CHICAGO, IL (October 28, 2016) — Once a staple of congregational life, in some communities the church potluck now might seem a quaint relic of another era or just the frequent subject of Garrison Keillor’s “Lake Wobegon” stories. Today when a church holds a potluck, the food often has been brought from a fast-food restaurant, and people seem to spend less time socializing before heading to their next activity.
The apparent decline of potlucks might not seem essential to the life of the church, but historians and anthropologists have traced changes in the development of community through church potlucks. In fact, potlucks can be a metaphor for the very nature of the church.
One article entitled “The Role of Church Culture in Congregational Growth and Decline” for Faith & Leadership, uses game theory to talk about navigating church conflict and references a study called “the Potluck Problem” wherein the authors write, “This paper proposes the Potluck Problem as a model for the behavior of independent producers and consumers under standard economic assumptions, as a problem of resource allocation in a multi-agent system in which there is no explicit communication among the agents.”
So this is pretty heady stuff.
In another paper entitled “More Than a Potluck: Shared Meals and Community-Building in Rural Nebraska at the Turn of the Twentieth Century,” the author wrote, “In the act of sharing food, rural families entered into unique relationships that strengthened the bonds between individuals who had limited opportunities for recreation. These meals became unifying events in the lives of rural Nebraskans because they drew families together and created an environment in which differences such as language, religion, and ethnicity could be set aside. Potlucks helped turn groups of families who lived in proximity to one another into communities of friends and neighbors.”
With a younger crowd, they tend to be a little less hotdish/casserole-based and a little more kale and quinoa-based.
So does the decline of potlucks lead to or reflect a weakening of community ties—or just point to our chronically busy lives? If the dishes are coming from Kentucky Fried Chicken or Pizza Hut instead of the oven, does that mean people don’t place a value on giving of themselves?
Potlucks can reinforce the identity of a congregation. I’ve pastored churches in two predominantly Swedish communities where the annual smorgasbord is a big deal. All those meatballs and herring—and yes, even lutefisk at times—connects a church with its past.
Potlucks also matter because they are theological statements. Theologian Markus Barth said one-fifth of all of Jesus’s words were spoken around meals. Some have suggested that the structure of Luke’s gospel is built around meals and that we can identify a theology of the kingdom of God by noticing who is welcomed and who is not.
But what is served at potlucks also can indicate a community’s level of acceptance and openness by being intentional about including foods of different cultures. And what about food allergies—is there a conscious effort to serve the needs of the growing number of people who have to contend with those?
When we asked pastors on Facebook about the state of church potlucks in their settings, we received more than 40 responses, most of which emphasized the importance of eating together, even though those occasions may be taking place in other settings. Rural communities and smaller churches seem more intent on keeping the tradition.
Kristen Rae Nelson, pastor of Millard Community Covenant Church, in Elkhorn, Wisconsin, wrote that her 80-member rural church takes pride in their potlucks and always “over delivers.” Nelson noted that she worried one particular Sunday when only four people had signed up to bring dishes. “But we ended up having enough for about 200 people—three times more than we needed. We also have coffee time after church every Sunday, where people bring food to share. There has never been a sign-up, and no one has ever been specifically asked to bring something. People bake and bring out of a love of community and fellowship. And there is never a Sunday where there isn’t food. Some Sundays may be leaner than others, but there’s always plenty.”
Hartford City Church, a new congregation in Hartford, Connecticut, has a meal every Sunday that is funded in part by the church. Pastor Phillip Beatty said, “We committed to the ministry for one year and have decided to continue in year two. For us it has been vital to our development as a cross-cultural church in a diverse urban setting. We have between 80 and 100 people for the meal each week.”
Lakebay (Washington) Community Covenant Church holds several potlucks throughout the year. “One highlight is the post-Christmas Sunday worship brunch, to which everybody brings their leftovers and we have a feast,” said pastor Dan Whitmarsh. “We have a midweek Bible study that is potluck, and we always have some sort of light meal after Sunday worship. The shared meal is where Jesus makes himself known, and it is where the body finds communal expression. Not to make light of it, but I hold to a pretty high theology of believers dining together.”
Sacred Heart Church, a Covenant congregation in Bloomington, Indiana, has had potlucks every Wednesday night for the past couple of years. “We never assign any of the food and we always have more than enough,” said pastor Brandon Shurr. “We also have a very small space and no kitchen. The church does potlucks great for a new church that is mostly made up of young families, those who have never been to church, and those who haven’t been to church in a long time.”
Chris Willard, who serves on staff at Crossview Covenant Church in North Mankato, Minnesota, said, “This is a pretty big generalization but I have noticed this about my church: The pre-boomers seem to like them and like making food; the boomers are a mixed bag where some like it and some don’t and the food is as likely to be bought as made; the GenXers seem to enjoy coming to them but they tend to buy food; and the millennials seem to like them and are coming full circle on the making your own food thing.”
Resurrection Covenant Church in Chicago has quarterly potlucks, but member David Bjorlin noted, “With a younger crowd, they tend to be a little less hotdish/casserole-based and a little more kale and quinoa-based.”