Reflections on Family Dinner Groups

3 May

Last year I had an idea for how to adapt small groups into something I would ever want to attend. Small groups can be the worst. The thought of ten people crowded into a living room trying to force conversation about some new book with a “participants guide” makes me physically ill. Small group leaders (in traditional small group settings) feel a need to come with an hour of prepared content each week. And so something that is supposed to function as a place church members can actually get to know each other turns into a leader teaching the majority of the time and one or two group members dominating conversation for fear of a single moment of silence (which really does feel like life-threatening awkwardness) the rest of the time.

I’m painting a caricature, for sure. There’s a lot of good that can come out of traditional small groups. I’ve been a part of a few that have been meaningful to me. But largely, they’ve been weird. The focus of my effort to make something new for Center City wasn’t novelty. We don’t want or need to be innovative (for the sake of innovation). The goal was to make something that I would want to go to. In that way, it was selfish. But my hunch was that a good amount of people shared my view of small groups but had never been given any alternative.

The idea came to me while listening to a sermon on the Eucharist. The thought was simple: Why don’t we just eat together? It’s a natural thing. People are disarmed around a dinner table. Conversation flows. It’s normal. Real community or (less irritatingly) real friendships are formed in the natural rhythms of life. People want to eat together. And the early church grew as they broke bread in one another’s homes. If it worked for them, perhaps it would work for us, I thought.

So we tried it. There was no pressure and no leaders. We just wanted willing hosts that would open their dinner tables up to see acquaintances become real friends/family. There was no rigid content requirements. We asked the church to read a great book together with the suspicion that if the book was any good, it would come up naturally in conversation.

And as this first round of family dinner groups comes to a close, I am happy to report that it was a beautiful success. In January, I wrote a letter to the church about hope for the groups in which I said:

“As we prioritize time with one another, we’ll move past the pleasantries of functional relationships into a genuine space where love is formed. We are all yearning for connection with people and yet continue to live isolated and fragmented lives. I don’t want that to be true of our community. If we’re really family, we should be spending regular unhurried time together.”

It happened, I think. There were a ton of new relationships that formed between people I wouldn’t have thought would get along. There were big ideas wrestled with together. People bore each others burdens (gave a crap about each other). People prayed for each other when their relatives died. Great food was shared. There were lots of laughs as people were free to simply be themselves and felt no pressure to be insightful or astute. In other words, I think it looked a lot like the kingdom.

Another benefit (and this was perhaps the most meaningful to me) was that these groups gave people an outlet to express the gift of themselves. We didn’t ask hosts to fit into any mold (type A, confident public speaker, gregarious, etc…). We just asked them to open their homes and be themselves. It delighted me to see people really engaged that I never thought would have any interest in “leading”.

In June we’ll kick off round two. If you’re a part of Center City and reading this, I want you to be a part. Host a group. Join a group. Know and be known by each other.

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