Open Table Communion Leads to More Open Worship

10/7/2019
By Drew Page

Open Table at Flagg Road UCC
Flagg Road United Church of Christ has developed an interesting less-is-more approach to worship. The West Hartford church has been experimenting with a communion service that they call Open Table Communion. The result is a unique perspective at what it means to worship.
 
The Flagg Road Open Table Communion service is an alternative to the monthly traditional communion service. Rev. Mark Diters, pastor of Flagg Road UCC, says the congregation has held the service a little less than every other month. The main component of the service is, in fact, an open table. Unlike the traditional bread and wine or communion, that table is set with a variety of food for all to enjoy, even taking into account different dietary needs. A sign welcoming people to the service says to serve yourself at any time.
 
"We have very good smoked salmon as the center piece," says Diters.
 
The service cannot be called non-traditional; it includes many traditional components: Prelude, Offering, Scripture. Diters uses a liturgy for the blessing of the food and drink, and offers familiar words about the Last Supper. Diters says some of the services are fairly standard, with only the open table meal being different.
 
But often, Open Table Communion becomes a more "open" service. Diters says during some of the services, there isn't even a bulletin. Instead he prepares for the service by finding a prayer or a bible passage and opens a discussion with questions.
 
"These are some of the most profound services," said Diters.
 
And every time Flagg Road holds the Open Table service, they celebrate the Lord's Supper. Sometime by intinction. Sometimes just by having people help themselves.
 
The Open Table service goes back to 2013. Diters said he found that church members were looking for something more contemplative during worship. Since Communion is essentially an invitation to a banquet, they decided to have a meal. And Diters tried something quite different. He had nothing but a scripture prepared and a set of questions for discussion.
 
Diters says the Open Table service offers the church the flexibility to worship in ways they could not even prepare for. In one service, he began with some silence, and then asked people how they wanted to worship that day. Music becomes very spontaneous as well, with members offering hymns or song in the moment. In August, a sermon was replaced by a performance of John Cage's 4'33", a three-movement musical piece composed in 1952 in which the performer does not play their instrument during the entire 4 minutes and 33 seconds of "music." In the resulting silence, audiences experience a profound sense of listening and awareness. One member at Flagg Road described the experience as "expansive."
 
And this is something Diters likes about the Open Table service; It encourages being in the moment, worshipping in the present. He finds himself less in the preacher role and more of a facilitator. And he has discovered that church members have become more open to new ideas and more aware of each other through some of the discussions they have had. Many of those discussion were "emotional and heartfelt" and the people present often speak quite intimately about the topic. At no point has anyone said to him that they felt like the service wasn't worship.
 
"People have a hunger for things that work, but that may not be traditional," says Diters.
 
Diters cautions that an unstructured service like the ones sometimes held at Flagg Road requires a leader who is comfortable with silence. Without a clear plan, leaders must listening and understand that the next thing to happen might be a surprise. He even admitted to forgetting the offering during one service and scrambling to add it right at the end.
 
"When you don't have an agenda," says Diters, "it's hard to mess up."