SALT LAKE CITY — Churches across the country hosted pancake suppers Tuesday night, continuing a centuries-long tradition of welcoming the solemn period of Lent with one last calorie-filled feast.
During Lent, which begins March 6 (Ash Wednesday) and ends April 21 (Easter) this year, many Christians avoid indulgences like sweets and soda, cutting out bad habits in order to better focus on spiritual reflection. Fifty-seven percent of Americans who observe Lent "fast from a favorite food or beverage" during this liturgical season, LifeWay Research reported in 2017.
However, Lenten discipline won't keep faith groups from hosting communal meals over the next two months. Food-centric events are playing a growing role in religious communities as leaders try to use food to reach people who are skeptical of organized religion and strengthen the faith of regular churchgoers.
"Assuming people will walk through the doors of our churches on their own is not working," said the Rev. Jackie Spycher, who serves as the assistant pastor of outreach at Northbrook Presbyterian Church in Beverly Hills, Michigan. "We need to meet people where they are, and where they are is hanging out at restaurants and pubs."
Small group discussions over home-cooked meals or theology nights at local bars break down barriers and adjust people's expectations for worship, said the Rev. Meredith Mills, who leads a ministry called Gastrochurch in Houston, Texas, which organizes monthly dinners around religious and spiritual themes.
They also honor food's theological significance.
"What you put in your body is part of your spiritual practice," she said. "It informs how you relate to God's creation and how you honor your body as part of creation."
Food with a side of faith
The Rev. Mills began brainstorming Gastrochurch about four years ago, when she was still serving in a traditional leadership role at a United Methodist Church. She had noticed that many of her friends in their 20s and 30s weren't energized by typical church services and wanted to offer them something more unique.
"A Sunday morning one-hour service didn't fit the discipleship needs of … young, single professionals," she said. "I started trying to imagine what I could create that they would want to come to."
She landed on a plan to host structured spiritual discussions over delicious meals and then partnered with the Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church to make it happen. As the leader of Gastrochurch, the Rev. Mills now organizes monthly dinners on topics like guilt, grace and courage.
"There are basically all the elements of a traditional Sunday morning service, except for music, spread over a two-hour meal on a Friday or Saturday night," she said.
This unusual set-up and timing attracts a diverse crowd, the Rev. Mills added. Although her remarks during each event come from a Christian perspective, Jews, Muslims and atheists have all taken part.
Food is huge in our culture right now. – The Rev. Meredith Mills
"This weekend, I looked around the table and there were two people who grew up in the Church of Christ but hadn't attended for 10 years, one person who went to Catholic Church but was saying he didn't believe in God … and another person disenchanted with the fundamentalist side of Christianity," the Rev. Mills said. "Sitting next to me was someone who had never been in a church."
Gastrochurch is primarily aimed at bringing people who feel disconnected from faith back into religious spaces. It capitalizes on people's interest in good food and good conversation.
"Food is huge in our culture right now," the Rev. Mills said, citing the rise of cooking shows and food-focused Instagram accounts.
For other congregations, food can strengthen the faith of people who are already regular churchgoers. Chatting about theology over a plate of appetizers can deepen the relationships that began in a pew on Sunday morning, said the Rev. Spycher, who hosts monthly pub theology nights as part of her outreach work.
"I thought (these events) would attract young people, but our regular attendees are over age 70," she said. "They're talking to people who I just assumed they already knew. … It's kind of breaking open" the congregation.
A restaurant table is a less formal setting than a chapel or Sunday school classroom. It can ease the tension that sometimes stands in the way of spiritual growth, the Rev. Spycher said.
"People don't have to come with a certain level of expertise. They're talking mainly about themselves and then we weave in some theology," she said.
A sacred table
Although theology nights at bars and dinner churches are a relatively new phenomenon, food has long played a pivotal role in faith communities.
For example, from the beginning of the Sikh tradition, congregations have offered meals to anyone in need. This ritual, called langar, teaches Sikhs to practice selflessness, said Simran Jeet Singh, a Sikh educator and activist.
"Eating together is a powerful way of building community," he said. "When we all sit together, we're on the same level," and economic, political and social differences fade.
There's research to support this claim. One recent experiment showed that two people snacking on the same type of food during negotiations reach an agreement faster than people snacking on different foods, NPR reported in 2017.
In the Christian context, shared meals, such as potlucks after a funeral or baptism, solidify congregational bonds. They also echo the communion ritual, during which Christians remember the life and sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the Rev. Mills said.
"Every table should be a time of communion with God and with each other and with creation," she said. "Every table has the potential to be sacred."
In other words, Gastrochurch gatherings or pub theology nights are a continuation of more formal congregational events. Rather than make light of more traditional rituals, they make these spiritual practices more accessible, the Rev. Mills said.
"Food is a powerful spiritual tool that we sometimes undervalue," she said.
Through her food-focused outreach work, the Rev. Spycher has learned that people are still interested in tough spiritual and religious topics even if they rarely attend Sunday morning services.
"It's not that people have stopped asking spiritual questions. It's that they've stopped seeking answers within the confines of a traditional church service," she said. "If we're going to meet people where they are, then we need to go where they are."