Simple Church blends dinner, worship and enterprise to create a new model
The centerpiece of Simple Church, a United Methodist congregation, is a Thursday night dinner when 30 to 40 share the Lord's Supper. Photos courtesy of Simple Church
Congregants gather for a sacred weekly meal where the conversation serves as the sermon and freshly baked bread provides nourishment, communion and income. Other churches are using their template to replicate the experience.
When the five last members of North Grafton United Methodist Church in Massachusetts voted to close and sell their building four years ago, they had no idea what would happen.
Denominational officers told them, “We’re going to send you a planter,” said Sue Novia, 73, one of the last five at North Grafton UMC. “We thought, ‘What is a planter?’”
But Grafton-area residents are now embracing a fresh style of worship at the three-year-old church plant called Simple Church, a United Methodist congregation where 30 to 40 share the Lord’s Supper every Thursday over dinner. The church is also pioneering a revenue model that puts less strain on parishioners by generating income from a trade -- in this case, bread baking.
The format has caught on in other states and Canada, with 11 affiliate congregations now practicing table-centered worship and often relying on trade-based enterprises for revenue. Simple Church is gearing up to plant its first daughter church nearby in central Massachusetts later this year.
Simple Church pays almost nothing for dinner ingredients. This is partly because members bring potluck contributions. They also receive in-kind gifts of vegetables and meat from the hilltop farm where the 28-year-old pastor, the Rev. Zach Kerzee, volunteers. The farm is next door to the parsonage, which the North Grafton church retained after selling the meeting house.
Pondering theology in the fields, Kerzee sees a metaphor for a cycle of church life playing out in Grafton.
“In order for us to eat, something has to die, whether it’s an animal or a plant or a microbe,” said Kerzee, a Texas native and son of a Methodist pastor. “Something has to give us life in order for us to live.”
A new model based on an old model
What’s unfolding in Grafton is new to congregants, who had never before worshipped in a sacred-meal format, but the form isn’t altogether new for Christians. Early Christians shared the sacrament in homes in a context of eating and singing hymns.
Nor is the revenue model unprecedented. Just as monks have for centuries plied trades from beer brewing to jam making in order to cover monastic overhead, Simple Church leaders bake and sell bread to generate proceeds for the ministries.
They partner with Grafton Job Corps, a vocational training program for youth ages 16 to 24, to bake in a kitchen they rent (along with worship space) from the Congregational Church of Grafton. Their crusty loaves, retailing for $7 each for subscribers and at farmers markets, clear a tidy profit from ingredients that cost just $1 per loaf.
“It buys us credibility,” said LyAnna Johnson, Simple Church’s church planting apprentice, who will lead its soon-to-be-planted daughter church. “At farmers markets, people can’t believe that two pastors are out there in the heat selling bread.”
“Bread that they baked themselves,” Kerzee said.
“Especially when people are so distrustful of institutions,” Johnson said, “it really helps.”
Do you agree that an act such as bread baking could help reduce skepticism of institutions? Are there gestures or actions your church leaders could employ to ease that tension?
As much as Simple Church is grounded in tradition, what congregants experience is unlike anything they’ve experienced before -- at least in church. Kerzee likens it to a weekly dinner party, noting that it’s much easier to invite someone to a dinner party than to a traditional worship service. St. Lydia's in Brooklyn has pioneered the model.
In New England, where 70 percent of Methodist congregations can’t afford a full-time pastor, its foreignness from church-as-usual and its low entry bar hold much appeal.
With folksy hymnody and simple prayers, dinner church in Grafton strikes a chord with the early-18th-century Methodism of founder John Wesley, said Rick McKinley, the director of congregational development for the UMC in New England. He said traditional churches across his region could easily add dinner church worship to their repertoires.
Dinner church “has the highly relational nature of early Wesleyan movements,” McKinley said. “People were face to face. It wasn’t about consuming a particular product in the way that modern churches consume Sunday morning worship or consume the programming that we’re offered. Simple Church is going back to this understanding of living into a relationship that starts with God.”
The conversation is the sermon
One recent Thursday evening, festive trappings made for a relaxed atmosphere as casually dressed worshippers trickled into the rented fellowship hall at the Congregational church. Instrumental music played through speakers in the background. Covered tables set for eight flickered with candlelight. Kerzee waved in new arrivals from atop a stepladder as he strung lights across the ceiling. Potluck contributions covered a table next to a hodgepodge of unmatched plates and bowls. Smells of sauteed onions and baking bread mixed with sounds of laughter in the kitchen.
Once the lights were up, Kerzee greeted everyone he knew with a hug, and many parishioners did the same.
Worship began with everyone standing in a circle and passing the Lord’s Supper bread to one another. It ended similarly almost 90 minutes later with everyone clinking glasses, as if someone had made a toast, before drinking together the wine (actually grape juice) of the cup.
Along the way, they bowed heads for prayer and sang along to Kerzee’s guitar and the foot tambourine strapped across his sandaled toes. Participants easily picked up the words even if they’d never heard the tunes. Three children spontaneously got up and danced inside the circle.
Children left for 25 minutes of kids activities while adults got to sermonizing around their tables. This conversation, Kerzee emphasized, is the sermon. Johnson primed the pump with a five-minute reflection on the Gospel story of doubting Thomas. Then everyone had a chance to engage and create, which is what a younger generation hungers to do in church, Kerzee said.
“They’re not looking for something easy,” he said. “They’re looking for something they can give their whole lives to.”
At first, the front-table group was slow to open up. Kerzee, at ease in jeans and a faded Red Sox cap, offered a personal anecdote while urging them to “go deep” and feel free to disagree with each other.
In what ways could you create space for people to "go deep," either in worship or other contexts?
Finally, Marty Pelham, who shared that he’d felt estranged from Christianity for 30 years because he’s gay, said, “I’m ready.” He told what it had meant for him to attend Simple Church for the first time one week prior and why he had driven more than an hour to be there again.
“I came here last week, and I never felt so much like walking into a family,” said Pelham, who is seeking ordination in the Unitarian Universalist Association. He said the experience had enabled him to overcome what’s been for him a longtime stumbling block: the blood of Jesus and what it represents.
“Something shifted inside of me,” he said. “I suddenly realized that I can look beyond whatever I have heard in the past to what it can mean.”
Spreading the word and sharing their experience
By staying true to the “simple” in its name, Simple Church has created a replicable model. The church encourages other congregations to use its resources for their own dinner worship services. Anyone may contact Kerzee and use prayers and hymns from the Simple Church website free of charge.
Having internal consistency helps, Kerzee said. Since his college days in Texas, he has made simplicity a guiding principle for his life and a spiritual discipline, which includes limiting personal possessions and keeping his calendar clutter-free.
These practices, coupled with not having to prepare a weekly bulletin or sermon, free up time for the outreach that helps explain Simple Church’s growth from zero to 70 members over three years. Kerzee and Johnson regularly go door to door, inviting neighbors to visit Simple Church. They invite shoppers at farmers markets, too.
“If you have a party and you don’t invite anybody to it, you can’t be surprised when nobody comes,” Kerzee said. “So I make time to invite them.”
Members of Simple Church need not profess any confession or statement of faith. Nor are they expected to be members of solely one church; many also belong to churches that gather on Sunday mornings. At Simple Church, membership means participating regularly in congregational life, giving a proportion of income to the church, and living according to the model set by Jesus.
Prospects for replication are promising, said Casper ter Kuile, a Ministry Innovation fellow at Harvard Divinity School. His work includes researching how secular communities such as gyms and co-working spaces are bringing millennials together in ways that largely happened in church for prior generations.
“In an age of collapsing church membership, where are people going to become the person that they want to be and connect with other people?” ter Kuile said.
Many are discovering dinner parties, he said, where people facing grief or other transitions come together for a purpose.
“Simple Church has much more in common with these new groups on the secular landscape … than it does with a traditional Methodist church with pews and a traditional church setup,” he said.
Seeking out alternative sources of revenue
As easy as Simple Church’s worship might be to replicate, the trade-based revenue model is trickier to pull off. Still, millennials are eager to try.
Proceeds from bread baking will cover about a third of Simple Church’s $100,000 budget for the coming year, when the congregation will fly on its own for the first time following its initial three-year grant. Another third will come from congregants’ giving. The last third will depend on other fundraising, such as from Methodist organizations that support church planting.
When UMC congregations adopt an alternative revenue model, they are expected to derive income from a product or service that benefits the surrounding community, according to Paul Nixon, the UMC’s regional strategist for church planting in the Northeast. Then comes the harder part: generating a surplus to underwrite a substantial portion of church expenses.
At Kindred, a Simple Church affiliate in Houston, bread baking covers only 5 percent of the $190,000 budget. Another 50 percent comes from congregational giving and denominational support. The remaining 45 percent comes from facility rentals, such as office space for lawyers, writers, activists and others. That means the Rev. Ashley Dellagiacoma’s primary trade outside of ministry is property management.
Could outside enterprises help support your ministries? Or might they contribute to mission creep?
“I recruit tenants, negotiate leases, and even break out my tool belt when things need repairs,” Dellagiacoma said in an email. “On Wednesdays, I become a baker as we make fresh bread to sell at the organic market that rents out our hall each week. The same batch of bread provides us with a gift we can give away to the hungry and the lonely and becomes part of Holy Communion on Sunday. We invest in things that serve more than a single purpose. That’s something I learned from Simple Church.”
At Be3, a United Methodist dinner church plant in Denver -- another Simple Church affiliate -- the congregation is discerning between two potential enterprises: a raw cafe that offers healthy meals to go and a business that matches youth with community service opportunities. Whatever the choice turns out to be, the revenue will be crucial for sustaining a church whose members spend their Sunday mornings outdoors in the nearby mountains, according to the Be3 pastor, the Rev. Lauren Boyd.
Simple Church doesn’t expect all its daughter congregations to bake bread. When Johnson launches hers later this year, for example, catering will provide the extra revenue.
For his part, Kerzee, who also designs websites as an additional revenue stream for the church, expects that enterprise will always be integral to supporting Simple Church. If all goes as planned, revenues will be brisk enough that the congregation’s proportional giving eventually won’t be needed to cover expenses. At that point, congregants’ support can go 100 percent toward mission projects.
Meanwhile, the vision calls for each of Simple Church’s daughter congregations to generate enough from enterprise that they can earmark 10 percent in their budgets to a fund for planting more dinner churches. Simple Church is on its way to setting the example. Its second daughter church is on track to open next year in Texas.
What in your church's life might be worth replicating? How could you resource others to do that in a sustainable way?
Besides the hilltop parsonage, not much remains from the predecessor North Grafton UMC. Four of the five last members have scattered. One no longer goes to church. Another joined a Baptist church, and a couple now attends a traditional Methodist congregation in another town.
But Sue Novia, the lifelong member who asked what a planter was, has joined Simple Church and now attends regularly with a Roman Catholic friend. They confide difficult situations involving family members, grief and addictions, and the congregation prays for them. She’s devoted to Simple Church, she said, because it’s “part of my old church” and also represents the future, especially when she sees kids, teens and young adults happy to be there.
“It’s not just like a regular church where you go, sit there, just listen and don’t talk,” Novia said. “We talk here. People are able to open up. Feelings come out about religion, about sharing your life’s experiences with somebody else and hearing theirs. That’s what makes it grow.”