"It seemed the twentieth-century idea had run its course. But last year we sensed people were hungry for conversation beyond our lively Sunday noon coffee hour. Reviving the dinner circles filled the void."
Reviving a Tradition
Some churches used to call them foyers, and maybe they still do in some regions. I’ve also heard the phrase dinner for eight, though the specific, paired-off number is unnecessarily restrictive. At my small parish, we call the home gatherings “dinner circles,” and, although they’re not for everyone (does anything ever suit all temperaments?), they effectively meet a need.
Dinner groups occasionally draw new members into congregational life, satisfying the original “foyer” intent. One parish newcomer noted, “I always came away from a dinner with a better appreciation of who we are as a community and how we got here.” But for us they have a wider purpose: facilitating engagement outside the church walls.
Dinner Groups: Where to Start?
About once a year, we set a cycle in motion, announcing the program for four or five weeks in the bulletin and newsletter. Here’s a sample newsletter squib:
“Dinner Circles are a way for parishioners to get to know each other by enjoying a meal in each other's homes. Circles comprise six to nine people, generally from four or five households. Each household hosts a gathering, usually a weekend dinner. The time and place depends on the group—options include an afternoon picnic, a Sunday brunch, or even a dessert buffet. Generally the host provides the main course and beverages and assigns other parts of the meal to other group members.
There is no agenda for these meetings. Get to know one another and enjoy good conversation. At one meeting you might tell others how you came to be at our parish. At one dinner you might provide a favorite food that has a special memory for you, and tell about that memory. Or one host might ask you to bring along a memento that tells a story; adult ‘show and tell,’ if you will. You might end the evening with a prayer, sending each other out with a blessing. These are just suggestions. No pressure! Have a good time.”
A Working Model for Church Dinner Groups
A rotation of four or five households lasts about six months—one gathering per household, paced four to six weeks apart. Each circle needs a volunteer convener who hosts the first gathering—sets the cycle in motion. Obviously the whole parish program needs an organizer/point person who assigns the groupings and provides group members with initial contact information.
In reality, St. Michael’s longstanding dinner circle ministry fizzled out about eight years ago. Sometimes programs run their course. Fewer people—the same few—signed up. It seemed the twentieth-century idea had run its course. But last year we sensed people were hungry for conversation beyond our lively Sunday noon coffee hour. Reviving the dinner circles filled the void.
A long-term member says, “What I appreciate about the circles is the Christian fellowship: the opportunity to be part of the parish while outside the church building—enjoying laughter in comfortable settings, exploring interesting (and at times provocative) topics, eating great food, strengthening those ties that bind us as a community.”
To facilitate more participants, we paired a few seniors who couldn’t host with singles who welcomed hosting partners. As one senior said, “I must say, I had a wonderful time. The age span in our group seemed not to matter.”
Will we try it again next year? I’ve already been asked. The answer is yes.
Evelyn Bence is author of Room at My Table: Preparing Heart and Home for Christian Hospitality, reviewed here on Building Faith. She lives, writes, and cooks in Arlington, Virginia.