When you leave, you should be full of the love of Jesus.
by Kelly Minter
AT TIMES, I consider what my life would have been like if I’d grown up without the church potluck.
It’s hard to imagine a childhood without fellowship halls, fluorescent lighting, and foldout tables teeming with cheesy casseroles and buckets of fried chicken. Where the only green on anyone’s plates was the Jell-O®. (If you didn’t grow up in church or a church culture like this one, have no fear, you probably consumed less cream of mushroom soup than I did.) It was an all-you-could-eat smorgasbord of carbohydrates and fried protein. I loved it so.
While I think that today we may place a greater emphasis on healthier eating habits — or at least we’re more aware when we’re eating something bad for us — I’m sentimental about the days where Bible study included eating something that contained gluten, corn syrup, or partially hydrogenated oil.
I have some really wonderful memories of gathering with the church body around meals for special occasions. Our annual missions conferences were a highlight. Missionaries who were back stateside had come from all over the world to tell us about what God was doing in the countries and cultures they were living in. Sometimes they’d give us a literal taste of the new place they called home, like the one missionary who flew in from the jungles of a part of the world I can’t recall and passed around a plate of charred worms. True story. The worms were apparently high in protein; I think this was against FDA regulations.
Whether it was the dessert receptions after special guests had spoken on a Sunday morning, or the ladies’ Christmas brunch, or the week of pizza before the annual Easter cantata performances (that I grew up employing the word cantata in my regular vocabulary explains so much about my childhood), food was a significant part of my church experience. The habit of God’s people gathering around food is as ancient as the stories in the Old and New Testaments. The annual Jewish festivals included both acts of worship and feasting together on the choicest cuts of meat. When we get to the Gospels, we read about Jesus eating with everyone from religious leaders to notorious sinners, with the healthy and with lepers. In the Book of Acts, we’re given pictures of the early church praying and learning together in homes while breaking bread.
Past and Present
The forms and foods have evolved over time, but the gathering and the eating have remained the same. We may have gone from fatted calves in the Old Testament to shellfish with the dawning of the New Covenant, to chicken divan and boxed cake mixes in the 80s to cheeseboards with chutney and prosciutto today, but it’s God’s people communing together that will always be most significant. While the church I grew up in had a few Legalistic Lisas and Hypocritical Harrys, some of the best people I’ve ever known looked after me in those fellowship halls, around those tables, sometimes in the kitchens of their own homes: Linda Mitchell, Mary Wolfe, Michelle Smith, Suzie Linebaugh, Sherry Meddings, Cheryl Hurley, my mom. I’d put them up against anyone.
I didn’t understand it at the time, but many of these women were in the midst of walking through unspeakable trials and hardships. Some have greatly suffered since then and are faithfully serving to this day. The only reason they were able to love so well, and still show up to the fellowship hall with the lasagna, was because their roots ran deep in Christ. Looking back, while I was well-fed at their tables and at the church potlucks, it was their spiritual nourishment that would fortify me for decades to come.
Thinking back on those church gatherings and the meals we ate together, I don’t feel as though my childhood suffered any real loss because we lacked things like marble charcuterie boards with Stilton cheese and fig preserves. I’m not sad that every table wasn’t made of reclaimed wood or that the fluorescent lighting wasn’t a string of Edison bulbs instead. I don’t really remember if we had flower arrangements in vintage vases. I absolutely love unique ingredients and beautiful serving pieces that make for inviting presentations, and I know many of the church moms I grew up with cared about these things too. It’s just that I don’t remember presentation basking under quite the same spotlight it does today.
In some ways, the social media age has galvanized our recipe options and hosting presentations, but in other ways it has held us to an impossible standard. (Admittedly, the bar was a little low during the plastic plate and poppy seed chicken casserole days.) But who can nail a model home, reclaimed wood cheeseboard, fresh flower arrangement, marble appetizer slab, and farm-to-table menu every time we want to have a get-together? If we feel we have to produce magazine-worthy meals and place settings in order to have people over, we’ll either join the materialism rat race where perfection is the only winner, or we’ll shy away from opening up our homes entirely because we’ve prematurely disqualified ourselves.
On the Ordinary of Days
When I consider what was important to my spiritual formation during my growing-up years in the church, it wasn’t the Gruyère cheese puffs. Rather, it was the people who loved me with the patience and nurturing of Christ, often over meals. In the Book of Deuteronomy, God told the people of Israel to teach their children about His ways when they woke up and went to bed and as they went about their days. I think this included while they gardened, cooked, and served the meals. I got this at the church potlucks and gatherings.
I adore a beautifully set table and a thoughtfully crafted meal. I appreciate, down to my bones, a clean kitchen and home. A quality cup of coffee with cream in a weighty diner mug will never be lost on me. If you brew it, I will come. But what has the power to change us, really change us, is Christ-centered community. There’s no power in the presentation or even the food itself.
I used to get so caught up in serving local and organic dishes displayed on the most unique and beautiful pieces that sometimes I forgot about the most important ingredient — the people who would be coming. We may have swapped out rice crispy treats for chocolate ganache and pizza bites for bruschetta, but our food sophistication will be our deterrent if it robs us of our focus on people and what Jesus wants to do in our midst around the table. After all, He’s been known to show up over beans and rice.
I never want to lose sight of what God can accomplish through a meal around the table. On some days that’s my nephew and nieces at my kitchen island. On others, it’s a celebration dinner, a last-minute get-together over pasta, or a group from church fellowshipping around the appetizers.
If you come over I’ll talk your ear off about whatever came from my garden or local farm, and I will point out every jam or tomato I canned. But what I hope you’ll know when you leave is that you were loved in Jesus’ name. And if you know that, it will stay with you 10,000 years past the day that marble cheeseboards and balsamic-glazed Brussels sprouts go out of style.
Kelly Minter is passionate about teaching the Bible. When she’s not singing, writing, or speaking, you can find her picking homegrown vegetables, enjoying her six nieces and nephews or riding a boat along the Amazon river with Justice & Mercy International. A Southern transplant, she delights in college football, long walks, and a diner mug of coffee with her closest friends.
This article originally appeared in HomeLife magazine (May 2020). For more articles like this, subscribe to HomeLife.