Zacchaeus, a hated man, found friendship across his own table when Jesus invited himself to dinner, and afterwards was able to extend friendship to others. A Pharisee hosting Jesus for a meal came face to face with his own sin when a woman and her alabaster jar enter the scene and Jesus exalts her rather than sends her away. He satisfies the hunger of 5,000 people gathered to hear him speak, and in watching this impossible feat, the faith of Jesus’ disciples is challenged and grown. In his final meal, shared between close friends, it is bread and wine that Jesus uses to explain God’s great love—a story that is still shared by disciples of Christ in the eating of these elements. Jesus connected with people young and old, hated and respected, believers and skeptics, righteous and self-righteous, over meals: he whose body was broken to offer atonement, in life broke bread to show the love that led to that sacrifice.
In Victoria, British Colombia, Josh Wilton and Andy Withrow are following the legacy of Christ, extending friendship through the breaking of bread, with a nontraditional church plant called The Table.
It was in Alaska while working as a tour guide that Josh met Andy and where both men met their wives. This was the beginning of a deep, divinely orchestrated friendship between their families, and over the past decade, they have shared homes in three different cities while working together in the expansion of God’s kingdom. Both Josh and Andy attended Regent College in Vancouver—Josh working towards his MA in arts and Andy his masters in Old Testament. At Regent, Josh became convinced that his gifts could best be used for the kingdom through church planting. He felt called to ordination, but was acutely aware of his need to plant in partnership with someone who could supplement his areas of weakness. Josh describes himself as a “fire-starter”–passionate, outgoing and entrepreneurial–and Andy, who is practical, administrative, and gifted as a shepherd: the “fire-stoker.” A perfect match, Josh asked Andy to partner with him. They were ordained by Rwanda as Anglican missionaries in 2008 and picked Victoria, BC as their plant site.
The capital of British Colombia, Victoria has about 375,000 people and a highly intellectual, cynical and untrusting culture. With only about 3% of its population attending church, it is the least churched place in North America. Ministering in such an environment is challenging and humbling. Flash conversation regarding religion is mostly ineffective, and often deteriorates into arguments in which the position with the most intellectual tone wins. The traditional “language” of the church does not work here: new language, and new strategies are needed to reach non-traditional people.
Facing the realities of the area, Josh and Andy spent 6 months before planting meeting with clergy in Victoria, scouting the area, and seeking answers to questions such as “What are the churches doing well, and what are the gaps? What are the implicit beliefs about Christianity?” Surprisingly, they discovered that the main hurdle to the Gospel was not a lack of intellect, but of charity.
As they worked part-time jobs, they developed a model of ministry to meet the needs of the community: “Tables” that are local community hubs for worship and mission, often lay-led. Very different from a traditional parish, these missional groups would be structured around the needs of each area; offer a safe place for open, honest conversation; and provide consistent, authentic and charitable friendship. After a stint of testing the concept, in September of 2009 Josh held a gathering to speak about the vision of this idea. He voiced the need for “comers, givers, and bringers” to make it a reality, and people responded well to his challenge to be committed for a season. Josh and Andy organized the launch team into demographically focused “outposts” that met regularly. Within the first year, they had four outposts and a launch team of almost 50 people. A local congregation–Church of Our Lord–offered free use of office space and the church building for evening services: The Table was set, and officially launched in 2010.
Every other Sunday, a larger gathering called the “Big Table” meets for a meal and a worship service with communion, and on alternate Sundays, local Tables meet for fellowship and worship. There are currently Tables in four neighborhoods, all unique to the area where they are found: the people who attend in Fernwood tend to be transient singles involved in transcendental meditation and new age spirituality; Fairfield is located near downtown and Tables are mostly comprised of singles and young married couples without children; Gordonhood attracts families and students, and Sannich young families with children.
The people who attend these meetings are quite often like Jim and Camden, some of the first who came to the Lord through this ministry, over a period of two years. These are previously non-Christians, even militant agnostics, who nevertheless continually show up to The Table to engage with Christians. These stories of faith happen over a length of time, and are a result of God’s work through faithful planting, watering, and tending.
Other opportunities of mission happen through mid-week “Outposts.” Josh leads an Outpost entitled “Table Conversations” that has celebrated its first anniversary. The hope is to “build relationships over substantial conversations,” a goal contrary to one of Canada’s cultural idols: ruthless independence and false nicety that leads to isolation and a lack of personal engagement. Table Conversations provides deliberate push-back to this idea and is affectionately called the “place to offend with a smile.” It has experienced such growth that it had to move from the home it was meeting in to a larger space. This group attracts middle aged, divorced atheists, and many who attend have come to think of it as a family. One of the attendees, who has become a good friend of Josh’s, is a pagan priestess who, in her own words, “experienced grace for the first time” at this gathering.
The Big Table averages 120 in attendance while neighborhood Tables average between 70 and 80. The structure of The Table places high emphasis on leadership, and accountability, legitimacy, oversight, and support are prioritized for each group. Despite loss in local leadership due to the transient nature of the community, the Table has reached its original goal of 12-15 communities all working to “draw the people of Victoria into communion with Christ, community with one another, and send people on a mission to bless our neighbors.” In the near future, one of the largest neighborhood groups will become a Big Table to serve new Tables being created in the area. This unique church plant and its leaders are excited to see what God will do next as the Table continues to share the Bread of Life in Victoria.