A Bigger Table, Expanded Edition with Study Guide, John Pavlovitz (Foreword by Jacqueline L. Lewis). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2020.
Summary: Traces the author’s journey into a bigger vision of and practice of Christian community that is far more inclusive in welcoming people and chronicles the stories of a bigger table and the lives it has touched.
This is an expanded version of a book first published in 2017. John Pavlovitz is a popular pastor and blogger who wrote this book as a narrative of his own journey into a ministry, starting with youth, that welcomed many who previously had not felt welcome. These were youth from different backgrounds, races, and especially, those who identified as LGBTQIA. This paralleled an internal journey from a vision of traditional church where there were things to be believed and not questioned, where you kept those questions and doubts to yourself. As Pavlovitz understanding about sexuality shifted, even though his ministry was thriving as kids encountered the love of Christ, he was fired from the congregation where he was serving.
This opened the doors to a new ministry of building bigger tables. His model was Jesus who set a big table at which “sinners” encountered radical hospitality, true diversity, and total authenticity. Establishment types, political radicals, sexual sinners, working class people, women as well as men were all welcome. The only ones who were not comfortable were the religious establishment. Pavlovitz argues for an “agenda-free” community that isn’t out to “convert” or “minister” but simply share life around Christ.
He argues that for Jesus, love matters more than theologies and apologetics and worldviews. He describes the response that opened up when he wrote about how he would love a child of his own who came out, and the stories and conversations with mama bears and mama dragons that followed, the mothers who advocate for their LGBTQIA children. He writes of the revolution that comes when we shed what he sees as false fears:
Fear of believing the wrong thing
Fear of not praying enough
Fear of joining the wrong denominations
Fear of not exegeting Scripture correctly
Fear of not evangelizing our neighbors enough
Fear of Muslims and gays and atheists
Fear of beer and Harry Potter and cuss words and yogo and mandalas and voting Democrat
Fear of a God who is holding hell over our heads–
Fear as our default settingJohn Pavlovitz, A Bigger Table, (p. 166)
In the end, what Pavlovitz wants is a church that is the most diverse place on earth.
I found myself say “yes” at many points where he named some of the pathologies of the church, and the way our distorted theologies resulted in stunted, unloving lives in the world. I also grieve with him that the church is a dangerous place for many young people to open up about an LGBTQIA identification. It is also a dangerous places for others to talk about pornography or romantic fantasy addictions or adulterous affairs that are corroding marriages. It is also dangerous because we often cover rather than confront abuse in various forms. We tolerate bigotry and embrace of statist ideologies of the left and the right.
It was striking to me to read the afterword in the new edition. It seemed to recognize that there are dangers to the open table. Some are the dangers of political ideologies that would exclude persons of color or immigrants among believing people. Pavlovitz calls for pastors to exercise courage to stand up against a fear-based, loveless Christianity and for the diverse people welcomed to the table.
My concern in this book is what I believe is an either/or binary or dichotomy between radical love and good theology. I think it leads increasingly to a pastor having to open and also guard this welcoming table on their own authority, solely on the strength of their own incarnation of Christ’s love. While theologies can be sterile, distorted, and loveless, the authority of the biblical narrative centered in Christ can challenge idolatries of nationalism, racism, various forms of discrimination and injustice and also challenge all of us to Christ-shaped sexuality. Sadly, the narrow focus in some churches on the sexuality of LGBTQIA persons serves as a convenient dodge for allowing Christ to redeem and shape the sexuality of all of us in a supportive community.
The revised edition of the book includes a study guide for churches to use to begin to think about how they can remove barriers to a bigger table. While I do not agree at all points with the theological moves Pavlovitz has made to have a bigger table, the conversation he proposes for churches and his critique of the pathologies he experienced are worth taking on board.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer Program. The opinions I have expressed are my own.