Jell-O and hot dish

The apostle Paul meets the Prairie Home Companion… I was lying awake in bed the other night, mulling over the sermon series on Romans 12, which is not a recommended strategy for inducing sleep.  Thinking about Paul’s teaching on the church as the body of Christ (Rom 12:4-8), a somewhat homespun metaphor sprang to mind: the church potluck.

I thought immediately of Garrison Keillor’s dispatches from Lake Wobegon, where the potluck is a bastion of Norwegian Lutheran church tradition.  Among the items required to be on the menu: Jell-O salad (though how mini-marshmallows embedded in flavored gelatin constitutes salad escapes me) and “hot dish” (something like mac-and-cheese meets Hamburger Helper).  There are other denominational, regional, and local traditions, of course, from platters of fried chicken, to killer brownies, to coffee in quantities sufficient to drown a hippo.

But I wonder if the potluck could do double service as a metaphor for Spirit-led congregational life itself: everyone who comes is expected to bring something to the table.  Some, of course, will bring their “signature dish”–that special recipe that everyone loves.  The table will be laden with desserts: some store-bought, others from scratch.  Whatever the fare, people will make a contribution that is appropriate to their means and culinary talents, and there will be more than enough for all.

Contrast that with a different metaphor: the buffet restaurant.  (Did I mention that the absolute worst case of food poisoning I ever got was from a buffet?  Just sayin’.)  Here, customers come to sample from a variety of offerings, loading up on the ones they like best.  Of course, for the sake of loyal repeat customers, the most popular items must always be on the menu.  Around that core, however, the menu must be ever-changing, to keep other, more occasional patrons interested.

It seems that when churches grow, there’s often a gradual movement from the potluck mentality to the buffet.  Unconsciously reversing Jesus’ declaration to the Twelve (Matt 20:28), we eventually come not to serve but to be served.  We come not to feed, but to be fed.  And in that climate, unfortunately, there are apt to be more complaints about the food.

No metaphor can be pushed too far.  Potlucks have their own problems.  Nor is the distinction between potluck and buffet absolute: there will always be those who treat the potluck like a buffet, expecting to feast on what others have brought, without a thought of bringing something themselves.

Nevertheless, if God gives his grace to each member of the body in the form of some gift (Rom 12:6a) that is meant to be used for his glory, shouldn’t we all be asking ourselves what we’re supposed to bring to the table?

We may not all have a signature dish.  But someone has to bring the plastic forks.  That might not seem like much, but believe me, they’d be missed.