Today’s post is my contribution to the Eighth Letter project, which invites participants to compose letters to the North American church in the spirit of John’s seven letters of Revelation. A handful of these letters will be chosen for public reading at the Eight Letter conference in October, so if you’re interested, be sure to submit your contribution by Wednesday, September 1!
To the Church in North America,
I write to you as one of your own at a time when many in my generation have abandoned you. As the Church in the Third World continues to grow, the Church in North America is in decline. Some are predicting our imminent demise, while others foresee a glorious rebirth. Most seem to think that we’re in the midst of an identity crisis, one that will determine the shape and direction of the North American church for many years to come.
According to the statistics, we are a people of (relative) wealth and (relative) generosity. We control most of the world’s wealth and we give much of it away. Though we struggle with materialism, we value charity.
But are we people of the Kingdom?
That is the question at the heart of this crisis, and as we struggle together to answer it, I am convinced that what we don’t need is bigger buildings or fancier sound equipment, better pastors or more parishioners, newer ministries or deeper pockets.
What we need is bigger banquet tables.
Jesus loved banquets. He performed his first miracle at a wedding reception in Canaan and spent so much time feasting with tax collectors and prostitutes that the religious called him a glutton. Jesus was never too busy to stop and eat—sharing fish and bread with 5,000 fans, a traditional Jewish supper with his closest disciples, and breakfast with the friend who denied him three times. When Jesus returns, he plans to throw a great banquet in honor of his bride, The Church. How fitting that in his absence, we remember him by eating together.
Jesus often compared his Kingdom to a great banquet that includes people from every tribe, tongue, and nation reclining at a single table (Matthew 11:11). He made it clear that this banquet table is open to all, but that the rich and powerful will likely decline his invitation because they are just too busy to stop, slow down, and feast with their neighbors. So instead, Jesus invites “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame” so that his “house will be full” (Luke 14:16-24).
I guess this is why Jesus tells us to do the same. “When you give a luncheon or dinner,” he instructed, “do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed” (Luke 14:12-13).
I suspect that Jesus used all of this delicious imagery because he knew that there is a difference between feeding people and dining with people.
Feeding people means keeping the hungry at arm’s length. It means sending checks now and then, making Thanksgiving baskets once a year, preaching about justice, and launching new ministries…all while sitting comfortably at the head of a tiny table, dropping scraps from our abundance to the floor. Americans are good at feeding people.
But dining with people is an entirely different matter. Dining together means sitting next to one another and brushing arms, passing the bread basket and sharing the artichoke dip. It means double-dipping and spilling drinks, laughing together and crying together, exchanging stories, ideas, recipes, and dreams. According to Jesus, it means leaving the seat at the head of the table ceremoniously empty so that all are guests of honor and all are hosts. Dining together isn’t charity; it’s friendship.
For the Church in North America to grow in a good way, we need to break down this distinction between those who serve and those who are served. The abundance must truly be shared. At the local level, this may mean hosting literal banquets, complete with Jesus-style invitation lists. At the global level, it may mean sacrificing some of our own comforts so that when we care for our far-away neighbors we can still feel their presence beside us at the table. In every case, it means slowing down long enough to savor both the food and the company.
So let’s build bigger banquet tables.
Let’s eat fruit that is in season and drink coffee that is fairly traded so that Latin farmers can join us at the table with their heads held high. Let’s share the reputation of Jesus and dine with those who the religious love to hate—gays and lesbians, divorcees, single moms, junkies, dreamers, and doubters. Let’s squeeze in a little tighter to make enough room for people of all political persuasions, all religious backgrounds, all ethnicities, and all denominations. Let’s eat a little less so that everyone has enough and let’s linger a little longer so that everyone gets a chance to share what’s on their mind. Let’s invite the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame so that our house will always be full.
So what would you say in a letter to the North American Church? Feel free to use the comment section to add a P.S. or share an excerpt from your entry. (If you can condense it into a tweet, use #8thletter, @eighthletter.)