Table and café churches serve up new options for mainline and evangelical Protestants

Mainline and evangelical Protestants, both in the U.S. and abroad, are responding to the challenges of decline, institutionalism, and political conflict by creating new structures often based around intimate community and sharing a meal. Mainline churches have long experimented with alternative forms of ministry to stem their dramatic declines in members, but one such alternative showing increasing popularity are dinner and “café” churches that take an entrepreneurial approach to supporting their ministries. The Faith and Leadership blog (June 13) reports that United Methodist congregations have formed a new network, known as Simple Church, whose services are based around shared meals with communion included, as well as conversation replacing the sermon. The idea of a supper-based church is not exactly new, but it has caught on in mainline circles starting with New York’s St. Lydia’s Kitchen, a Lutheran-Episcopal church plant in the early 2000s. The original Simple Church is a United Methodist congregation in North Grafton, Massachusetts, that is what is often called a “re-plant”—a struggling congregation reorganized by the denomination. More uniquely, the church pioneered a revenue model that “puts less strain on parishioners by generating income from a trade—in this case, bread baking.”

The Simple Church format has spread to other states and Canada, with 11 affiliate congregations practicing table-centered worship, often relying on trade-based enterprises for revenue. The Simple Church in North Grafton, which has grown from zero to 70 members in three years, is planting its first daughter congregation nearby in central Massachusetts later this year. While Simple Church’s “folksy hymns and simple prayers” hark back to traditional Methodism, it does not have any statement of faith and is similar to other dinner churches that are at the progressive end of the spectrum. It stresses inclusivity, which involves inviting all participants—often Christian and non-Christian—to take communion as well as accepting the LGBTQ community. The article reports that several of the participants also attend conventional services on Sunday morning. Unlike the mainline alternative churches that seek renewal and growth in declining denominations, evangelical alternative congregations often are reacting against the influence of megachurches and evangelical conservative political involvement— a sentiment that has driven much of the “emerging” church movement in North America, Europe, and Australia.