The Holy Sacrament of Potluck
Baptism. Communion. Potluck.
These are all sacraments, right? Well, technically no. Believe it or not, potluck is not the third ordinance of the New Testament Church. Although, that doesn’t mean it’s not important.
Hear me out.
THE DECLINE OF POTLUCK
Churches across America used to do potluck ubiquitously. It was just a part of congregational life for centuries. Regardless of the denomination, most churches took the time to haul in a feast from individual homes and collectively dine together.
Largely, however, potluck has gone by the wayside. Many cultural anthropologists have noticed this. Whole blog posts and articles have been devoted to the topic of the quickly declining potluck, and some have even declared the practice to be dead. Others have noticed that while the famous potluck has waned in popularity, it lingers on, but in an evolved state. Now, instead of homecooked roasts and hams, increasingly the meals consist of Kentucky Fried Chicken and Taco Bell.
In short, not only are fewer churches doing potlucks but of those churches, fewer are sticking around. And those who stick around are often bringing in store-bought items so as to not come empty-handed.
Reasons for the demise of the church potluck are largely due to the following:
First, the busyness of the congregation doesn’t go with potluck. When the Sabbath isn’t a full day to you but is only an hour or two, you want to go on with your other long list of activities you’ve scheduled. You’ve observed the Lord’s Hour and want to move on with your weekly holiday, Myday.
Second, the anonymity of the modern church doesn’t go with potluck. Let’s face it, many see bigger as better. A major appeal of the megachurch is anonymity. You can come in, go out, and never be held accountable for any sin in your life, never be stirred up to love and good works, and never get scolded for missing church (they don’t know you’re there to begin with). In the meantime, you can still get in that God-time, get your religion card stamped, and get the wife or mother-in-law off your back because you went to church. It was something you did, as though it were on a to-do list.
However, eating with people is intimate. Eating with people ruins all the anonymity that, for some people, makes church great.
Third, people don’t cook anymore. People used to look forward to church potluck to show off their prowess in the kitchen. Women, in particular, would slave over the stove or crockpot on Saturday to bring their very best to church the next day. Modern American families have largely lost our culinary capabilities, and when we do cook it’s something like Hamburger Helper, Kraft’s Mac & Cheese, or frozen fish sticks. And honestly, nobody wants to bring that garbage to show off on Sunday. What we consider a grand holiday dinner for Easter, Thanksgiving, or Christmas, our forbears considered just a normal Sunday dinner. We don’t eat as well as we used to, and that translates to Sunday potluck being significantly less exciting (or impressive) than it used to be.
Fourth, government regulation. Yes, believe it or not, government regulations have helped to put the church potluck on its death bed. Legislation in Indiana banned potlucks in 2001 when a law took effect requiring nonprofit groups to hire certified food handlers (they’ve since rolled back parts of that law). Illinois passed a similar law, but the governor signed a law preventing churches from being affected by such health regulations. Increasingly, churches are worried about food poisoning and potential health crises, and so they’ve nixed the practice.
THE HISTORY OF POTLUCK
Other, but lesser known, names for potluck include Jacob’s join, faith supper, covered-dish supper, pitch-in, bring-a-plate, dish-to-pass, or carry-in. The concept is all the same. It’s when everybody brings food to eat, and they share it with everybody else.
There are two possible reasons this word was formed the way it was. The first is that the word, ‘potluck,’ means, “the luck of the pot,” first used as a term by Thomas Nasche in the 16th Century. In short, this means that you never know what you’re going to get. But the other possible origin of this term is that it’s derived from the Native American term, potlatch. A potlatch was a highly ceremonial (and religious) meal observed by indigenous peoples. It is possible that the term ‘potluck’ is a combination of both etymological formations.
Potlucks have been held in churches for literally as long as the church has existed.
Some might be surprised to find out that they were doing potluck in the First Century church. The Love Feast, or Agape Feast, originated early enough that we see it referenced in the Bible. It is mentioned in both Jude 1:12 and 1 Corinthians 11:17-24. The early church fathers like Ignatius, Hippolytus, and Tertullian, reference the Love Feast and credit it as being with apostolic tradition.
The Love Feast was not the Lord’s Supper, but a communal meal eaten separately from the Lord’s Supper. This is the meal to which Paul refers when he rebukes the Corinthian church for not sharing with one another.
HOW TO HAVE A GOOD POTLUCK
First, bring enough food. Let’s do some basic math. If you only bring part of what it would take to feed your family, and if everybody else brought only a part of what it would take to feed their family, there won’t be enough food. So as awesome as it is that you bring that side-dish of mashed potatoes or macaroni, if it couldn’t feed your family, math says you should bring more. The reason why church potlucks are famous for casseroles is that casseroles are like a meal-in-a-pan. Don’t bring part of a meal; bring a meal.
Secondly, bring your specialty. Jesus is risen. Let’s celebrate. Bringing a tray of hotdogs is better than nothing, but what about that family recipe that everyone covets? What about your “famous [fill-in-the-blank] dish”? Show off in a non-braggy sort of way. Bring ham. Bring a roast. Bring brisket. Bring those deviled eggs everybody seems to love. Bring your aunt’s “famous jello salad.” Spend time making something. Make people praise God when they see what you brought for them. Feast. It’s a holy day!
Third, stay a while. Don’t rush. Remember, it’s the Lord’s Day. If possible, stick around long enough to clean up. Many hands make light work, and it makes everything more enjoyable to everyone else. Don’t be a taker. Be a giver.
Don’t bring baloney. By this, what I mean is, I don’t believe that you “don’t have time for potluck.” Oh sure, there might be exceptions to this, but on rare occasions.
Are you going to eat lunch? Of course, and you’re going to eat it somewhere. Claiming you haven’t the time is baloney, and baloney isn’t proper potluck food. You might as well eat lunch at church with the church family if you’re going to eat somewhere else. It’s not really any harder or takes any longer than you eating at home (in fact, it could be considerably easier, considering your prep-work ought to already be done by the time you leave for church). In fact, most potlucks are over before you could get out of a restaurant during the Sunday rush. You probably do have the time to spend with your church family. You might just not have the desire.
There’s a chance that some feel bad about not having prepared something, but that’s because they weren’t observing the Lord’s Day seven days a week, preparing for Sunday to come around. That problem can be solved by turning our hearts to God’s Commandments.
NOT ESSENTIAL, BUT IMPORTANT
Is there a command, “Thou shalt observe potluck?” Nope. But for thousands of years, since the apostles, churches have gathered together to eat a meal other than just the Lord’s Supper. It brings us together. It provides fellowship. It makes us healthier as a church.
Take time. Enjoy yourself. Eat, drink, be merry. Who knows if it’s your last chance? Life is short. Enjoy it, and enjoy spending time with God’s people.