by Eva Englert-Jessen
In the spring of 2016, I began attending a church called Simple Church in Grafton, Massachusetts, about an hour west of Boston by train.
My close seminary friend Christy, who shared an affinity for local food, cooking, and farming with me, became a part of the Simple Church community about a year before I did and encouraged me to go with her. It became a formative part of my final year of seminary.
Simple Church's pastor Zach Kerzee, an original Texan (and actually a close friend of our former youth pastor, Matt Bell!), launched Simple Church after his graduation from seminary as a church plant with a radically...well, simple intention: to make the meal the heart of the worship experience. Down the street from Simple Church is an organic farm, whose head farmer generously donates produce to prepare the weekly soups for the service. Bread-baking is another central piece of the service, and bread is used as a metaphor for the communion experience as a whole and as the community takes communion together. Kendall Vanderslice, the former baker for Simple Church who now attends Duke Divinity School, is writing a book about the power of dinner churches in church movements.
Zach and Kendall were both important friends and sources of inspiration to me during my final year of seminary, and Simple Church an important part of my weekly spiritual life.
While the dinner church experience includes some elements of "traditional" worship services, the energy of the service is much more participatory. Following a short homily, the entire gathered community of all ages is invited and encouraged to share conversation about the topic for the week--often topics that are avoided or glossed over in traditional worship spaces. I left Simple Church each week feeling so grateful for authentic conversation: about faith and politics, the challenges of maintaining a spiritual life in the midst of life's busyness, and more.
Simple Church is part of an exciting broader movement of dinner churches cropping up across the country (there is actually a New York Times article about Simple Church- check it out!), and has especially drawn young people to its tables.
Like many of my fellow young Christians (and fellow older ones, too), I often long for church spaces to create more meaningful authenticity where followers can be honest about their lives and struggles and be held accountable for their Christian walk in loving community. Generally speaking, I find that we churchgoers so often feel like we have to shed our "baggage" or topics that might seem unpleasant as soon as we cross the threshold of the church door. I don't think Jesus called us to do that. I think he called us like he called his first disciples and the early church that we see in Acts--that radically communal body of believers who shared all in common--to take risks; to be vulnerable; to commit to action and reflection in community.
Speaking honestly, I tire of the lament I regularly hear about "why young people don't go to church anymore." How do we get curious about this, rather than place blame or refuse to reflect internally? Maybe young people leave the church in part because the church has not created a place for them to experience meaning and authenticity. The church has not done enough to challenge the frantic, money and power-oriented society that shapes us on a daily basis, and which our young people are especially molded by.
What an opportunity to try something new! I experience Kessler Park UMC's openness to this newness, and I am excited that this dinner church we are trying on Sunday gets to be a small piece of this.
On that note, I hope you come on Sunday evening-- come just as you are. All ages will be in the same place, gathered at tables to eat bread, soup, share communion, song, and holy conversation. It doesn't get any simpler than that!