Every Sunday evening a dinner party is held at the Brooklyn Zen Center. If you try to enter the party, you discover a relaxed dress code and that no invitation is necessary.
A greeter shakes your hand and encourages you to kick off your shoes. Then, you get a nametag. As you are going through the formalities of greeting and introduction, you notice that people are running around busily to gather the materials for the dinner party. You are then given an assignment yourself to chop broccoli, crush garlic or shuffling the dishes. That is the moment when it starts to really sink in that this free and easy dinner party in a Buddhist hall is actually St. Lydia’s Dinner Church, a gathering of those who “do church” by incorporating postmodern thinking with ancient liturgical practices.
After a long shakedown run at the Zen Center, St. Lydia’s is now ready to launch itself into its own space, a storefront dinner place where church will be served. That will happen some time this summer.
“People are seeking something different from what they have experienced before,” congregant Jason Whittle said as he minced garlic cloves on the cutting board. “No one here tries to force faith on me.”
Whittle has traveled across the religious spectrum from his early years as a practicing Methodist to other faiths, including most recently Neo-paganism.
“Right now,” he said, “I’m a Lydian.” Who are these “Lydians”?
Lydians have only met for the past five years, but the idea of a church planted around a meal was cooking for a long time inside the mind of the church’s founder and pastor Emily Scott.
“Many of my friends would say that they tried church, but it just didn’t feel right,” Scott, 31, recalled. “All these conversations kept happening among people looking for a community and not finding one.” Scott finally decided to gather the conversations together into one idea and a plan of action. “I just started thinking about what a church for these people would look like.”
Her thinking culminated into gathering a group around a dinner table to partake in a meal known as The Last Supper, which mimics Jesus’ last meal with his disciples before he was killed. Scott believes conducting a service around a dinner table allows an open space for all to discuss (and digest) life’s big questions.
“Eating is living and if you’re not eating, you’re dying,” Scott mordantly observed. “When we are eating food, not only are we helping each other to live, but also remembering that God has given us everything we need to live.” She believes that the dinner setting can bring people right into the type of give and take discussions that Jesus had with his own contemporaries “It’s a very rich setting to come together and tell the story of Christ’s life and death in this way.” Her idea for a new type of church is part of a social trend in faith circles.
Since the 1990s, a movement known as the “Emerging Church” has emphasized that churches should emerge naturally out of the Twenty-First Century discussions and concerns.
Reviving the image of “church”
Some Christian leaders were frustrated over church institutions, believing them to have shallow services, cut-and-dried religious answers, and too conservative politics. The mood turned into a small movement within Protestant Christianity.
The pastors were finding that their younger audiences seemed turned off by organized religion. Younger audiences wanted to be part of crafting their own beliefs and rituals. Handcrafted church -- not big box, power-point presets. The popular word was spiritual, not religious.
For some, Christianity also seemed to be identified with right-wing political abrasiveness and judgmentalness on personal moralities. Sociologist Christian Smith noticed that relativism was a pervasive value of the teenagers who are now twenty-somethings, even among those who grew up in the church.
Now, some apply the loose term “emergent” to any church or congregation that attempts to redefine the Christian church by increasing its relevancy for its twenty-first century audience and aligning itself with contemporary culture through new approaches to theology, worship and social justice. St. Lydia’s offers an example of the emergent church experience within the traditional denominations. It was started with affiliations to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in a partnership with the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island.
However, St. Lydia’s has gone a bit beyond defining itself as against a certain type of attitude or as some sort of new box in which to drop people. It has developed an artisanal culture -- handmade, local and intimate. Scott recently wrote, “Our renewed interest in the local, the artisanal, the reclaimed, seems to me to be a yearning for life that takes place at a smaller scale. We want to know the person who made our bread in bakery, not a sprawling, steely factory in some distant, nameless place. We want to know the smell of the earth where our vegetables come from. We want to make things from scratch.” That includes making up the congregation from scratch like any good dinner party: there are some regulars; and some new folks.
“St. Lydia’s has very porous boundaries,” St. Lydia’s first Community Coordinator, Rachel Pollak, 30, said. “Anyone can come in and feel like there is a place for them at the table.”
Next: The origin story of St. Lydia’s #Brooklyn. Part 2 on St. Lydia's
St. Lydia's now meets every Sunday and Monday at 304 Bond Street between Union and Sackett Streets in Brooklyn. Arrive between 6:30 and 7:00. An eight minute walk from Union Street stop on the R and a six minute walk from the Carroll Street stop on the F/G.