not gather during the Sunday morning hour. Because their faith holds value for them, they miss the beloved community. Abundant Grace can be a bridge back to the Christian community. Evangelism is to both those outside and inside the church.

The vision for Abundant Grace Dinner Church began years ago when I was serving as a youth director at the First Presbyterian Church in Lake Forest, Illinois. I often say, “Everything I learned about ministry I learned as a youth minister.” That’s an exaggeration, but only a slight one. As a youth group we built community on our mission trips when 85 young people and 25 adults came together to serve. The act of working together for a common purpose transcended the insiders and outsiders division very quickly. Everyone felt freer to talk about their faith when they stood shoulder to shoulder working.

In youth ministry I saw education happen in unexpected ways too. As difficult questions surfaced, we saw the Holy Spirit at work—even when lesson plans were left behind. That kind of spontaneous educational reflection is difficult to encourage and allow for in a traditional worship service. It requires an intimate space in which people feel safe and encouraged to explore.

That is not an indictment of traditional worship. I love traditional worship. I believe that today’s culture needs both traditional worship and innovative new forms of worship. Worship comes alive for some of us when the arts, sensory elements, and active participation are included. Taizé and Lectio Divina styles of worship allow us to slow down time and engage the text in multiple ways. At Abundant Grace, partly because of size, we have a flexibility that most traditional churches do not have. It is also a small intimate gathering that invites vulnerability and openness.

Abundant Grace came about through people willing to take risks. I had a vision of doing church differently. Pastor Anita Milne and the members of the First Presbyterian Church of Plainsboro, and Pastor Jan Willem Van der Werff and the congregation of the First Presbyterian Dutch Neck were willing to step out in faith with me. And the New Brunswick Presbytery was willing to take a risk and encourage a new vision of church.

So, what does dinner church look like?

  • It is humble, simple, and beautiful.
  • We meet in the fellowship halls of our partner churches
  • Our meals are simple vegetarian soups or stews
  • We set the table with linens and china.

The table looks beautiful and the food is abundant because it is the Lord’s table and God loves us abundantly.

Once the table is set and the food is cooked, we gather around the Christ candle to begin worship. Worship follows a Reformed pattern, but the movements transition seamlessly. The welcome, call to worship and confession take place around the candle, and as we sing, we carry the light to the table. The candles on the table create a luminous intimate atmosphere for a service that begins and ends with the Lord’s Supper. At the beginning we share the Bread, and what is left is used in the meal that follows.

After the meal, but while still at the table, we transition to hear Scripture and engage with the Word through a sung prayer of illumination. Prayers of the people are shared, and the time at the table culminates with the sharing of the Cup. Everyone cleans up and then gathers around the Christ candle for a final song, the sending, and the benediction as we move out into the world.

This Abundant Grace Dinner Church is only the beginning. We’re working on creating a moveable feast! We feel called to create different forms of dinner church:

  • as ministry to the homeless
  • as church for people in mental health facilities,
  • as lunch church for the elderly who cannot get around after dark.
  • As breakfast church for children’s education, and a table for parents who can gather to support each other as they journey to be the faith leaders in their families.

This final table, for parents, is where this idea for Abundant Grace crystallized. At Princeton Theological Seminary Kenda Creasy Dean taught a class in which she asked us to dream, to create a “Change the World” project.

Look what happens when the people of God are encouraged to dream!

Kristie Webb Finley an ordained Teaching Elder, is the pastor to Abundant Grace Dinner Church. A graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, she also has a degree in parent education. Heeding the call to be bi-vocational, Kristie also coordinates a Lilly Foundation research grant: The Confirmation Project. A husband, four children, one son-in-law, and a grandson keep her busy and joy-filled.