The pastor at a farm church held up a handful of soil and asked the youth in his midst, “Do you guys remember how many living beings I told you are in a teaspoon of good soil?” The youth hesitated for a moment, but they all knew the exact number wasn’t important because it was unfathomably high.
“Isn’t it amazing?!” the pastor exclaimed. He wanted the youth to share his awe at the incredible abundance of creation and how their church was participating in that abundance by tending the soil.
To the pastors who are leading farm and dinner churches, the reasons for making food the centerpiece of Christian ministry are plentiful. When I asked the pastors of four dinner churches and one farm church why they have gathered their congregation over the dinner table or on the land, the pastors became animated in describing the rich religious potency of the acts of growing, preparing, and eating food in community with others. To them, food deeply enriches Christian ministry because it is one place where Christian faith and our material lives intimately intertwine.
Like the pastor at the farm church who sees soil as a tangible manifestation of God’s bountiful love, many of the pastors expressed that to grow and to eat food is a way to receive God’s divine blessing. These pastors believe that the garden and the full plate are a representation of God’s abundance and grace poured out upon the people. The beautiful aspect of this abundance is that it is to be both received and tended by the people of the church. Digging in, whether with our hands or our forks, is a way to say “yes” to God and to the gifts that God bestows upon us.
A “yes” to God’s grace then translates as a call to serve others. Many of the pastors described the mission of inclusivity as one of their main reasons for sitting around a table for worship. Inclusivity is symbolized by the open table, a place where Jesus invites everyone to receive the nourishment of God.
For these communities, bringing all sorts to one table is to exemplify what it means to be the Body of Christ. Multiple pastors reflected that their dinner church attracts people on the margins of society—queer individuals, people with social awkwardness and anxiety, and families struggling to have enough to eat. One pastor noted that his dinner church brings people of varying political orientations together at one table, an increasing rarity these days. He hopes that sharing a meal together helps people transcend the ideological barriers that so often keep people apart.
Moral considerations were another reason some of the pastors found food as an effective means of ministry. The pastor at the farm church believes it is incumbent upon the church to address issues of hunger and food insecurity. Like the prophets of the Old Testament, who cried out against the injustices that left peasants landless and widows and orphans destitute, so too does the pastor of the farm church see hunger and poverty as a moral issue of today. For this reason, his church gives all the food they grow on their farm to local pantries, and their primary mission as a church is to address food insecurity in their community.
Other pastors echoed the idea that their food-based ministry is a matter of social justice. One pastor noted how he always makes sure to send extra food home with congregants who struggle financially, demonstrating that God’s love knows no dollar amount. Another pastor buys the food used at her dinner church from local farmers and vendors because she believes that buying locally is a matter of economic justice in her community.
At the most basic level, however, many of these pastors believe that to share a meal at the table is to replicate aspects of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus fed people and ate with them; in other words, he communed with them, as epitomized during the Last Supper. Farm and dinner churches are thus a continuation of that ministry, bringing people together and forming disciples through the breaking of bread and sharing in common.
At the end of the day, one pastor said it best: her ministry is about connection–to the earth, to our own bodies and spirits, to each other, and to God. Food is a medium that binds all of our relationships. We relate to the earth by what we eat and how we procure the food. We relate to ourselves by what we put in our body. We relate to each other by how and with whom we eat. We relate to God by the spirit in which we eat.
If we eat mindlessly, we are disconnected from God. However, if we eat with gratitude, conviviality, and humility in the face of God’s gift of abundance, then we are experiencing a divine union with God. Food sits at the center of all of our humanly connections, and by eating as an act of ministry, we enact the spiritual powers that food envelops.
The pastors of these churches hope that you encounter God in the moment that you lift a teaspoon of soil to eye level to inspect or a spoonful of soup to your lips to taste. They hope that you hear Jesus’ call to welcome in the stranger and to love all those with whom we are deeply interconnected. Food itself is not a religious object, but a blessed and powerful channel through which to experience the love of God made manifest in a nourishing Creation. This is why pastors and churches are turning to food: to know and make known the gifts we are given from a Creator whose love is never ending.