One thousand square feet. It's not much space for a church. About the same square footage as two bowling lanes, to give you an idea. "Why so small?" you might ask. The answer is both economical and theological. Economically, our church is located in Brooklyn, and 1,000 square feet is what we can afford. Theologically, we've discovered that building big community happens on a small scale: 30 people around dinner tables, sharing a meal they've made together.
St. Lydia's, the five-year-old church where I am the founding pastor, is a Dinner Church. This means that we gather each week to share what we call a "sacred meal:" a worship service that takes place around the table. This meal is patterned after those shared by Christians in the first few centuries of the church, which evolved into our current day communion celebrations with participants sharing the bread and the cup. Our congregation doesn't need much space, but after renting by the night for five years, we've found we're ready for a place of our own. And so this summer we're moving to a storefront in Brooklyn -- the kind of storefront that might be a restaurant or a shop is instead going to be a church.
Dinner Church takes place on a small scale. We might call it a micro-scale. In a macro-city like New York, one can feel like a tiny cog in a giant machine. Shuffled down crowded city streets, elbowed on subway train cars and stuffed into elevators, many of us feel nameless and unseen for much of our day. Enter Dinner Church, a gathering of 30 or so folks over a meal we cook together. Everyone is known by name (we're all wearing name tags) and folks there for the first time are invited to chop vegetables or set out silverware.
The congregation gathered around the tables, blessing the bread
I see the hunger for an experience of intimacy and the sacred reflected in the culture at large. Our renewed interest in the local, the artisanal, the reclaimed, seems to me to be a yearning for a life that takes place at a smaller scale. We want to know the person who made our bread in a bakery, not a sprawling, steely factory in some distant, nameless place. We want to know the smell of the earth where our vegetables came from. We want to make things from scratch. In short, we want to know ourselves and one another.
Just like bread from the kitchen, St. Lydia's comes in batches. A church of 30 people can't hope to be financially sustainable, supporting a pastor and providing an operating budget. And so we plan to grow by batch number instead of by batch size. About a year ago, we started worshipping on Monday nights in addition to Sunday nights. We'll keep growing this way, adding more services as we go. In this way, a church the size of a couple of bowling lanes can sustain a pretty sizable congregation, and afford that New York rent.
And so here we are, with our thousand square feet. Designing a space for a Dinner Church has been a curious process. We'll have no steeple, no bell tower, no rows of pews or stained glass windows. During a community planning process this Spring, our architect asked the congregation, "What makes space sacred?" Quiet, they told her. Beautiful things made by hand. Natural materials. The way the light comes in.
A sketch of the interior of our new micro-space. Architect: Sheryl Jordan
We've designed a space to direct people toward God, not by turning their eyes to a far-removed altar, but by turning instead to one another. The most dominant feature will be three ovular tables for ten. The bowed shape ensures that everyone at the table can make eye contact with everyone else. In addition, we're crafting a space that intentionally invites people to participate. Open shelves holding plates and glasses encourage newcomers to jump in and set tables. It's easy to see where everything is stored -- easy to take part. Like a Montessori classroom, the design to encourages interaction with both materials and people.
And what happens around those tables, designed to encourage the people of God to see one another, face to face? I would argue that justice, too, begins on a micro-scale at our church. It starts small, with relationships built around the table. I believe that every time a congregation sits down with someone from whom they would otherwise be divided, justice is made. The conversation between the recently homeless man and the recent college graduate. She may have passed him on a street corner earlier today, but tonight they are talking over a bowl of stir fry. Later, they will do the dishes together. And after that they may change their corner of the world for the better. To know the other always takes place on the smallest level possible: one human sitting down with another. But in doing so, we encounter something huge: the limitless presence of God.
Rev. Emily M D Scott is the founding pastor of St. Lydia's, a Dinner Church in Brooklyn.
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