Christianity has always been related to food. Not just the pot-luck dinners that cause members of every denomination to claim a unique attraction to, and production of, good food. (I don’t know how many times I have heard it claimed by Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, Baptists, and so on, that it is a particular characteristic of their brand of Christianity that they “love to eat”.) But it goes right back to Jesus’ last supper with his disciples when he made a symbolic meal the central act of this new faith. Eating and drinking is the way he explicitly gives us to remember him.
Last Sunday’s New York Times has an article about changes in the food industry. The sentence that got my attention was: “42 percent of millennial consumers, aged 20-37, don’t trust large food companies.” Woah. Is it just a coincidence that this is the same demographic that doesn’t trust the church, and is leaving organized religion in such droves that we have had to invent new terms to describe them: the “spiritual-but-not-religious”, the “nones”? I don’t think so. I don’t know if the in-house publications of the food industry also feature article after article dedicated to how to attract, retain, recover millennials, as is the case in denominational journals. But it would not surprise me.
The issue in the food industry is that they have been content to sell us cheap, counter-nutritional crap for decades, loaded up with unpronounceable preservatives, massive quantities of sugar (and not even real sugar but high-fructose corn syrup), salt, fat, and chemical substitutes for them. People, especially younger people, not wanting to die of malnutrition and obesity at the same time, have been shifting away from processed foods and towards local, organic, simple, fresh, and natural foods. It has gotten so bad that McDonalds is in serious trouble and the center of supermarkets, where the processed/packaged foods are stacked, is referred to in the industry as “the morgue.”
It is a term that could well be applied to many churches I know. A handful of old people scattered throughout a cavernous sanctuary while an organ groans out old hymns and a middle-aged man talks might attract a similar description.
The food industry is stripping gears trying to adjust to this alarming trend in which people will only buy food that is actually nutritious. “For legacy food companies to have any hope of survival they will have to make bold changes in their core product offerings. Companies will have to drastically cut sugar; process less; go local and organic; use more fruits, vegetables, and other whole foods; and develop fresh offerings. General Mills needs to do more than just drop the artificial ingredients from Trix. It needs to drop the sugar substantially, move to 100 percent whole grains, and increase ingredient diversity by moving to other grains besides corn.” “These changes would require a complete overhaul of their supply chains, major organizational restructuring and billions of dollars of investment….”
Now, I am not one to say the church needs to adopt the strategies and practices of business. Far from it. At the same time, is it just me, or do these critiques sound eerily familiar? What would it mean for the church to “cut the sugar,” “process less,” “go local and organic,” use more whole foods,” “develop fresh offerings,” “drop the artificial ingredients,” “increase diversity,” “overhaul the supply chain,” and “restructure institutionally”?
To me, the response in the church would be to get back to the basics of the spiritual life and what people need to be nourished and healed in their souls. Stop doing what we think will be popular (“cut the sugar”), encourage people to be responsible for their own soul-making by exposing them to deep and original sources (“process less”), focus on small group dynamics rather than mega-entertainments (“go local and organic”), allow more creativity (“drop the artificial ingredients”), draw from a wider variety of sources — from different streams of Christianity to other forms of wisdom (“increase diversity”), speak to contemporary issues and questions (“develop fresh offerings”), realize that denominations are a historical anomaly that has run its course (“overhaul the supply chain”), and start training people to guide others in their own faith-formation (“restructure institutionally”).
What the food industry is going through now, the church has been weathering for two generations, without a whole lot of success. The church must recover the simple gathering of people seeking to follow Jesus. The watchword for the church should always be this authenticity. Not because it is a marketing necessity. But because of who we are as disciples.