New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells recently posted an article titled “What People Missed Most About Restaurants. (It Wasn’t the Food.).” The article’s subtitle serves up his main point: “it’s clear that the magic ingredient was the random thrill of seeing other people.”
As your church board focuses intently on re-opening and “getting people back,” it may be the time to pause and ask two questions:
- What did people really miss that they now expect as they return?
- Once we are back together in person as a church, what do we do with that gathered energy?
Wells’ article offers some cultural observations that church boards should read and digest.
The pandemic was, among other things, a huge uncontrolled experiment in replacing unmediated human encounters with online meetings or transactions. The boom in online retail was predictable, but most of us were surprised by how smoothly office life continued without the office. Our country may be on the brink of a drastic shift toward working from home that will have repercussions for real estate, transportation, tax revenues and about a thousand other things. While you can work and shop online, though, you can’t eat online.
You can order food and eat it at home, as millions of people did. The home delivery and takeout market is busy now trying to consolidate its pandemic gains. Meanwhile, though, dining rooms are as busy as I’ve ever seen them…. [T]here’s a slightly febrile exuberance everywhere as New Yorkers remember what it’s like to leave the house for dinner and why we still bother to do it.
We want to see other people. We want to sway next to them at concerts, scream next to them in movie theaters and eat next to them in restaurants.
Public eating and drinking places have always been where people from different social circles can meet, exchange ideas and trade phone numbers.
People within those [diverse] groups can meet one another online. But to meet people from the other groups, especially people who are interested in subjects you haven’t really thought about yet, we have coffee shops, bars and restaurants. They’re what we’ve got until somebody invents a better, more enjoyable way of eating and drinking while maintaining the social connections that keep cities moving forward.
There is much to discuss in Wells’ reflections about the future fate of stores and offices vs. bars and restaurants. Where will churches end up in the Post-Pandemic Dispensation? With the stores and offices? Or the bars and restaurants? And what will have made the difference?
What is most telling, however, is that Wells does not mention congregations as a place to meet the need for diverse social connections and interesting, meaningful conversation. What will it take for congregations – your congregation – to engage cultural needs in this moment?
In Eugene Peterson’s biblical translation, The Message, Jesus tells the story of another great banquet (Luke 14:15-24):
“ [T]here was once a man who threw a great dinner party and invited many. When it was time for dinner, he sent out his servant to the invited guests, saying, ‘Come on in; the food’s on the table.’
“Then they all began to beg off, one after another making excuses. The first said, ‘I bought a piece of property and need to look it over. Send my regrets.’
“Another said, ‘I just bought five teams of oxen, and I really need to check them out. Send my regrets.’
“And yet another said, ‘I just got married and need to get home to my wife.’
“The servant went back and told the host what had happened. He was outraged and told the servant, ‘Quickly, get out into the city streets and alleys. Collect all who look like they need a square meal, all the misfits and homeless and down-and-out you can lay your hands on, and bring them here.’
“The servant reported back, ‘I did what you commanded—and there’s still room.’
“The host said, ‘Then go to the country roads. Whoever you find, drag them in. I want my house full! Let me tell you, not one of those originally invited is going to get so much as a bite at my dinner party.’”
Imagine the conversation that the people at that great banquet had, compared to the conversation among those who had originally been invited! What kind of conversation does Jesus want us to have? What will bring people to our tables or send them scrambling for their excuses? And once we are gathered, what will we talk about?
One significant learning we at The Ministry Collaborative have gained from putting together cohorts of clergy for mutual support and peer learning is that the more diverse the group – theologically, politically, socially, racially, economically – the greater the satisfaction cohort members report about their experience. If that diversity gets narrowed in any way, they report that they still like it, but don’t love it as much.
From talking to many of you, we have a pretty good idea that the polarization in our society is hitting congregations hard. As are the competing expectations of what the next few months will look like and feel like in church.
“‘Right’ and ‘left’ aren’t so helpful here,” Father Greg Boyle, who runs highly regarded Catholic programs for gang members in Los Angeles, said recently. “The more reverent we become, we see things not as black and white, left or right — but complex.”
Here’s to complex and diverse choices as congregations re-introduce themselves to culture this summer!
Digging a Deeper Well will be on hiatus for a few weeks. In the meantime, however, if you would like to talk about the needs of your church board or how to move the conversation deeper with them, we’d welcome hearing from you – contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.