Why do you go to church? One of the main reasons is that there is something there that feeds your soul. If there was nothing nourishing there, you would find other things to do with your time.
Jesus fed people. He fed them literally . . . and he fed them with stories. They had to chew on the stories for a long time, and they kept coming back for more. Jesus told Peter, “Feed my flock.” If the church, like the apostle, is called to feed people, what is it cooking up these days? What recipes for church are congregants using?
Recipes are slippery things
For the longest time my favourite soup was Hearty Lentil-Sausage Soup from page 212 of the More-with-Less Cookbook, made with good Mennonite farmer’s sausage. It also happens to be the first soup I ever learned how to make when I lived with some girlfriends in the early 1980s. I made that go-to soup so often and so regularly that I no longer needed the cookbook because I knew the recipe by heart!
But over the years circumstances changed my favourite soup. One year my roommate’s mother gave us 100 baggies of frozen green beans, so we always used green beans instead of parsnips. One day I had no lentils, so I used pearl barley and liked it better, so I always made it with barley from then on. Somewhere along the way the main spice changed from marjoram to basil. But there was always sausage. I cooked Hearty Lentil-Sausage Soup for 20 years.
Then one day my friend served me Senegalese Curry Soup. It blew me away, it was so delicious. It instantly became my new favourite soup. It was totally different. It started with chicken, it had flavours of peanut butter and curry, and you even ate it with condiments like coconut, green onion and cilantro. I was wild for this soup. I started serving it every time we had company. And every time people would say, “I need to get this recipe!” It was a major soup reformation. I didn’t give Hearty Lentil-Sausage Soup a second thought. That was yesterday’s soup.
What is our recipe for church?
What do we throw in the pot when we are cooking up something for hungry people? The nourishing beans of the gospel, the aroma of friendship, the flavour of singing? There’s a certain stock order of worship that we appreciate.
Right now people who observe the church say that a recipe revolution is going on. Some people think we are entering another Reformation. Back in the 1500s, people protested the recipe used for church and they started experimenting with new recipes. Is that what is happening today?
It’s certain today that many are turning away from the meal the church is preparing. Vast numbers of people no longer come to church because they are looking for something more nourishing. The church can blame the leave-ers: “They don’t know what’s good for them!”
But what if the problem is not with the people walking away, but with the people preparing the meal? What if we are continually cooking noodles for the gluten intolerant or meat for vegetarians? What if they just can’t digest what we’re serving? Or what if there is something in our community that is just not appetizing?
A couple years ago I went to a church service that was held in a movie theatre. It was a satellite congregation of a “mega-church.” We sat in our theatre seats, drank coffee, ate snacks and listened to a live broadcast of the sermon on a big screen. There was no offering, no hymns, no bulletin and not that much interaction between the people there. But it had a flavour of church.
The thing was, the organizers didn’t define what was happening on Sunday morning as “church.” Church happened in a network of small groups meeting in people’s homes, while Sunday morning was sort of like Sunday school, a learning or outreach opportunity. Community people who would never feel comfortable coming to a church building might feel more comfortable coming to a movie theatre to watch something. There they were invited to a different type of community.
I have to say that I went to that movie theatre with my mind made up. I was sure I hated that recipe for church. Like the first time my kids sat down and I served them Senegalese Curry Soup. “What is this stuff?” they cried as they crinkled up their noses. But as I sat in the service, I felt nourished, the aroma of the Holy Spirit was unmistakable. I left there shaking my head. “My goodness,” I thought, “that was surprisingly tasty!”
New recipes are springing up around the world. While here in North America church attendance is dwindling, in the Global South churches are bursting at the seams, experiencing exponential growth. What are they cooking up there? I went to the Mennonite World Conference assembly and it was like walking down a street filled with food vendors, each creating their own intoxicating aromas. Was that lemon grass? Saffron? Sorrel?
A real hunger for something nourishing
Churches in the past have gotten stuck on emphasizing right belief: You have to believe this and this and this doctrine. You are in or out depending on whether you can check these boxes or live up to our standards of right and wrong. Maybe the new recipe for church is more fluid, more experimental, more alive than something that is written down in straight lines and strict fundamental measurements. Maybe it has more to do with a relationship with the Great Cook than adherence to a denominational cookbook.
New recipes can change people’s lives, they can even save people’s lives. Aid workers had a challenge feeding starving children because their malnourished bodies had a hard time digesting food. So they worked with dietitians to create a new type of food aid called Plumpy’nut. It’s a peanut-based paste made of milk powder, oil and vitamins that is easy to digest and that has all the calories and nutrients that a severely malnourished child needs. It’s easy to use and doesn’t need to be refrigerated. Around the world, starving children have been saved because they are gaining weight with Plumpy’nut.
That’s what we need now, a Plumpy’nut recipe for church. It might be that literally feeding people is the answer. Maybe that’s the first step to feeding people’s souls. Sometimes the literal answer is the answer.
But beyond that, we need to be more self-conscious about our recipes, their nutritional value and how they are received. We need to listen to a new generation of hungry people who live in our neighbourhoods. There will be some animated discussions as we talk about our favourite recipes, what works and what doesn’t. Maybe there are some ancient recipes we need to dig up. We may have to go to other churches and try their soups, and come back and tell soup stories. We’ll have to dream about new soups we haven’t even tasted yet.
Gradual change or revolution?
I wonder what your feelings were when you read the title, “A new recipe for church.” I’m guessing that some readers had a grumpy face, at least on the inside. You were thinking, “I like this recipe for church just fine! Why do we have to change it?” This recipe may be working for the group of people we have in the church right now. If our mission is only to feed the people in the building, we might not have to change very much. But if we want to feed hungry people who aren’t in the church, we need to think, “What are they hungry for?”
Sometimes a congregation changes its soup recipe gradually, like my experience with the evolving Hearty Lentil-Sausage Soup. But sometimes, if the circumstances are right, there can be a soup revolution. In an ecclesial recipe reformation, a church goes whole hog into a new culinary adventure.
Sometimes change leads to conflict. Suppose one half of the church decides that we are using the Hearty Lentil-Sausage Soup recipe for church, and they come and put those ingredients into the congregational soup pot. Meanwhile, the other half of the church is determined to make Senegalese Curry Soup, and they put their ingredients in the same pot. What do you get? You get a terrible mishmash of flavours that no one wants to eat! Churches fall apart when we refuse to let go, saying, “I’ll give up my favourite recipe when you pry it from my cold, dead hands!”
Whatever we cook, I think the secret to our success is remembering that it is not our soup. It’s God’s soup! It’s not “What do we want to eat?” but “What is God cooking up for all the hungry people?” If God is the Great Cook, then we need to be humble ourselves and not hold onto our recipes for dear life. We need to work with an open mind, receptive to direction from the Holy Spirit.
When we are all busy together cooking up something nourishing and extra tasty for the great banquet, that’s exactly when Jesus calls with the message, “Guess who’s coming to dinner?”
Carol Penner was hired last year by Conrad Grebel University College as an assistant professor of practical theology. She was initially called to ministry at the Welcome Inn, in Hamilton, Ont., then at The First Mennonite Church in Vineland, and most recently at Lendrum Mennonite Brethren Church in Edmonton in 2014.
View the recipes and more online at canadianmennonite.org/penner-soup-recipes.
1. Carol Penner says it’s important for church to feed our souls. What are some examples of nourishment that your church provides? What is the basic recipe your congregation uses for church? How often is there variety or an unexpected spice? Is the occasional change-up in the recipe appreciated or criticized?
2. Penner says that when it comes to the church, “a recipe revolution is going on.” Do you agree? What are the innovative recipes for church that you’ve experienced or heard about? Which of these new ideas do you find appealing? Is it better to have a “soup revolution” or gradual change over time?
3. “If God is the Great Cook, then we need to humble ourselves and not hold onto our recipes for dear life,” writes Penner. What are some of these beloved recipes for church that we would rather not lose? Do you agree that an open mind is what God desires?
4. What are our greatest fears regarding new recipes? When you cook, how do you balance exciting flavours and healthy nourishment? What is a new recipe that you would like to try in your congregation?
—By Barb Draper
See additional resources at www.commonword.ca/go/1024