Youth ministries are often known for serving cheap carry-out cheese, sausage, or pepperoni pizza. Vacation Bible Schools serve sandwich cookies and carrot sticks. Church coffee hours have boxes of glazed doughnuts next to the coffee. Church basement walls are lined with shelves of non-perishable food waiting to be taken home. Women of the church petition the congregation for the newest church cookbook. Ministries to young adults host theology discussion groups at the local brewery or corner pub. Home group bible studies eat meals or dessert with their study of scripture. Sanctuaries have wine and wafers or juice and bread or some combination of food and drink that mysteriously becomes the body and blood of Christ.
Food matters in the church. As much as we talk about matters of faith, we share food in the church. Its presence is near-ubiquitous, but much like our daily meals, we forget to pay attention to what we are eating. Issues of practicality and expense win out. Lack of time and energy to think critically about our food practices reinforces our patterns of eating. Yet, the presence of food in our sacred and social spaces of the church begs us to take a deeper look at our food practices and ask how they communicate the gospel.
When a young church plant began discussing the introduction of small home meetings to help newer members feel connected to the church, providing food was an early item on list of core practices for every group. Not just food, but good food. Defining “good food” proved challenging. For some in the church, good food means hummus and veggies. For others, good food is empanadas and, for others, that cheap carry-out pizza is a taste of heaven.
Defining good food should not be an effort to convince young and old, wealthy and poor, white and minority in the church to conform to upper middle class ideals of local, organic and sustainable. While those values may be worthy of points of conversation, the purpose of a food conversation in the church has a slightly different focus.
Talking about the food practices of our churches is an exercise of challenging the body of Christ to deeply consider what the gospel tastes like. If we eat Christ at the altar, do we ask what Christ tastes like? Do we wonder how the taste of good food communicates the good news in bodily and mysterious ways? If we believe that God is present in all of our gatherings at the church, are we attending to the sense of taste as a mode of communicating that presence?
Religious tradition, cultural practices and values, and economics often determine our food practices in the church. Practices such as communion, fellowship meals, and serving food to friends and strangers beg us to attend to the sense of taste and ask how we want the gospel to communicate not only through the tongues of speakers to the taste buds on the tongues of the hearers.
When we gather to eat as the church, we invite one another to experience the gospel in a way that goes beyond our cognition. We taste and see that the Lord is good, and we nourish our whole selves: mind, spirit and body.