St. Lydia, a congregation of about 50 members in Brooklyn, N.Y., has been making news with its unconventional dinner church for a decade, including features inThe Wall Street Journaland The Atlantic. This fall, it took the intimacy and hospitality of its dinner church to Germany.
Sharing dinner church wasn’t the only reason for going to Germany, but it turned out to be the highlight.
“It did feel like the Spirit moved there. People coming out of the service seemed to be moved and excited, so I think in the end it all went over well,” said Weiben Wang, a member of St. Lydia.
Dinner church makes connections
St. Lydia was born when its first pastor, Emily Scott, noticed the people she was meeting in New York were longing for connection. Hospitality, in the act of having friends over for dinner, is rare in the city, where apartments are tiny so people generally go out to restaurants.
Scott’s idea was both novel and ancient, rooted in the early Christian church: structure the entire service around an actual meal, nourishing people physically and spiritually, and creating an atmosphere where everyone is welcome and has a place (stlydias.org).
The church is named after Lydia, the first woman baptized in Europe. Upon being baptized, she immediately invited Paul and his disciples to her home. It’s that kind of open, welcoming hospitality that St. Lydia seeks to emulate and share.
St. Lydia holds two services each week at its Brooklyn storefront space. For dinner church, the communion meal is an actual meal prepared by the congregation. Laypeople are heavily involved, and even cleaning up is built into the service.
“It’s small and intimate,” said Elsa Marty, current pastor of St. Lydia. She attributes the service’s appeal to the warmth and connections it fosters. In a big, tough city, a dinner church is a welcome respite. “It’s a place that nourishes and grounds,” she said.
Hannah Johnston, community coordinator of St. Lydia, said, “The fact that we sit and eat together makes it basically impossible for someone to come to church as a newcomer and not have a conversation with anyone—something that is all too easy in many churches I have visited.”
The Germany trip occurred during a time of transition for the church, after Scott left and while Bob Wollenburg was serving as interim pastor. “What was clear to me at St. Lydia’s was a commitment to live the love of God,” he said. “Strangers were truly welcomed and quickly integrated when they came for worship.”
During this time, St. Lydia member and Union Theological Seminary student Jack Holloway befriended Christof Hermann, a Lutheran pastor from Germany who was on a semester-long sabbatical at the New York seminary. Holloway, who was learning German, offered to help Hermann, who was struggling to understand English when it was spoken too fast or mumbled. Holloway also invited him to a St. Lydia service, where he became a regular.
When it was time for Hermann to go back to Germany, the congregation laid hands on him, as they do when anyone leaves. Holloway said it was very emotional for all of them because they had built strong ties in those few months.
A lesson in the other direction
Back in Germany, Hermann told his congregation about St. Lydia, how welcoming and hospitable the members had been. To return that kindness, an invitation to visit Germany was extended to St. Lydia. Last September, seven members boarded planes with a destination of Esslingen, near Stuttgart, in southern Germany.
“When the members were invited to Germany, it was a lesson in hospitality in the other direction—of being welcomed,” Marty said.
Hermann created an itinerary, printed in both English and German, and packed it with visits to cities, churches, a university and a castle in Liechtenstein. Parishioners from Hermann’s church accompanied them on their trips, and, throughout the week, visitors and hosts spent lots of time together. Despite the cultural and language barriers, they became friends.
Holloway said one event stood out: the evening when the St. Lydia contingent led a dinner church for about 60 members of Hermann’s church.
“Oh my gosh, it was so beautiful,” Holloway said. “I was so touched.” When the whole group was singing songs that they brought from their service at St. Lydia, “it was so amazing,” he added.
The visitors relied on volunteers from the German church to assist and conducted the service in both languages. Holloway, who has graduated from seminary and is in the ordination process in the Reformed church, gave the sermon, which had been translated and printed in German ahead of time.
Wang, who had lived in Germany for a year and speaks the language, served as deacon, giving directions to the congregation in German. Wang was nervous going into the service—the preparations were a bit chaotic with the language barrier and trying to pull it off in the sanctuary of a beautiful Medieval church instead of their small storefront.
“I was also not at all sure how the Germans would take it all,” Wang said. “This was, of course, completely new to them, and they had little idea what to expect, and I didn’t know how dinner church would translate to a different place, culture and group of people.
“But the moment it started and the song leader started to sing, stillness fell over the group, everything came together, and all the chaos of minutes before fell away. From the first note, everything seemed to flow. Everything worked, the congregation participated and seemed engaged.”