For many households, dinnertime has become TV time or phone time. We have forgotten the dinner table’s power to shape society. Many churches lack confidence when it comes to sharing the faith, but by gathering for a shared meal, churches can strengthen their bonds of fellowship and reach unchurched people. Here are a few ways to turn your regular potlucks and church dinners into what I call the “Jesus table”—a meal that brings outsiders into the presence of Christ.
1. Set an Abundant Table
Jesus spent a lot of time around tables. Scholar John Dominic Crossan says that to watch a day in the life of Jesus would be to watch him mostly healing and eating. Other scholars, like Christine Pohl, agree, pointing out that Jesus’ supper times were consistent and prominent parts of his mission. Think of how often the Gospels record instances of Jesus reclining at dinner tables with scurrilous people. He did it so often that he garnered the reputation of being a glutton, a drunkard, and a friend of sinners (Luke 7:34). But this was part of our Lord’s divine strategy to bring the kingdom of God to earth and into the hearts of those far from God.
Those dinners were intended by Jesus to be an invitation to faith. Jesus embedded the gospel into the dinner table event. That is our history and our heritage. When we prepare a community meal, it should be a colorful vision of the gospel.
Since the meal carries this theological significance, don’t settle for a mediocre feast. I’m not saying you have to cook gourmet food, but what you prepare should be delicious and bountiful! I suggest cooking a large entrée and then asking the rest of the group to bring complementary side dishes, salads, rolls, and desserts to the dinner. Create a buffet table with tablecloths and centerpieces surrounded with numerous platters and colorful trays of food. Not only is that an inexpensive way to provide a large meal, it is truly impressive—just like the gospel!
2. Invite the Needy
The warmth of Christ in our hearts gives us a wonderful sense of fellowship. That warmth is so wonderful that some people never want to leave their Christian friends to reach outsiders. It is a good thing that the people who invited you and me into the family of God did not think that way. Every church must be reminded from time to time to include people who have little to give back.
Most churches have a greater opportunity to do that than they realize. Virtually every town in America has neighborhoods where people are struggling economically. Underprivileged populations aren’t hard to find. Often they are only a few blocks from your church. They might be within the shadow of your church building. What would it be like for a church to host a dinner for these forgotten neighbors?
From the beginning, Christian food events were designed to include the poor. In Luke 14:12–14, Jesus instructed his hearers to forgo inviting people to a banquet who could return the favor. Instead, he told them to invite people who could not pay them back. During the Apostolic era, Christ’s followers understood that the table was a sacred place. To talk about the life of Jesus during those meals was tantamount to welcoming guests into the life of Christ. That was especially true when it came to inviting those whom the rest of the world had ignored or neglected.
3. Expect Jesus to Show Up
Jesus loved the dinner table. The early church believed Jesus might show up in physical form during dinners like he did to the disciples on the road to Emmaus or to those behind locked doors in the upper room. Those biblical events created a sense among early Christians that he might appear again. In some early Agape feasts, they even set an empty chair for him. They anticipated the presence of their resurrected Lord.
We need to recover the idea that Christ will show up if we set up a Jesus table. Most of us give assent to the theology of omnipresence, but we do not anticipate the presence of Jesus when we gather for a meal. But what happens in any meal hosted by Christ followers is about far more than food and fellowship; it is a sacred invitation to have dinner with Jesus. Consider how compelling that offer is! To have dinner with Jesus is to have dinner with the Healer, the Comforter, the Savior, and the Provider. A Jesus table is a portal between the house of God and the house of humanity. That is no small opportunity.
Revelation 3:20 reveals a picture of Jesus knocking on the door of people’s lives. What happens if they open? “I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” Jesus still wants to eat with us. That is the heartbeat of a Jesus table; that is the divine spark that will be present in your banquet room. So set an abundant table, invite the unlikely, and sit to eat with them. Jesus will show up. He loves to dine with us.
Verlon Fosner is a leader of the Dinner Church Collective in Seattle, Washington.