Wednesday, January 19, 2011

It's supper time

Take a look at this paragraph from Whitebread Christians. It's long, I'm afraid. But I thought it was incredibly revealing. I've highlighted the points I want to note, but the kicker is the last sentence.

In an in-depth look at the history of St. Paul's Church in Chicago, Daniel Sack writes:

Church supper, Harford, MI 1947 (LIFE)
In 1947 the church council contracted with Booz Allen, a nationally known consulting firm, to evaluate the church, its neighborhood, and its prospects and to propose solutions. The consultants argued that St. Paul's had gone from being a neighborhood church to being a "First Church"--a prominent congregation serving a city-wide constituency. No longer serving an ethnic enclave, its future lay in being the leading church of its denomination (Evangelical and Reformed) in Chicago. To attract members from a larger area however, the church would need to provide more services. The consultants recommended that the congregation build a new parish house, including up-to-date facilities for children's and family programs. With expanded facilities and programs, the church would need an assistant pastor for pastoral care, a director of Christian education, a program director, and a full-time dietitian/cook. With a food service staff, the church could offer regular Sunday dinners, which "help to build fellowship in a large church as well as to meet a growing interest of people in going out for Sunday dinner. Committees take advantage of them to meet afterward." They also encouraged the formation of small groups, called colonies. To keep people coming into the building during the week, the church could also offer "mid-week dinners around which a variety of activities are built such as choir rehearsals, young peoples groups, various group meetings of the church school, church officers meetings, a joint meeting of the colonies with outstanding speaker or special music and other groups." In addition, the kitchen could cater special dinners for outside organizations, to provide a service for local nonprofit organizations and to help raise some money for the congregation. "Most dining rooms operated on the above basis are not only self supporting but often are able to make a contribution to the total budget of the church. It eliminates putting the burden of church dinners on women's organizations except to help with table waiting which may also be shared by young people." Thus the consultants pinned the congregation's future on food.

Do you notice anything missing from all of this long paragraph? Like any mention of God, Jesus, or worship? Yeeeah.

I read this and what I see is "we need more! we need more!" Build more! Offer more programs! More services! MORE FOOD! Food will bring them to church! Then we'll get them to stay for the committee meetings, the programs, the choir, the small groups. Food will save us!

Oh how I wish I could go back in time and say to these folks, What if your time is over? Is it all right to grow old and die? To pass your ministry on to whoever has it next? Is it all right to fail?

I understand: they had the resources to build, so why not build? They thought by building they could reach more people for Jesus and serve God. And they did. For many churches, this era was probably their most successful. Still, I look at this and I see the seeds of the church's destruction being sown even as they grow, grow, grow.

I look at this now and I see this huge plant that probably sucks the congregation dry each and every year with questions of upkeep, heating, repair, cleaning. All the time, money, and energy is spent in maintaining The Plant which keeps saying, "Feed me!" while the congregation they wanted to satisfy with food dwindles away.


it's margaret said...


wv: blypt
heeeheee... it went blypt, buildings and all.

Songs of a Soul Journey said...


And it isn't just CHURCHES that have this problem. The "build it and they will come" mentality is precisely what brought about "The Great Recession". We have all been sold on build out of everything. And it is, as you so so rightly observe, unsustainable.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps because I am a passionate member of a congregation that inhabits a beautiful but expensive old church building that also comes complete with a kitchen, I find that I am having a different reaction to this particular post than the approval above.

First of all, there's a professional historical technicality that I ache to mention. The Whitebread Christian author's summary of the St. Paul's Church consultants' report may not have said anything about God, Jesus, or worship - but unless you can see the consultants' actual report, you won't know whether that's the consultants' own omission or their historian's omission about them. Furthermore, even if it were to turn out that the consultants had had nothing to say about God, Jesus, or worship, what would really matter in judging the church is whether the congregation itself had anything to say about those topics before, during, or after it commissioned them. Finally, if those conversations about God, Jesus, and worship happened chiefly in daily conversation around the congregation, they might never make it into the written record at all - but that would not mean that they were not part of what people were thinking about when they chose to build for the future of their parish.

I don't know why my own church originally built its kitchen - but without it we would not now be able to feed the hungry and the homeless who come to our door twice weekly for food. Nor would we so easily be able to talk now about trying to expand upon that program to serve our area in other ways.

Our building is expensive and I feel the burden of its budget - but I would rather feel my heart lift at the sight of our church's steeple than feel my heart sink at the sight of another empty building in a depopulated downtown.
If we left, I think we would be part of the problem. Because we stay, I hope we can be part of the solution.

Jesus feeds us with the Eucharist, of course - but I am glad that we can also feed ourselves and our neighbors with ordinary, everyday food.

LKT said...

Believe me, I'd be happy to be wrong about this. I've just seen too many building projects where the ministry part was an afterthought. The decision gets made and God gets brought in afterwards to dress it up.

Funnily enough, Sack's next chapter (after the expansion phase which saw the building of all of these church kitchens) is about how all of those kitchens became soup kitchens.

I'd love your opinion on Whitebread Christians as a whole. To me, it seems very well researched, though perhaps a bit thin on conclusions. Very readable, though. I think it would be an excellent church book group book.

Anonymous said...

I'll be curious to read the book once I can find myself a copy. In the meantime, I'll point out a few alternate histories of church kitchens besides the "post-war building boom" of which you and Sack speak.

One is the history of the YMCA and YWCA, built in response to the industrialization and urbanization of the nineteenth century, meant to offer safe places to live and eat for single men and women who were new to town.

At my own church, the offices, the Sunday school, the parish hall, and the kitchen(s) went up in the 1920s as far as I can tell. I've been told we once had a basketball court and a swimming pool as well - all part of an initiative to provide safe spaces for the kids in the neighborhood, so the story goes.

All of which suggests to me that if there is a history in which soup kitchens inherit the perhaps over-ambitious building projects of their predecessors, there are also histories in which urban church kitchens are an explicit part of urban church work.

The buildings are just as expensive either way, of course, but so far I still see them as signs of faithfulness rather than signs of shortsightedness, useful resources for the future rather than tired tethers to the past.