Playing with Our Food: A Sharp Look at the Church

[Disclaimer: This post is provocative and likely controversial.]

As a child, my dad lied to me.

At each meal, I would find a myriad of less-than-desirable foods on my plate. Under my dad’s tutelage, I’d be encouraged to ingest pears, cantaloupe, and beets alike with the promise that they were “nature’s candy.” My mind would protest with incredulity.

What planet are you from dad?! Perhaps you had a deprived childhood and just don’t know any better. Allow your baby boy to enlighten you. Skittles… Starburst… Nerds… Those are candy. Maybe Mother Nature needs to have a consultation with the Wrigley Company because the crap you’re feeding me is awful.

As I grew older, I began to realize that “nature’s candy” was code for “Listen kid, this food is good for you, but you’re not gonna like it so I need to come up with a somewhat believable lie to get you to eat it.” I also learned that anytime I heard the expression “nature’s candy” I wouldn’t be allowed to leave the table until said fruits and veggies vanished from my plate.

Now… I could carry out dad’s command in the conventional manner of cutlery, chewing, swallowing, and repeating until the aforementioned “nature’s candy” vanished. Or, I could employ a whole lot of motion and activity shifting and shuffling the food around on my plate—daftly using my mashed potatoes to conceal the filth masquerading around as nutrition—without dad noticing.

Option B. always won out.

Similarly, I am beginning to wonder if our churches employ Option B. when the Father commands us to engage in mission. We must ask if the activities and missional impulses of our churches have the outcomes we convince ourselves that they have. Have we succumbed to the delusion that the majority of what we do actually matters? Indeed, this question is rhetorical in nature. Like an artist who is long overdue to take a step back and gaze at the canvas to evaluate the composition of brushstrokes objectively, we would do well to examine just exactly what our “ministry” has created.

Let’s be honest with ourselves.

We choose Option B within our weekly gatherings when we bore our neighbors—who show up hoping to celebrate in a vibrant community of faith—with thirty minutes of ghastly “performed” songs. As an aside, I am more and more convinced that no music is better than bad music. Perhaps that is a strong statement to make, but again, let’s take a step back and look at it objectively.

God says, “Okay, I want a gathering of my people that will declare and demonstrate my rule and reign in their city. I want my children to relocate into the bleakest of places. When people ask what my Kingdom looks like, I want you to be able to point to your neighborhood as the example.”

Admittedly, this is about as daunting as looking at the mound of beets piled on my plate that must vanish before I’m allowed to leave the table. Let’s be honest: It is overwhelming to see a plate full of poverty, sickness, and isolation alike in our communities. We opt to distract ourselves (hopefully even Dad) in cutting, shuffling, and concealing what He’s given us on our proverbial “plate.” Do we really think the solution to our community’s struggles is to force our neighbors to stand while we fumble through “10,000 Reasons?” Does it really bring God glory to devote so much time and energy to nail “Oceans” like Hillsong? Frankly, our Sunday morning gatherings are constructed to benefit us more than those hurting around us.

The activity and mission abroad and beyond our weekly gatherings does not differ much. In his work Incarnate, Michael Frost notes that “we are being pulled away from the Christian ideal of mission being rooted in a community of humble men and women who truly believe the gospel and practice it in the lives of those around them.” Similarly, Robert Lupton writes in Toxic Charity, “Contrary to popular belief, most missions trips and service projects do not: empower those being served, engender healthy cross-cultural relationships, improve quality of lives, relieve poverty, change the lives of participants [or] increase support for long-term missions work.” Frost and Lupton alike affirm the intentions of many participants of missions trips and service projects. Yet, Frost writes that “the church has failed to ask simple questions about who is really benefiting from all this short-term activity [emphasis mine].”

At its worst, such activities can exploit the vulnerable as “tourist attractions” for our compassion. Like our Sunday morning services, we end up behaving like children playing with our food in much of our mission and service.  We shift, shuffle, mash, and muddle until we can no longer notice the food that dad told us to eat—the food that’s good for us; that will help us grow tall; that will put hair on our chests (a promise told to every young lad to entice ingestion)—yet, the food is still there. In the same way, little of our volunteering with soup kitchens in our inner cities, building homes in Guatemala, or having “photo ops” with orphans in Uganda actually creates empowerment, dismantles systems of injustice, or provides a pathway out of poverty. The “food” is still on the plate.

Like with the food that our parents made us eat, true mission means trusting the Father’s instructions above our own palate. It means that we must make intentional choices one bite at a time. It means it won’t be a quick fix of simply concealing what’s on the plate with heightened emotions of flowery platitudes. It means we cannot dish it out to someone else (like our little brother or the dog)—rather, it is our responsibility to slowly chew and savor.

As with discovering new foods that we like as we age—food our parents forced us to eat as children—we may find ourselves surprised with a new appreciation for the flavors that our Father has placed upon our plate.

…except for beets.

Those things are the worst.

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