For several months, now, I have been trying to decide whether or not Tenth Presbyterian Church ought to build a food court. I have no idea where we would put it, but it’s still interesting to think about.
Turning your church into a restaurant is the latest thing out in California. For example, Faith Community Church in West Covina is building a food kiosk, where they plan to have vendors serve hot dogs, espresso and soft drinks to parishioners who don’t have time to grab a bite to eat. Several other churches have added a snack bar or a food service.
But the pastor who really takes the cake is Robert Schuller. Schuller, you may remember, is the man who popularized the drive-in church and built the Crystal Cathedral. In addition to a catered food court, his new 50,000-square-foot facility, designed by famed architect Richard Meier, will include an exhibition hall honoring the world’s “great Christian capitalists” (one wonders if any of them were in the food industry).
These “Cappuccino Churches” are careful to keep food out of their worship services. The sanctuary remains a snack-free zone. “We have to remember,” said one pastor, “that the purpose for being here is to worship God. And that requires something a little more solemn than popcorn in the upper seats.” Indeed.
One reason for having a food court at your church is convenience. As the pastor in West Covina explained, “If people can pick up a croissant and a cup of cappuccino at church, it makes it easier. If you make it too difficult, people just won’t come to church. They’ll go to Universal Studios instead.”
Apparently, another reason for having a food court is evangelistic, in the broadest sense of the word. A spokesperson summarized the Crystal Cathedral philosophy of ministry like this: “When the tourists come here, we want to feed their tummies and their souls.”
The Cappuccino Church can help remind us who we are as a church, and how we ought to relate to our culture. Food has always held an important place in Christian fellowship, and not just on Thanksgiving Day. The first Christians broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts (Acts 2:46b). When the Bible describes salvation, it often uses the language of feasting and banqueting. “He has taken me to the banquet hall, and his banner over me is love” (Songs 2:4).
Our most important banquet, of course, is the Lord’s Supper. When Jesus wanted to give us something tangible to explain salvation, he gave us something to eat and drink. The bread and wine of communion symbolize his body and blood. But they also remind us of God’s daily care and give us our first taste of heaven, where one day we will sit down at the wedding supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:9).
In the meantime, food is an important part of church life. Think how often we break bread together here at Tenth. After the morning worship service, coffee and pastries are served in Reception Hall. Every week we feed meals to the homeless. City Light begins the month with its First Friday Fabulous Feast. Our annual meetings begin with dinner, as does our annual World Missions Conference. The parishes have lunches and desserts. Women in the Church, Tenth Men, and the Racial Reconciliation Fellowship all sponsor regular breakfasts. It sounds like one good meal after another.
Sharing meals together in this way has spiritual significance. Food is a gift of God’s goodness and a hope of heaven. So what about putting in a food court? Should we do it?
It is not hard to see how a good food court could be an advantage. It would make it convenient for families to spend the day at the church. It would facilitate all kinds of informal interaction. And it would not be unbiblical, exactly. The Bible does not say, “Thou shalt not put a food court in thy church.”
Yet I see several potential spiritual problems with the idea. The first has to do with idolatry. The important question to ask about any innovation in church life is this: If we do things this way, what idols will we have to bow down and worship? Part of the point of having a food court is to make church more comfortable for people outside the church. That is a worthy goal. However, one of the things that makes people feel comfortable is the chance to worship their old idols.
Although food courts may be convenient, convenience has a way of becoming an idol. We Americans are used to having exactly what we want, when we want it, especially when it comes to food. Is it really possible to deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Christ while you are sipping on your cappuccino?
Putting in a food court also buys into the consumer mentality of the evangelical church. These days people go to church because they get something out of it, not because they want to give something to God. In the end, going to church is a lot like going to the mall, and the church becomes just another business.
There is also something spiritually significant about bringing your own food to church. When we share a meal together, we usually have to bring part of it ourselves. For the meal to be a success, everyone has to do his or her part. We show our love for one another by bringing each other something good to eat.
By doing this, we learn what it means to be the church. It means caring for one another and depending on one another. It means that everyone has something to contribute. Those are the kind of lessons it is hard to learn by putting four dollars and ninety cents on the counter for a hot dog and a cappuccino.
[Facts and quotations come from the Philadelphia Inquirer, September, 1998]
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