It’s a Tuesday night. People are gathered in a back room of a restaurant in downtown Tulsa, Okla. Amid the pouring of refills and clearing of plates, someone begins to lead a prayer. The gospel is shared and after everyone discusses this good news and what it means in their context, one by one they line up to receive communion.

This is Servant’s Table, a dinner-style church that meets in different restaurants every week in Tulsa. The idea started with a core group of people who had a desire to make church be more about community and outward-focused ministries, while also being a safe place for those who haven’t worshiped in a while—or ever—to feel comfortable asking questions, expressing doubts and discovering what the concept of grace means together. 

Laura and Blaine Bunch were longtime members of an ELCA congregation in Tulsa when they attended a “pub theology” meet-up their pastor organized. They soon realized how much they liked the simplicity of the gathering. 

“Getting back to the basics, stripping away everything else and getting back to this discussion about God—we enjoyed it so much and decided that this was something we wanted to start on our own,” Laura Bunch said. 

Launched in March 2016, Servant’s Table is a synodically authorized worshiping community whose mission can largely be wrapped up in its name. “One thing we really wanted to stress was the service aspect—we are servants,” Laura Bunch said. “We aren’t there to be served, but we are there to serve.

“And we meet at restaurants so we meet at the table. We meet at a table, just like Jesus and his followers.”

Phil Lucia, one of the core team leaders of Servant’s Table, likes that meeting in restaurants makes the ministry more visible. “It creates a low barrier to entry for people,” he said. “It also allows us to go to different areas of the city and draw different people at different times.”

By meeting in restaurants around the city and forgoing its own building and the costs associated with it, this public-facing ministry is able to have a majority of its offerings go into the community to help those who need it most.

They also organize a service project every month, which has ranged from volunteering at a food bank to delivering Valentine’s Day treats to people in the community who worked on the holiday.

Being church

Servant’s Table doesn’t have a called pastor, which was an intentional move when starting the ministry. Lay leaders take turns serving as weekly worship leaders and coordinating service projects, and different pastors from around Tulsa are invited to give the message and help lead discussion every week.

“I hope when people think of the ELCA they don’t think of a building because, of course, we are the church.”

“We get our theological foundation from the wisdom of the pastors who come in,” Laura Bunch said. “That person changes every week and it’s lovely to hear different people and different ways for discussing God’s word. The rest of the things—organizing a service project or our next week’s location—that’s stuff laypeople can get together to do. That’s what excites me—that we can do this and that anyone can do this. This model can be replicated across the ELCA.”

Rob Martin, who serves First Lutheran Church in Tulsa and as a rotating pastor with Servant’s Table, hopes people do follow the new ministry’s model.

“People don’t seem to be seeking out church in traditional ways, so to come into a place like a restaurant where people are just living their lives seems to be a very good way to get out into the community and let people experience what a church community can look like,” he said. “As many congregations like this as there can be, we’ve got room for them. I hope this model will continue to grow and spread.”

In this next year of ministry, Servant’s Table wants to take more steps to connect with the community. 

“I don’t like the phrase ‘going to church.’ I hope when people think of the ELCA they don’t think of a building because, of course, we are the church,” Laura Bunch said. “We want to make sure more people know there is an alternative place where they can come together to hear about God’s radical love for all of us and the abundant grace we have.” 

Watch a video on Servant’s Table in our “Beyond the Steeple” series.

Megan Brandsrud
Brandsrud is an associate editor of Living Lutheran.

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