[Sharing reflections on John Pavlovitz. A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017.]
The adult class at our church has been reading and discussing A Bigger Table by John Pavlovitz for the past several weeks.
A Bigger Table is part memoir, part prospectus, with a side of theology. Pavlovitz is convinced that the church needs change, urgently. In particular, Christian communities today need to be more visibly and actively embodying the radical, all-inclusive love modeled by Jesus Christ in his life on earth. They need to look like the “Bigger Table” the book advocates. A Bigger Table aims to get Pavlovitz’s readers to share this vision.
The first part of the book lays out how he came to long for this kind of Christian community. It follows his personal trip from the pleasant parochialism of a loving suburban Catholic family through the heady diversity of the inner city Philadelphia where he studied art and the transformative call of Christ as a novice youth leader into full-time ministry. Along the way, his brother’s coming out as gay was one kind of “gateway” experience, setting up his early theological certainties for later soul-searching. Full-time ministry brought its own dilemmas. Pavlovitz felt increasingly constrained by constant pressure to play it safe, to shun risks that might be politically unpopular, to keep the peace by leaving the prejudices of the powerful unchallenged and the comfort zones of the complacent unperturbed.
That experience, and his eventual failure to thrive under those conditions, acts as the background for his efforts now. The “life that really is life” to which Christ calls the church has to be lived, from Pavlovitz’s perspective, around a “bigger table.” That bigger table will have room for a cast of imperfect human beings as large as humanity itself. So the second and third parts of the book lay out the principles of the kind of Christian community Pavlovitz is prophesying, and suggest something of its flavor.
Hospitality ascribes value to people. It declares them worth welcoming. It disarms them by easing the fears that past rejection has yielded and lets them know that this place is different.
– John Pavlovitz, A Bigger Table (72)
The “four legs” of the “bigger table” Pavlovitz describes in part two of the book give some indication of what kind of change it would mean for many of today’s churches. These legs are “radical hospitality,” “total authenticity,” “true diversity,” and “agenda-free community.” For Pavlovitz, “radical hospitality” means it will be much more important to make people feel graciously welcome than to convince them of how guilty and unworthy they are. “Total authenticity” means church would no longer be a place where people are outwardly “together” and inwardly falling apart, keeping up “good Christian” appearances by keeping their human failings in the closet. “True diversity” means church won’t be a place where we feel at home because everyone is just like us. It’s more likely that we’ll have to struggle to be kind to people we genuinely and deeply disagree with. Being “agenda-free” doesn’t actually seem to mean that the community has no goals. From Pavlovitz’s discussion, it seems to mean that the community doesn’t regard getting people down the aisle to an altar call, or getting people to say the Sinner’s Prayer, as the single or most important measure of its success at Christian-ity.
The “agenda-free” community does have an agenda. That agenda, however, isn’t contained by the familiar slogan of “winning souls for Christ.” It may not identify any single change wrought in a person’s life as “the” thing it aims for. In fact, on the principle that God guides each person’s life journey, and calls people into a particular community at a particular time for a particular purpose, the “agenda” might be unique for each community member – and unknown to anyone but God. The task for Christians, from Pavlovitz’s perspective, seems to be less to “get results” of any particular evangelical or behavioral kind than it is to faithfully embody the radically inclusive grace shown to everyone in Jesus Christ.
Which brings us to the theology. Pavlovitz seems to be firmly in the “theology divides, Christ unites” camp. He says explicitly that “your theology is overrated” (113) and that the church in Raleigh, North Carolina he now pastors purposely keeps its theology “nebulous” for the sake of providing a welcome to as many people as possible (141). That nebulous theology might be one of the concrete costs of “radical hospitality.”
This is the path to holding onto and sharing our faith convictions in the bigger table: we simply live those convictions, not requiring another to share them. We don’t use our theology as a weapon; we allow it to mold us into people who really see people.
– John Pavlovitz, A Bigger Table (115)
But Pavlovitz does have a theology, even though it’s more often implicit than explicit. That theology has all its eggs in the basket of the unconditional love of God. It has ultimate faith in divine patience and forgiveness. It talks about the demands of the Christian life much more as being in relationship with people, much less as complying with a list of behavioral do’s and don’ts culled from the 10 Commandments, the holiness code, and the letters of Paul, with some allowances for modern times. For Pavlovitz, the Christian life is about practicing the “sacred art of staying” (111).
That theology will absolutely strike some Christians as too ethically “permissive” and too cavalier about scripture. Pavlovitz’s blog posts routinely draw that kind of critical comment.
They routinely draw another kind of comment, too: sighs of relief; choruses of “yes, at last, me, too;” words that sound like applause. For those people who have been effectively barred from church and from Christian-ity because they don’t or won’t meet one or another “true Christian” litmus test, Pavlovitz’s bigger table is good news.
So Pavlovitz probably won’t strike many evangelicals as an evangelical. But maybe there are different kinds of evangelicalism. Pavlovitz sees himself as reaching out to everyone, but his message seems to resonate most with those various kinds of outcasts – including ones inside the church – who have more than once thought that God probably hates them, because God’s people sure do. He’s out to convince those people that there is plenty of room at the table for them after all, and that they can “come as you are.” The most important thing is just to be there.
We really can trust God to do the rest.