On Wednesday nights in Lent, members of the Parish of St. Michael and All Angels in St. John’s, N.L., and a couple of neighbouring parishes gather for a discipleship group in a local coffee shop. Lately, though, concerns about COVID-19 and the importance of social distancing made those kind of gatherings impossible, so they took to the internet to connect. On the first night after shutting down public gatherings, the initial group was made up of a little bit of everything: Boomers, GenXers, Millennials; singles and students; a former parishioner now living in the U.S. and her roommate; a married couple sitting together at their kitchen table; and another couple, the wife sitting on the couch upstairs and the husband in self-isolation in the basement after travel. All of them gathered to connect, to laugh, and to reflect together on the story of Jesus and the man born blind.
The Coffee Table grew out of the Lenten devotions at St. Michael’s. Their pattern of reflection is more interactive than a sermon and more engaging than a Bible study; it’s an opportunity to engage far more deeply with the Scriptures and make room in our lives for them to build a more compassionate, more generous world. The community was founded on a couple of principles. First, that anyone who thinks or talks about God is doing theology, and that the Christian community needs to make space to hear from and celebrate all theologians. Second, that theology should not be a solo sport, but something best practiced in community. Finally, that everyone reflects better when they’ve got a hot cup of something in their hands! In moving out of the coffee shop and into the comfort of their own homes, participants get a little more creative in what constitutes a “social beverage”: cups of tea and coffee were complemented with glasses of wine or sherry, or reusable water bottles.
The Coffee Table approach to reflecting on Scripture involves reading the Gospel three times, from three different translations, each time listening for something different:
- What is attractive to you in this passage?
- What challenges you or troubles you in this passage?
- How can this passage help us become more compassionate and generous?
This pattern follows the story of Jesus and people’s reaction to him: from the attractiveness of his preaching and teaching in the early days of his public ministry to the growing opposition from the religious authorities that ultimately led to his crucifixion. But the story goes beyond that, to his resurrection, to the descent of the Holy Spirit, and the transformation of the church from a group of frightened disciples into a mission-driven body of apostles, carrying the presence of Christ and proclaiming the reign of God in the world around them.
This method of reflection can be used in a variety of ways. It might be used by a discipleship group seeking to reflect more intentionally on the Sunday gospels. The three questions might be the framework for a “dialogue sermon.” They might build an outline for a traditional sermon, or a group reflection by a gathering of preachers as part of their sermon preparation. While the method is best practiced in a group, others might use it in their own private devotions and reflections, as a disciplined way to reflect on the daily office lessons.
The Coffee Table’s method of reflection draws from ancient and modern Christian practices, from the Benedictine practice of lectio divina to the gospel-based discipleship practiced by Indigenous Canadian Anglicans. By gathering to share our insights into the gospels, and to hear the insights of others, reflection and spiritual growth become something that doesn’t just happen in church, but in public places and homes.
Meeting online gave the group even more flexibility: where once they said that they could do the work of theology wherever they could find a coffee table, now the coffee table has become virtual and includes kitchen tables and computer desks. The shift from public space to digital space also means that the group is no longer limited by the number of people that can comfortably fit in the same coffee shop or living room. Online tools allow for much broader participation and leave more room for people to listen quietly in the background until they feel comfortable contributing.
Online gatherings are certainly no substitute for face-to-face ones, but they can help enhance them. Even a few weeks into the pandemic shutdown, people were hungry for social interaction and longing for connection. The Coffee Table’s online presence is an opportunity, not just to nurture communities of faith, but also to build new ones.
The Coffee Table meets via Zoom on Wednesday nights from 7 to 8 p.m. NDT. New participants and visitors are always welcome. For more information, visit www.facebook.com/coffeetablecommunity.
The Rev. Jonathan Rowe is rector of the Parish of St. Michael and All Angels in St. John’s, N.L. This article first appeared in Anglican Life in Newfoundland & Labrador.