The Sacred Ritual of Church Suppers and Snacks

By honoring the gift of food, we honor the body of Christ.
The Sacred Ritual of Church Suppers and Snacks
Image: Illustration by Seth Hahne

The apple juice didn’t taste quite right. Neither did the cookies, which were the store-brand imitation of the better-tasting, more expensive version. And there was always fear that there wouldn’t be enough. There would be pushing and grabbing, big kids taking six cookies, and occasionally tears. Always small for my age, and the pastor’s daughter to boot, I didn’t have it in me to jostle and struggle against the other children for the snacks at coffee hour, at Vacation Bible School, at Sunday school. It wasn’t worth it.

“Why does the apple juice at church taste weird? Why do we have ‘creme-filled sandwich cookies’ instead of Oreos?” I asked my mom.

Maybe the budget didn’t allow for better. This was a generation ago, and “organic” was not a commonly used term. And anyway, we were just kids. Did it matter, really? The grownups got weak and bitter coffee with powdered non-dairy creamer in thick white Styrofoam cups, and those little powdery donuts that came in white and blue boxes from the grocery store shelves and mysteriously stayed fresh for weeks. Church ladies bought several boxes on sale and stored them in the church freezer, laying them out on trays to thaw before the service began.

Every Sunday, after church, we filled a giant black plastic garbage bag with trash. My dad sent me to scout out the half-empty cups and crumpled napkins strewn around the drop-ceilinged, orange-tiled room with a musty odor that we called the “fellowship hall,” and I swept up crumbs while my mom wiped down the counters. We turned out the lights, locked the door, and walked next door to the parsonage, where we lived.

I grew up, left the parsonage, and then began traveling, eating, and attending church around the world. I’ve lived 5 of the past 10 years overseas. With my husband and two sons, I spent three years in Scotland and one in Germany. We lived in New York State for a couple of years, and then relocated to Malawi for almost two years. All told, that’s a fair number of Sundays—and a fair number of meals.

In Scotland and Germany, men and women from our congregation served tea or coffee in non-disposable cups and offered to put a single cookie on the saucer—if you wanted it. If the church was celebrating something, they might serve a small slice of cake. The coffee hour did not feel extravagant, but it didn’t feel miserly.

No one wants to think about microbes when you’re supposed to be thinking about the body and blood of Christ, but I couldn’t help it.

Post-church refreshments in Malawi consisted of a drink of water from a hand-pump outside the little painted-brick Anglican church where we worshiped. But not for our family: we carried our own filtered water with us. It was awkward, and marked us as different from the rest of the congregants. But parasites—and diseases like cholera and typhoid—were not uncommon. The only food was the Eucharist, and, even as I knelt to receive it, I cringed inwardly when the priest fed me the bread and gave me a sip from the common cup. No one wants to think about microbes when you’re supposed to be thinking about the body and blood of Christ, but I couldn’t help it.

When we came back to the States, culture shock hit in the form of church snacks. I suddenly had to contend with platters of cookies and plates of coffee cakes and bagels. Volunteers laid out individual packages of chips and cheese-flavored snacks and handed out lollipops or miniature chocolates. My children whined and begged when we declined on their behalf. It proved to be much easier to duck out after the closing hymn rather than battle our boys over fellowship hour snacks.

With these food rituals came all kinds of conflicted feelings—and I wasn’t alone. “I hate that the bags of potato chips are individual,” a friend who worships in another church said. “I hate seeing the kids’ hands and faces covered with the orange dust of the ‘cheez’ snacks. It feels like the opposite of what fellowship is supposed to be.”

“The waste really bothers me,” another friend confided. “I’d be willing to run mugs through the dishwasher to keep from throwing away so many bagfuls of garbage.”

A friend recovering from bulimia vented, “We’d never bring a bunch of recovering alcoholics into a room full of booze, but you can’t really avoid food, and especially not at church.”

Eating in front of other people can be embarrassing, complicated, and messy in ways both literal and figurative. Despite all the rituals surrounding cooking, serving, and eating, eating is primal: a naked acknowledgement of desire and appetite, need and fear.

Eating is primal: a naked acknowledgement of desire and appetite, need and fear.

When I was growing up, my dad always read from 1 Corinthians 11 before leading the church in the Lord’s Supper: “Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves” (11:28-29). For most of my life, I thought this meant I had to ponder my own sins and reflect on Jesus’ death before taking the little thimble of grape juice and shard of broken matzo.

But that’s not the point of the passage: when the apostle Paul warns against failing to recognize the body of Christ, he’s talking about failing to recognize our church family—failing to share fairly, to wait for one another before we begin eating. By eating mindfully, stewarding our resources intentionally, and honoring the gift of food, we honor the body of Christ.

Occasionally I arrive too early to pick my children up from Sunday school, and I peer through the window to watch their closing ritual. Toddlers to pre-teens sit in a circle on mats on the floor. They spread napkins in front of themselves. The graham crackers are broken and shared; the cups of juice carefully served. They say a prayer of thanks. They quietly eat, fold up their napkins so as not to spill the crumbs, return the cups to the tray—the older ones help the younger ones—and, before leaving the room, they roll up their mats and put them away.

It’s not a Sunday school “snack.” That’s not what they call it. They call it “the feast.”

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The Sacred Ritual of Church Suppers and Snacks