In October 2016, during the most tumultuous and contentious election cycle in recent memory, the New York Times columnist David Brooks visited David Simpson and Kathy Fletcher, a couple who host a weekly meal for fifteen to twenty low-income kids in the Washington, DC area. It all started when their son, Santi, told them about a friend at his school who was hungry and had no place to eat some nights. His friend was from a low-income family struggling to get by, a situation all too common in the DC area. One friend for dinner quickly turned into fifteen, and now the couple hosts a weekly meal with a few rules: hug everyone, eat as much as you like, share something no one here knows about you, perform something if you like, and no cell phones.
Brooks went to Thursday night meals for two years (and, as far as I know, still attends them) and reflected on his experience: “Poverty up close is so much more intricate and unpredictable than the picture of poverty you get from the grand national debates. The kids can project total self-confidence one minute and then slide into utter lostness the next.” Brooks became deeply affected not by a policy or an idea but by a connection. Throughout the piece, you can hear that his heart has been changed by the relationships he has made with the kids he met.
“Souls are not saved in bundles,” he concludes. “Love is the necessary force. The problems facing this country are deeper than the labor participation rate and ISIS. It’s a crisis of solidarity, a crisis of segmentation, spiritual degradation and intimacy.”
This is the report of one couple packing their dinner table with intimacy and connection each Thursday night. Could Christians in the twenty-first century live a kind of rebellious life against hyper-individualism by offering environments of connection in an increasingly isolated world? It’s amazing what a table can do. There is no program for a weekly meal, no large vision or organizational structure or business plan. But you can see what this meal did for this columnist—something no technology, philosophy, or economy can do—it changed his heart.
We can see now the need for such friendship on both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum. Those who are without a house, sleeping on the street, need relationships with those who are vastly different from them, and the opposite is true: those in the penthouse apartments on Fifth Avenue in New York City or Nob Hill in San Francisco need the transformative experience of being friends with someone who cannot afford running water. The rich need the poor and the poor need the rich. Connection can cure all kinds of personal dysfunction that comes from having tons of money or from not having enough.
The local church can offer the remarkably simple and healing practice of the table fellowship as a counter-narrative to the American Story of individualism. The local church is the collected number of Jesus followers in a particular area, who gather around common vision and creed. This means our response to the isolation in our country is both collective and individual. We will brainstorm, serve, and counteract isolation together, but we will also bear the responsibility with our individual resources. The local church is me and you—which, when put together, is “we.” Together, as the church, we will open our tables for fellowship.
Table fellowship is the ancient Christian discipline of eating together. It’s really that simple. In the early church, during the years AD 60–300, there was a common practice of sharing a meal together, what became known as the “agape feast” or the “love feast.” These were potlucks of epic proportions where Christians would host believers and nonbelievers in their homes for a long meal. They most certainly took this from Jesus, who was no stranger to a good meal with friends. Every Gospel account makes several mentions of Jesus sitting at a table with all kinds of different people, which seems to emphasize his deep commitment to table fellowship (Matt. 9:10; 26:7, 20; Mark 2:15; 16:14; Luke 7:37; 11:37; 22:14; John 12:2; 13:23). This is how we, as the church, offer ourselves to a lonely world.
In American Christianity, one is “saved” in a personal, individualized sense. But as Hellerman argues, the Bible presents salvation as “a community-creating event.” He calls this the “familification” of the Christian, which happens simultaneously alongside the “justification” of the individual. One is not saved into isolated spirituality, but into a family with brothers and sisters around a table—and that table is wide open. It is at the table—what Bonhoeffer called “life together”—that we enact all the various functions of a family: we share our possessions, our hearts, and our pain, and we elevate the needs of others above our own.
The biblical counter-narrative to an age of isolation is not a fresh program or a differing technology—it’s not even the maximization of existing technologies and structures. The Bible meets an increasingly isolated world with a table. The battle is not won in better community programs or “small-group initiatives,” but rather in ordinary Christians hosting meals for their neighbors on a regular basis, or believers staying in the communities people usually leave. Of course, table fellowship can happen within such “initiatives” and programs, but these things are not required. It looks like a lasting rootedness, a connection to a particular place with a particular people. I love what the writer Andy Crouch has said: “Our mission is not primarily to ‘engage the culture’ but to ‘love our neighbor.’ Our neighbor is not an abstract collective noun, but a real person in a real place.” Beware of a broad, theoretical theology without any names and faces. Beware of life without a table.
Taken from Less of More: Pursuing Spiritual Abundance in a World of Never Enough by Chris Nye. Copyright © 2019. Used by permission of Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group.