Rev Jane Gerdsen, Missioner for fresh expressions in the Diocese of southern Ohio, tells of A Moveable Feast in Cincinnati.
It's a Wednesday night at 6.30pm and about 25 mostly young adults are gathered in a room in the back of a coffee shop, bringing dishes to share and talking informally in groups.
After a blessing for the food, we sit around a couple of tables to discuss hospitality: when have you been a host and when have you hosted others? We share stories of inviting friends to see us, of being welcomed into someone's home as a stranger, and wonder together what hospitality looks, tastes, and smells like. Following the dinner conversations, we gather in a circle and share what we had heard while at the table together.
We remember that God shows up in the most unexpected places, inviting us to feast on His word and presence in community – around the dinner table, in a coffee shop or in the sanctuary of an old church. We realise that the act of being the church, God’s community in our time, isn't limited to a place, or a day or a time – but is a way of life.
This is a Moveable Feast, an informal gathering to discuss God, spirituality, religion, faith, life, work, and culture. These gatherings can take place in people's homes, pubs, coffee shops, parks, studios, or other locations. Moveable Feast conversations are a place to ask questions and explore our faith lives in community.
In collaboration with the Rev Beth Turner from the Diocese of Western North Carolina - who created and is currently hosting several feast communities in that diocese - we are experimenting and adapting their model for use here in southern Ohio. Beth's vision was for Eucharistic communities of practice, in her case aimed at young adults, but hosted by churches or older adults in their homes or other community gathering places. She agreed that I might try to host some feasts in Ohio.
My first purpose was also to meet the needs of young adults I knew or met who were dissatisfied with church community. We had tried a few different things, emergent worship, pub theology, something I called a Sinner Dinner at a local YMCA but it seemed that:
- pub theology limited us to people who liked to drink and wanted intellectual conversation;
- a worship group self-selected around people who were drawn to creative worship but lacked a community building conversation piece.
Since we started in September last year we have hosted in different locations each time. The feasts have tended to be hosted by me as the missioner and I have partnered with a young adult to think of a location, theme, and how to structure the conversation.
But it is important to say that while created with - and for - young adults, A Moveable Feast is for all who are seeking a deeper relationship with God. Everyone is invited to participate and we hope the feasts will be intentionally intergenerational because Moveable Feasts hope to create 'communities of practice' and places for imagining a new way to be church.
So far our first few feast dinners have taken place in Cincinnati, but we are looking to find partners who would be interested in hosting a feast community in other places around the diocese. Feasts could be sponsored by a parish or a small group, but they are especially intended to foster community with people who are currently unaffiliated with a traditional church community. The feasts are - at their simplest level - a dinner and conversation but they are also intentionally sacramental Eucharistic communities exploring how to engage God’s mission in the world.
Beth and I see these feast communities as possibly growing into 'church' or Christian 'communities of practice' (which is the language I have been using to hold space for people for whom church is problematic). Some of our young adults are engaged in 'traditional church communities' but come to the feasts for the conversation and sense of community. We also have people who don't go to any church and probably won't. So, in that way, they are church in their own right.
We have been meeting once a month but I dream that they might meet more frequently. Many of our people are in multiple circles of relationships - intentional communities, neo-monastics, Bible study in a coffee shop, an emergent worship cohort, or other small groups. So this is currently filling one piece of a broader picture of fresh expressions. We will see what happens as to whether there is need or desire for these communities to grow or change going forward.
Moveable Feasts allow us to honour the sacramental nature of our tradition but they feel like dinner with friends. They have also pushed people to see 'church' as something that could happen anywhere not just in holy places. I think the conversation of consequence around a shared meal seems to fit a longing that hadn't been tapped by other groups.
At the moment I think we seem to be drawing de-churched people or people who attend church irregularly or are not entirely satisfied with their church communities for some reason. I hope that our fresh expression's work will result in us building relationships with people who have no connection to church at all. I feel the Spirit slowly pulling us deeper in that direction.