Table participants (clockwise): Alicia Horst (wearing green, left), Abi Shank, Daniel Miller, Leah Deputy, Emi Oda, Steve Gerber, Joni Sancken, Laura Amstutz, and Kim Copeland draw together as they reflect on scripture. (Photo by Anita Fonseca)

Discovering ‘dynamic, changing, moving’ God when gathered ’round The Table

On a Sunday morning in an upstairs classroom at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, a group of people gather in a circle around a table.

Though the setup isn’t immediately indicative of a church service, that’s what makes The Table different.

The service, which started as week night get-togethers around town seven or eight years ago, has transformed into a regular Sunday morning gathering where individuals meet in a space to worship God in a creative and meaningful way. It’s a smaller group comprised of typically 25 to 30 people.

Although The Table is connected to Mennonite Church USA and Virginia Mennonite Conference, the service hosts a variety of denominations every week.

Kris Shank Zehr, who started attending The Table not long after it was founded, says it was a new and refreshing experience.

One of the aspects about The Table that Shank Zehr enjoys the most is being a part of a smaller group and sitting in a ring among her fellow attendees.

The idea of sitting in circled chairs is done so everyone can see all present. Shank Zehr said that this creates “more meaningful interaction” where everyone can sit and “[engage] each other and the texts together.”

There is no appointed pastor at The Table, so the founding principle is the concept of “multiple voices,” Laura Amstutz, director of admissions at Eastern Mennonite Seminary and participant of The Table, said.

Sitting in a circle encourages participation, creating an open and inviting space where people can learn from one another and freely ask questions.

“I think [sitting in a circle] reflects the shared leadership model,” Joni Sancken, assistant professor of Preaching and Practical Theology at Eastern Mennonite Seminary and fellow participant, said. “Leadership can come from anywhere around the circle and not from one particular spot.”

Daniel Miller, an Eastern Mennonite Seminary student who attends The Table, values how the service encourages everyone to share and lead as each individual deems appropriate.

“I appreciate that it asks something of everyone that attends. You become a participant, you’re not just a passive attender,” he said.

He referred to the adage, “you get out what you put into something,” explaining that “In the case of The Table, you get out a lot more if you put in a lot and you’re invited to put in a lot.”

Amstutz agreed. “When someone is up front, you’re paying a lot of attention to that person.

“I think [sharing leadership roles] does help us pay attention to each other more broadly, she said. “It really is a communal idea.”

Lectionary keeps group on track

Although services at The Table are typically “informal,” according to Amstutz, they do use a Lectionary, which is a book of designated portions of scripture that runs in a three-year cycle. The group chose to do so as it requires covering a variety of scripture, even the “hard ones,” Amstutz explained. And because each attendee is invited to share and lead as the group collectively sits in a circle, the floor is always open for questions and discussion.

In all that it does, The Table strives to do so creatively, even when it comes to approaching scripture. The group engages texts in different ways than just through a sermon – meaning that no two Sunday mornings are the same. The scripture designated for a Sunday service is complemented by some sort of creative activity, such as a skit, artist rendering, or even a children’s story.

“[Service is] always somehow original, [and] allows us to engage with more learning styles than just auditory,” Miller explained. “So, if you’re more artistic or musical or you want to talk to people or you just want to be silent – there’s so many more ways of engaging each other.”

Although there is no designated pastor, there is a Leadership Team, which Amstutz facilitates. Other members, including Shank Zehr, Sancken and Miller, take turns planning services.

Sancken explained that the focus on creativity originates with a creative God.

“We understand God as dynamic, as changing, as moving, as reaching out to connect with us in a variety of ways. A God who is a creator, who has created diversely and so there are a lot of ways that we can reflect that in our worship,” Sancken said.

Shank Zehr encouraged a reflection in the word “creative,” which at its root has the word create – a reminder of the Creator Himself.

Come for the diversity

Amstutz encourages anyone who visits The Table to come multiple Sundays because of the diversity in services, but one Sunday activity can be expected: The Table concludes service with a shared meal.

“Jesus shared meals with his friends; clearly eating was a part of Jesus’ ministry,” Shank Zehr explained. “That’s an integral part of how The Table started and what we continue: sharing in communion and for the noon meal after worship.”

“It’s been one of the things that holds us together, a place where we can connect with each other; a chance for us to be together in an informal way,” she added.

Another integral part of The Table is making sure the group creates a hospitable environment and maintains a flexible outlook, Shank Zehr said.

“From the beginning, one of the founders would say to us: If someone has energy for a particular task or project or aspect of church life, let’s do it; if someone doesn’t have energy, it is not sustainable and we let it go,” she said.

The Table strives to remain a group that isn’t too heavily focused on a five-year plan, but they are focused on listening to where God wants them to be.

In addition to planning services, the Leadership Team also deals with administrative details of The Table and “thinking about the mission and the vision and who [they] are and where [they’re] going,” Amstutz explained.

“What we’ve been talking a little bit about is really just making sure we’re listening to what God is telling us, where God is moving for us,” she said of the team’s goals, adding that “God is in some ways a mystery,” so they can’t know exactly where The Table will be heading.

What they do know for sure is that The Table is a welcoming place for anyone.

“If you’re looking for relationships and deeper connections, that’s something that’s provided at a church like this.” Sancken said.

“It might be really different than what people are used to,” Shank Zehr added. “It’s a small group, it’s very informal, it’s intimate but it might be surprisingly refreshing.”

Courtesy Daily News Record, Nov. 9, 2013