This essay is Part 1 of a five-part series on farm and dinner churches, adapted from the author’s master’s thesis.
“Welcome to Slow Food UW,” I said to a crowd of 120. “We believe in good, clean, and fair food, and we hope you enjoy the meal tonight. Our chef for today’s dinner is going to come out and present the menu to you…” The attendees all looked up with excitement, anticipating what savory plate they were about to eat.
This was the weekly routine. Our student organization, Slow Food UW, offered a unique service on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison: an entire meal of local and organic food for only $5, served by anyone in the community who knew how to cook their prized cuisine for a large crowd. Our mission was to offer high-quality, sustainable food at a reasonable price to students. We started as a humble organization—only 25 people coming together once a month to share a meal of good food. In a few years, we were feeding 500 people each week.
Slow Food UW is a campus chapter of Slow Food USA, a national organization that promotes local and sustainable agriculture. It is one of many foodie groups that advocates for small farmers, encourages “conscious eating” and inspires a culture of investing in one’s local community. Slow Food represents a small window into what many have come to know as the “food movement.”
By 2010 the food movement had taken Madison by storm. The UW made Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food that year’s Big Read, a program that selects one book for all faculty and students to study. The UW invited Pollan to campus, and he spoke in front of thousands of students about the importance of eating right. He lit up the entire city, speaking at a festival that features the nation’s largest farmers market. At that time, Madison was a microcosm of the burgeoning cultural shift occurring throughout the country.
It’s no secret that the food movement has gained vast popularity, thanks largely to writers such as Pollan and to the plethora of food documentaries such as Supersize Me and Food, Inc., which denounce the industrial agricultural complex. The food movement has transformed from a fringe group of hippies who buy hard-to-find organic veggies into a cultural wave of culinary entrepreneurs with new ideas about how to eat right and to participate in a fairer, healthier agricultural system. These days even small cities across the United States are home to fair-trade coffee shops, school gardens, and weekly farmers markets. The food movement has firmly taken root in the habits of the country.
Recently, food consciousness has been expanding from the secular realm of farms and restaurants and into some Christian communities. An array of academic and popular Christian literature heralds the sacred meanings of food in Christian faith and spirituality. Some authors argue that Christianity stripped bare to its essentials is rooted in the Eucharist—the way Jesus gave of himself through the elements of physical nourishment. Jesus spent his ministry eating with others and feeding them. When Christianity is understood this way, food takes a central place in Christian imagination. Food is the heart of sacramentality.
With this in mind, a number of churches and pastors have taken up the mantle of re-imagining the role of food in the life of a worshiping congregation. Throughout the country, congregations are coming together around the table for an emerging type of ministry called “dinner church.” Some pastors are even experimenting with “farm church,” taking their congregation into gardens and farms to discover what it means be in communion with the land. In these ministries, food is central to both worship and congregational life. In a time of widespread decline in church attendance, these food-focused churches serve as an alternative to traditional ministry, offering congregants a more hands-on approach to faith.
As someone whose adulthood was nurtured in the nest of the local foods movement and who later gained wings in the airs of Christian ministry, I wondered what is the relationship between the food movement and these burgeoning food-focused churches. Clearly, sharing a meal at the dinner table and calling it ministry is not an innovative phenomenon—people have been doing it since the beginning of Christianity. Nevertheless, it seems as though there is a new and intentional re-invigoration of the role of food in Christian faith. It’s an alternative to the traditional church model, and it happens to follow on the heels of the food movement.
In seminary, I found myself deeply curious about these farm and dinner churches. I decided to write a thesis to explore answers to my bubbling questions: Are the ideas and morals that inspire food-based churches similar to or different from the ones that ground the food movement? What are “dinner churches” and “farm churches” anyway, and how do they operate?
In the spring of 2018, I visited and observed four dinner churches in New England and one farm church in the Southeast, and I interviewed their pastors. I wanted to see why they believe food is core to good Christian ministry. This article and the four that will follow are a presentation of my thesis research and results. First, I will detail the “what” and “how” of these ministries, surveying what farm and dinner churches look like in structure and practice. Second, I will describe the “why” of these ministries, exploring the theologies, ethics, and principles that inspire the incorporation and centralization of food. I will then follow up with an article that investigates the impact of the food movement on the formation of food-focused churches, as imagined and explained by the pastors who lead them. I hope to illustrate a detailed picture of what these ministries are all about.
Farm and dinner churches are still in their inchoate phases; nevertheless, we can seek to understand them as they are forming and growing. They may, after all, represent a gleaming new chapter in the history of the Christian church, a chapter in which good food is seen as inseparable from a robust Christian faith.
Stay tuned… this week-long series continues tomorrow. -NLP