What’s in a name? For many, a story. Which is why four young EPC congregations, unbeknownst to one another, all ended up calling their churches “The Table.”
Little Rock, Arkansas
Michael Gallup, pastor of The Table in Little Rock, Ark., said that he had no idea there were other congregations who shared the name until after they had chosen it for their church plant.
“What’s great about it is that we can have humility and learn from one another,” Gallup said. “While there are some common themes there are also some unique perspectives for each context that can help inform each other as we live into this more faithfully.”
Gallup’s church, the youngest of the four, is very much centered on the idea of hospitality. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting nationwide shutdown, Gallup said one of their primary ministry efforts was to “throw parties in our home and invite people over.”
“We have a lot of shared meals with an open table,” he said. “People understand that metaphor. It’s familiar and comforting, and points to what type of congregation we are and aspire to be.”
Gallup also believes that fellowship around a table reflects his own understanding of discipleship, approach to mission, and sacramental theology. Every time the church comes together for worship, they partake in a meal together and also observe the Lord’s Supper.
“I began to see the ways in which the tables that we sit at and fellowship around point to the Lord’s table,” he said. “It gives a sense of belonging, brings life and joy, speaks to the nature of what God is doing, and is a reflection of the gospel.”
Because radical hospitality is so much the core of The Table, it informs every aspect of their ministry.
“Everything we do is filtered through that lens. We do a broad swath of ministry—homeless ministry, culinary classes—but it’s all filtered through hospitality. It’s not just a transactional experience.”
Earlier this year, before shelter-in-place orders forced many churches to rethink how to reach their communities, The Table rented a Venezuelan food truck as a way to provide an enriching experience for the church and support their neighbors. The family who owned the truck shared unique food from their country and told the story of their immigration to the United States.
“Our name is a very relatable, accurate way to inform those both inside and outside the church what we’re all about,” Gallup said. “We want people to know they are welcome here.”
Almost 1,000 miles away at the foot of the Rocky Mountains is another EPC church plant, The Table Project, led by Mark Grapengater.
Mark and his wife, Stacey, learned in September 2017 that they had been approved to plant a church. Eleven months later they packed up and moved from Atlanta, Ga., to Denver, Colo.
Both had previously worked in the hospitality industry, so they decided to name their new church “The Table Project.” The imagery of Jesus sitting and eating with people kept coming up in their personal Bible study, and that idea seemed like a natural fit.
“As Christians, we want to be known as the best party throwers out there,” Mark said. “So that’s kind of what we’ve tried to do. We have big letters on our wall that say ‘feast.’ We believe that the last image we have of the end of the story is a wedding banquet where Jesus invites everyone to the wedding banquet of the Lamb.”
However, he is quick to point out that they are not a dinner church. While they want to have a warm, welcoming atmosphere, the end goal is still to start a regular Sunday morning worship service.
“Our hope is that people will take the liturgical practices and apply them throughout the week in their everyday lives,” he noted. “When we celebrate communion, we are taking a meal with Jesus. Now go out and do that with your neighbors throughout the week. And community groups should be a place where people can go deep in relationships with one another, but also feed on the Word and get into the truth of the gospel.”
The Grapengaters have based their lives on this principle, inviting neighbors over regularly. Last fall they hosted a Labor Day party, “Friendsgiving,” and a Christmas celebration in their home.
It has not always been easy. While the Grapengaters have hosted numerous friends, few have reciprocated. Mark said people in that region tend to keep to themselves, and of course plans sometimes go awry. Prior to hosting the Thanksgiving party, their three-year-old daughter clogged the toilet, causing it to overflow. So they welcomed their guests into their home through an entryway that was being repaired due to the water damage. The renovations were still in process a few weeks later when they hosted the Christmas party.
“We’re learning to be comfortable with that,” Mark said. “We want to invite people into the mess of our lives, too, because life is just messy sometimes, right?”
One place where they have been able to make some new friends is the local elementary school that their son attends.
“We befriended some of the other parents on the auction committee, and traditionally, they give a party as the raffle prize,” Mark said. “This year they asked if we would host the party. Only God could set that up so perfectly.”
They have considered asking if their church might meet at the school. Since they will have children in there for the next ten years, it would be a perfect location for “The Table Project.”
As the calendar turned from 2019 to 2020, the Grapengaters’ hope was to continue to build relationships with neighbors with a goal of launching public worship services by February 2021.
The pandemic derailed those plans.
They held their last in-person Bible study at the end of February. The Table Project then took what was supposed to be a brief hiatus as Stacey gave birth to their third child, Joshua David, on March 12. They came home from the hospital to a stay-at-home order throughout Colorado.
Mark has transitioned to holding midday prayer times through the week on Facebook Live. They also have been connecting with their neighbors on a family-by-family basis. On Cinco de Mayo, they delivered palomas, chips, and salsa to 16 neighboring families, and they held a baptismal service in their backyard later in May with a small gathering from the community.
The Grapengaters have come to realize that a February 2021 launch may not happen, but they are still hopeful. With changes brought about by COVID-19, they have not been able to make any concrete plans but hope to know more in September. When they do begin their Sunday services, Grapengater says that they will incorporate many of the traditional aspects of worship.
“It will be liturgical,” Mark said. “With communion, confession, assurance, and modern worship music. In the area where we live, there is only one church for every 10,000 people so this is very much needed.”
San Francisco, California
Six years ago, Troy Wilson and his family returned to the United States from Thailand, where they had been missionaries for six years. He wanted to plant a church in a non-Christian, liberal, multicultural area, so they moved to San Francisco, Calif.
Two other families felt called to join them, so together with their friends—and with the support of their mother church, Christ Church East Bay in Berkeley, Calif.—they stepped out and launched The Table in downtown San Francisco.
“It was a bit challenging,” Wilson said. “It’s easier to find work in San Francisco than it is a place to live.”
But soon they were able to settle in and started meeting people through the course of their everyday lives. They invited neighbors over for dinner and social gatherings and grew to know and love the community around them.
“Hospitality was something that was very important to my mother, and she passed her heart for people on to me,” Wilson said. “As a child, I remember our backyard being a place where everyone was loved and welcome and safe. It was okay to be yourself there. That’s how I wanted our church to feel.”
As this community of friends grew, so did the desire to continue doing life together. When the time came for the group to give this budding church a name, “The Table” seemed to be a natural choice.
“For one thing, it just fits with the culture here,” Wilson noted. “San Franciscans are a bunch of foodies. Everyone can relate to the imagery of the table—Christians, non-Christians, people from various cultures and backgrounds. A table is a place of intimacy, of friendship. It’s where people come together to be filled and satisfied, and then go out to fellowship with others. At the table, all are included and welcome.”
The Table meets in the Kanbar Performing Arts Center, home of the San Francisco Girls Chorus. Wilson found the location through a running buddy, and it is the church’s second location. The Table originally launched in an art gallery, but the property was sold to a buyer who did not want the church in the facility.
“This new location is perfect for us,” Wilson said. “It’s the Table we all envisioned. It sits on the corner of three or four different neighborhoods, with very diverse populations. It’s a very multicultural area, with rich and poor, believers and non-believers, and people from all walks of life.”
There also is a thriving community of artists in the area, and Wilson has connected with many of them.
“The San Francisco Conservatory of Music is just two blocks from where the church started,” Wilson said. “One day I was on my way to an appointment at a coffee shop, when I heard this amazing violin music and decided to follow it. The young man playing, whose name is Otis, was a graduate of the conservatory. After he finished his set and I threw the tip in, we just started chatting for a while. I asked him to consider coming to play for our church.”
Otis admitted that church had not really been “his thing,” and wondered if he might be disqualified. Wilson assured him that he was welcome, and Otis began attending regularly. Wilson said that Otis is still on the journey of discovering his faith and has not yet expressed faith in Christ.
“I told him he is absolutely welcome here,’ Wilson said. “He still comes and plays and is a wonderful person in our church community.”
Otis has introduced Wilson to several other musicians, many of whom have found their way to the church. Rhonel, an artist and musician who was already a believer, is one—and he has brought a gospel sound to The Table’s worship.
“Our connection with the arts community has been this fluid and organic thing,” Wilson said. “One day I started chatting with a gentleman I met in a coffee shop, and he asked me if I liked music. I told him I had just seen an amazing band called the Afro Cuban All-Stars. It turns out he was with the band and had been on stage!”
That musician ended up coming to the church and introduced Wilson to several of his friends, including Juan Perez, who now serves as the worship leader for The Table.
Wilson also works as a real estate agent in the city, and he says that being bi-vocational gives him additional touchpoints for connection in the community. But he quickly adds that he is first and foremost a missionary.
“Psalm 81:10 is a verse I keep returning to,” Wilson said. “Scripture says, ‘Open your mouth, and I will fill it.’ San Franciscans are spiritually hungry, and I know the One who can fill them.”
The Table is small numerically, but it is dynamic in what God is doing in their midst in the dry spiritual climate that is San Francisco. The Table was one of several evangelical church plants featured in a 2015 article in The Guardian, “Hipster churches in Silicon Valley: evangelicalism’s unlikely new home.”
And while some people have shown interest in the church, hundreds walk by every day and barely seem to notice. But Wilson knows that God has called him to keep setting the table and inviting his neighbors in.
“I’ll be honest. This has not been easy,” he said. “We are praying for more partners in this work. Anyone who loves San Francisco and wants to come be a bi-vocational missionary, we could certainly use them!”
California was one of the first states to issue broad shelter-in-place orders due to COVID-19, and as result The Table held its last public gathering on March 8. But Wilson and his team have been ministering virtually through daily FaceTime, Zoom, and Google Meet connections, and weekly churchwide prayer gatherings, group Bible studies, and worship services via Zoom and the church’s YouTube channel and Facebook page.
Church members have been volunteering on Fridays to deliver food to the elderly and others in the community. They also have participated in peaceful demonstrations in small groups while wearing masks and practicing social distancing.
Wilson said the immediate future looks much like the present, since San Francisco has been very cautious in plans to reopen businesses. A date to resume public worship services has not been set, but they are working with the Kanbar Performing Arts Center and hope to be able to welcome area residents back to The Table as soon as possible.
The Table in Dallas, Texas, is the only one of the four “Tables” that did not start as an EPC church plant. Pastor Dave Wahlstedt said the congregation was originally a Pentecostal church and came into the EPC during the Willow Creek era of church growth.
“A few years ago we decided to make a missional move away from a brick and mortar church, so we sold the building and moved into a performing arts venue,” Wahlstedt said, noting that the move opened up the church to a whole new segment of the community since the building was used by artists, filmmakers, and musicians.
“We ended up needing to move from that venue, which drove us to look at what we could do with limited space. We spent weeks fasting and praying and looking at the community around us to determine what church should look like in our context,” Wahlstedt said. “We realized that there was a huge shift in the number of young professionals who had moved in from other states, and the demographic we were encountering was not interested in the established, ‘tall steeple’ kind of church. They were looking for something communal that had vitality and an inner-directed core.”
Through personality assessment tools, Wahlstedt realized that the people who were coming valued authenticity, community, self-exploration, and were comfortable with paradox. That’s when the concept of The Table began to take shape. Visitors are invited to “come hungry,” and the welcome page of their website states that “there is more to food than simply fueling our bodies. We feed our mind, body, and soul as we experience community around the table.”
The church is organized in groups of 20-25 people, each of which meets during the week or on the weekend for a shared meal and to worship, engage Scripture in an interactive way, and partake in sacraments together.
In the fourth week of each month, the entire congregation meets in a local indoor/outdoor event space called The Mill House in Lewisville, a suburb about 25 miles from downtown Dallas. The area is filled with millennials and young professionals, and they gather in the Mill House dining room, kitchen, and outdoor area in a very fluid and informal way.
As shelter-in-place orders took effect in Dallas in March, Wahlstedt transitioned to online services on March 14. The following Sunday the men’s and women’s groups and midweek service also went virtual.
In-person gatherings resumed on June 7 but went back to virtual following a July 2 executive order from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott that prohibits outdoor gatherings of more than 10 people.
Despite the challenges that the church has faced during the prolonged coronavirus pandemic, Wahlstedt noted that the consistency and commitment of the group have been really strong.
“I believe it’s because they have a voice and ownership in the church,” he said. “I serve as more of a facilitator, or as I like to call it, ‘a holy instigator.’”
When not suspended due to COVID-19, the church also has a “Family Waffle Table” where parents are invited to participate alongside their children.
“I wanted to equip them to learn for themselves and model how they could be spiritual leaders at home,” Wahlstedt said. “God loves the sounds of families in worship.”
One of the challenges that The Table faces is that it is located in a somewhat transient area where people move in and out frequently. Partially because of that, the church does not use a traditional method of partnership or membership. At the beginning of the year, they take a pledge together and renew their commitment to one another and the church. There are presently around 75 congregants, with a core group of middle-aged attendees and a large influx of young professionals and families.
“I have learned to be comfortable with having them for a season,” Wahlstedt said. “God is transforming lives, and it’s rewarding to witness the spiritual growth.”
Tom Ricks, who leads the EPC’s church planting efforts, said he believes each of the four pastors selected “The Table” as the name for their church because they recognize the longing for friendship and community that exists in our culture.
“They are innovators, genuine, and they love Jesus,” Ricks said. “They appreciate our ancient traditions but also look for ways to make honest connections with people. I love their heart for the lost as well as their willingness to try a variety of approaches.”
Ricks said he has devoted his ministry to investing in church planting because he wants to walk with fellow disciples who care about their neighborhoods, schools, and local businesses.
“So much of life is on the run, and we often feel like our hair is on fire,” he said. “A community church is hopefully a place of respite and worship where we connect with God and with one another.”
Ricks added that there is always room for more at the table. Or as he put it, “more The Tables,” and anyone sensing a call to engage in church planting should contact him at email@example.com.
by Kiki Schleiff Cherry