Food Ministry Needs a Makeover - A Plea to the Church
This article is co-authored by my husband and I because we love the church, not because we want to pick on it. We want the church to thrive and be the best local expression of the Bride it can be.
I recently shared thoughts on instagram stories (midway through this Soapbox Series) about food choices in the church. While our observations were confined to Silicon Valley, many across the country claimed the same experience. I'm expanding on this a bit since there was a desire to inspire change within your own congregation. Note, we are discussing food provided to the congregation and children's ministry as a whole, not specifically meal trains or homeless programs, though much of this could apply wherever food is involved. This is not a personal attack on anyone's decision to indulge in treats where appropriate. This is about the church's role as the supplier of the following types of "foods."
A few years ago, we left the church we'd been attending. We did so on good terms and for good reasons, but this put us in the position of looking for a local body to connect with. We visited dozens of church services during that season, and while there are countless differences between the various expressions of the Church, there is one thing we found almost everywhere: An area to congregate before and/or after the service with coffee and snacks provided by a hospitality ministry.
The church, rightly, welcomes members and guests in a socially appropriate setting: with sustenance. Food is a key ingredient of culture, much like language; this was the case in the first century church and is the case today.
The food ministries are almost all very similar: Processed cookies or donuts, cheap conventional coffee and creamers in the form of factory farmed milk or flavored peel top packages, sugar and artificial sweeteners alongside Styrofoam cups.
No one is forced to consume anything, however, the presence of this type of food says something about the beliefs of the church's leadership, for better or worse.
On the one hand, it says church leadership doesn't frivolously spend money donated by its members on luxurious extravagances. This is Silicon Valley, so it's not unthinkable that a misguided church leader could insist that avocado toast and bulletproof coffee be served in the pursuit of cultural relevance. We aren't suggesting that's reasonable, though we aren't saying it's unreasonable in a certain context, but we aren't anywhere near that end of the spectrum. We aren't anywhere near the middle of the spectrum either when we serve highly processed chemical-laden snacks and call them food.
The endorsement of these "foods" by church leadership is totally irrelevant to much of the existing church congregation. If it were an issue for them, things would have changed by now. But there is a swelling movement of people in our society who are paying increasing attention to food, what it's composed of, and how it's sourced. These people aren't worshiping their bodies and they aren't bleeding heart environmentalist liberals. They have a righteous compassion for creation and they feel responsible to steward their bodies as well as their children's bodies, minds, and souls.
So, do we have a problem worth talking about? If so, why does the problem exist?
We believe there are two competing forces, and one is winning by a landslide. They are:
- Care for creation
We think stewardship is the proper lens to view these through. Both forces are righteous, though not when out of balance.
Depending on your theology, one might see very little importance in that stewardship role over the creation. Specifically, if your theological interpretation of scripture concludes the material world is of little or no value, why would creation matter? The New Testament food laws free us to consume virtually any food we desire, so why would our food choices be relevant to the Gospel? Since early in the Old Testament we've been licensed to eat animals indicating their sub-human value, so why concern ourselves with their treatment?
Oliver Wendell Holmes said, Some people are so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good. This mindset leads people to think only souls matter, not physical bodies, and certainly not animals, trees, or the physical earth itself. However, many believers think things work a little differently upon Christ's return. This alternate view requires that we champion the flourishing of all creation.
Frugality is an important New Testament concept, so, understandably, the church attempts to get the most for their money, which unfortunately means buying the cheapest food with the longest shelf life. When choosing foods shown to be toxic or even dangerous to our bodies and earth in the name of financial wisdom supersedes the wisdom and calling of stewardship over these things, it is no longer wise.
When these cheap alternatives are animal products, the church cannot stay ignorant to the fact that they came from the worst conditions at factory farms; suffering horrific abuse, most never seeing the light of day, wading in filth, blood, puss and fecal matter, injected with hormones and antibiotics before they are inhumanely slaughtered.
What does the bible say?
It is our belief the church absolutely means to do the right, wise, prudent, and thoughtful thing in every circumstance. However, we all have blind spots (us included) and we think food is a major blind spot within the body of Christ. This is illogical when you consider how much of the Bible, both old and new testament, concerns food.
The new testament teaches that the old testament food laws are no longer valid and that food is primarily a subject of personal preference rather than moral obligation. We think this teaching has devolved into a belief that food is unimportant; specifically the type, quality, and sourcing are inconsequential to the spiritual formation of a person and how they serve God.
The Bible doesn't teach that food is unimportant, it simply teaches that food is no longer an issue of legality with some exceptions like Acts 15, which gives some guidelines around food and sex. Food remains a central component of culture as it was in the early church. Interestingly, the sourcing of food was one of the only things the Apostles collectively agreed upon; that it not be sourced from pagan idol offerings.
Today, like then, the food we eat says a lot about our values. The values have less to do with religious regulations these days and more to do with how we view creation and mankind's role as steward over it. Things like animal cruelty, conservation of resources, land use, and the physical health of humans fall within the parameters of that stewardship role. The impact is on our faithfulness and witness.
We're not saying food is a salvational issue, Jesus said it’s not what goes in a man’s mouth which defiles him but what comes out of it. (Matthew 15:11) But, this isn’t an issue of personal salvation, it’s an issue of missiology and of tending the earth. Paul told the Corinthians that he is willing to become all things to all men so that he might win a few (1 Corinthians 9:22). In its context, this verse deals with food, in order that he can relate to the world around him, and it’s to make the gospel attractive (Titus 2:10) rather than create unnecessary stumbling blocks.
Contradicting behaviors with food
- ADDICTION: The church has also created a double standard, probably unknowingly, when restricting or outlawing the provision of the stumbling block alcohol for it's behavior-altering and addictive properties, yet serves stumbling block foods with behavior-altering and addictive ingredients.* (Sources linked at the end of this article)
- INFLAMMATION: We see inflammation at the root of many, if not most diseases, but we flood the community table with the most inflammatory foods. One of my readers responded with "We can't pray for disease to be gone and give them a donut on the way out." We must acknowledge the connection and do better.
What could change:
- Ethically sourced animal products (milk, creamer, meat, etc.) - We're not going to push a vegetarian/vegan agenda, but if the argument is that one can't afford grass-fed, humanely raised animals, then you're better off cutting back on your meat consumption. Contrary to popular belief, humans don't need animal product with every meal or snack to survive.
- Organic, Fair-Trade Coffee - Coffee is one of, if not the most chemically treated crop in the world. Find a local coffee vendor to build a relationship with and learn about where the beans come from and ensure the growers were paid a fair wage.
- Organic, local honey, coconut sugar or raw sugar instead of conventional cane and artificial sweeteners - it doesn't take much research to link sugar and its artificial sidekicks to many health conditions. We don't need to outlaw sweets, but swap in something less harmful for the body.
- Fresh fruit instead of processed foods with dyes, additives & preservatives - Find your local farmer's market or grocer and build a relationship with the vendors; tell them you'll be shopping there weekly because you want to provide healthy options for the congregation. Serve seasonal fruit like grapes, strawberries, cuties, etc. This is infinitely better than man-made chemicals our body doesn't need or has trouble processing and linked to numerous health conditions we have normalized.
- Recycling - Might sound obvious, but most churches we visited didn't have recycling bins and amassed an outrageous amount of garbage including Styrofoam cups and plastic straws
- Gluten-free and dairy-free options - Offering gluten-free options for communion and plant-based milks for coffee should be standard at this point.
These are all points the church, of all organizations, should care about: health, human rights, animal cruelty and environmental sustainability. In addition to all this, we think you'll find the food tastes better and you’ll be increasingly connected to the community.
Bonus points - The Millennials
It’s worth noting a practical aspect of the church's future...Demographics. The Millennial portion of the church needs to grow. Millennials tend to think in terms of transparency, authenticity, and congruence. Millennials tend to care about these issues more than Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers and they aren't wrong.
When discussing the issue of food and spirituality with a friend, he commented: "If you can’t be trusted by your own body to provide good food, why would I trust you with my soul?" Our stewardship of the temporal reflects our faithfulness with the eternal. If we don’t show ourselves wise with the little we can’t be trusted with great things. (Luke 16:10-12)
We know it might have seemed trivial at first, but can you see why we don’t think we’re simply majoring in the minors like the narrow-minded church member who complains about the music or carpet color? Can you imagine if churches across the nation took a stand against the familiarity and ease cheap food? Transparency and trust would grow. Healthier habits and bodies would form. The decrease in demand would force change in factory farming. An increase in community connectedness could sprout. How can you argue with that?
How about your church's food situation? Share what you see at your gatherings this weekend in the comments!