Sunday, October 25, 2015

Chicken and cake ... and God's grace

If you don't recognize this scene, you're not living the church life!
One of the tell-tale signs of a functioning house church is eating. It only makes sense that if you're having people you love over for an activity that will surely run during (or up to) a meal time -- and within feet of a well-stocked kitchen -- that you would want to combine culinary talents and eat together.

Is there anything more New Testament than food? Breaking bread from house to house? The Love Feast? Even the Lord's Supper?

So much of the life of the church is devoted to eating. Even institutional churches, where it's a central element to Christian fellowship. Unfortunately, this is a trend that seems to be waning.
Richard Beck's noteworthy Experimental Theology blog had a thoughtful post on the decline of the communal meal in brick-and-mortar churches -- "the potluck," his tradition calls it, though it may also be called a fellowship meal, a coverdish, church picnic, dinner on the grounds, etc.
... While it breaks my heart to say this, I think the art of the church potluck is on the decline. 
We recently had a discussion about this with some friends at church, that potlucks are happening less frequently and, when they do happen, they aren't done very well. A symptom of a potluck gone bad at our church is when the potluck has to be supplemented by Little Caesar's pizza. 
So I have to ask, is the Golden Age of the Church Pot Luck over?
It seems so.
 With our friends we floated two hypotheses about the decline of the potluck.
The first was church size. It seems that churches are either very big or very small, making it harder to achieve the sweet spot for a congregation-wide potluck.
Our other hypothesis was about a loss of generational skill. The consensus was that our mothers and grandmothers really knew how to do a potluck. And the main thing was that they brought to the potluck a ton of food, enough for their family and many, many more. 
This gave me cause for pause. In my personal experience, the communal meal is the obvious conclusion of increased fellowship, increased evangelism, increased discipleship, increased demand for one-on-one time to ask and answer spiritual questions, etc. To put it simply, a meal is the best time for us to put our guard down, dispense with the facades, and be real with each other. What other activity brings us together as fellow human beings and even our mortality? To put it even more simply, we all gotta eat.

On that note, I would like to add a third, fourth, and fifth hypothesis, and borrow a sixth.

Thirdly, the potluck and its related activities are too organic, too spontaneous, and too unofficial. Also in my personal experience, the communal meal is one of the first things those who are out to up-end a church go after. Whether they're intentionally or unintentionally targeting it, they are united in their disdain for the coverdish.

This has always mystified me, as breaking bread together is such a no-brainer. But consider what motives a false teacher or an errant teacher would have (see previous blogs on that subject). Does a potluck meal further their goals? Favor-ability? Convenience? Getting home in time to watch the NFL do their thing? Rather, the shared meal experience as part of the Lord's Day celebration flies in the face of those who use the ministry for personal or impure gains.

Communal meal gatherings open the door to non-approved discussions about the Bible and non-approved efforts to win souls to Christ (in other words, this doesn't do anything for the resume of Reverend Wonderful).

Fourthly, communal meals also pose a social risk that make ministers downright skittish in today's church environment. Throwing together so many dietary practices, health concerns, cultural backgrounds, and personal tastes (especially in today's pluralistic society) you're bound to end up with some hurt feelings. Consider ...

An untouched casserole dish may send a new family crying on the way home.

A meal spread with no vegetarian options may insult the consciences of those who don't eat meat.

And the young and hip may find the whole exercise culturally "irrelevant" and part of "grandpa's religion" or some bygone era. Either that, or they're more accustomed to ordering at a restaurant than having to choose between the various incarnations of chicken and cake on the folding tables in front of them.

Since modern Evangelicalism is all about creating a culture of non-offense and drawing in the young and pretty, then the potluck is nothing but a liability.

In making my fifth point, I'll save my thoughts on the consumer culture's overtaking of our Sunday day-of-rest in another post. But it needs to be pointed out that rushing to a nearby restaurant and pushing tables together has provided much competition for the communal meal.

"Beating the Baptists" to the steakhouse has become part of the American religious landscape. The potluck, by comparison, is a rather quaint predecessor to this modern convenience (note: prior to the 1960s, most restaurants were closed on Sundays and few were tolerant of families with young children -- again, more on this subject later).

Sixth, it's difficult. If indeed Sunday is supposed to be a sabbath (of sorts -- again, much more on this subject later), then why all the work setting up, taking down, washing dishes, spending Saturday nights making the food, etc.? Is this someone's crazy idea of "rest?"

The American Conservative magazine adds a this hypothesis to Beck's reasons for the decline of the potluck. Diversified diets and increased sensitivities are among the writer's indictments for just how complex a simple meal has become.

Beck concludes by comparing the potluck to a metaphor for God's extravagant mercy:
"It seems like an entire generation has forgotten the Golden Rule of the church potluck: Bring more that what you will eat. A lot more. Because it's that excess and abundance that makes the hospitality of a potuck [sic] possible, allowing the spontaneous invitation to the visitor who comes empty-handed to be an experience of gift and grace."
Fortunately, for those in house church environments, eating together is a virtually indispensable element: a constant reminder of God's grace, no matter how awkward, crowded, or offensive it may be.

Now someone pass the banana pudding, please.

Update: We probably should have included "busy lifestyles" as another reason. We live in age where kids' soccer games are scheduled for Sunday mornings, now, so why stick around for another hour of church when your hours are already spoken-for?

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