“How are dinner churches surviving the pandemic?” by Kendall Vanderslice, The Christian Century, 3/23/21.
…Modeled after the early church practice of sharing a meal together as Eucharist, dinner churches seek to address social isolation and loneliness through the very structure of their worship. Their practice also mirrors the agape meal or love feast tradition, a tradition adopted by John Wesley and memorialized in the UMC Book of Worship.
…In many denominations, the quick shift to online worship led to theological confusion and debate over if and how to celebrate the Eucharist. For dinner churches, which form their core identity around gathering for a communal meal, that question posed a particular sort of challenge. Their approach to it has varied, as has their approach to virtual worship generally.
… Over the course of the two-hour service, congregants participate in every aspect of the liturgy. They welcome visitors and catch up with old friends. They sing, eat, and discuss the scripture reading. They pray and share their joys and concerns. The church even sets aside time for mingling, encouraging congregants to utilize breakout rooms in shifting groups of two or three people to approximate the informal conversations that would happen at the start of an in-person gathering.
… Anna Woofenden, the Protestant chaplain at Amherst College and pastor of a campus dinner church, made the transition quickly as well. “We had spring break off, then we started right back up. We kept the same time, the same liturgy, we just met on Zoom.”
This consistency from week to week, and from pre-COVID worship to now, has proven invaluable for worshipers and pastors alike.
“Lots of students told us, ‘This is the one consistent thing in my life right now. It’s the one thing I can count on,’” says Woofenden. “In this time where everything feels different, everything feels uncertain, we all find great peace and comfort in the well-worn words and well-worn rhythms and being held by that liturgy.”
…As the coronavirus precautions stretch on, churches of all sizes and traditions find themselves increasingly hungry for more embodied forms of connection. The virtual agape meal or dinner church service provides that. Although it cannot fully address the human need for physical relationships, it serves as a helpful tool until the longing to worship together as a body can be filled. This tactile reminder of a future in which we will gather once again to break bread, shake hands, and embrace one another offers something to carry us through to that future, as the Eucharist carries us on toward the new creation.
“Even though we’re on Zoom, we can breathe together and feel the presence of God touching us and speaking to us as a community,” Scharen says. “That’s the work of the Holy Spirit blowing, even through this weird Zoom format that we have.”