All-you-can-eat fried chicken, mashed potatoes, cheese grits, macaroni and cheese, biscuits and a table arrayed with cakes, pies and Jello.
It’s a menu familiar to many United Methodists, especially those in the South.
Church folks love to eat together, and they usually don’t eat healthy food.
But now, Dr. Scott Morris says, it’s time to change the menu.
“The least healthy meal you can eat every week is at your church,” said Dr. Morris, a physician and associate pastor of St. John’s United Methodist in Memphis. “We have blessed the sin of gluttony for the sake of fellowship.”
Whether it’s a potluck built around fried chicken, starchy sides and gooey desserts, or a Vacation Bible school snack of nachos and Kool-Aid, or a coffee hour spread of donuts and pastry, churches are notorious purveyors of high-fat, sugar-laden comfort foods.
But, as obesity emerges as a national health crisis—some two-thirds of Americans are now overweight or obese— some Christian leaders are calling out churches that serve unhealthful food.
“We preach the resurrection of the body, and then we go to the church potluck and this poison is sitting on the tables, waiting for people to consume it,” said Fred Bahnson, who is founding director of the Food & Faith Initiative at Wake Forest University’s School of Divinity.
Some United Methodist churches are taking steps to change the way that church members eat in and out of church. But Dr. Morris thinks churches face an extraordinary opportunity to change hearts and lives as well as menus.
“A healthy life is a faithful life,” he said. “We need to help people to do the things they need to live healthy lives.”
Healthy bodies, healthy souls
Recently, an African-American pastor, the Rev. Michael Minor, made headlines by banning fried chicken from events at his church, Oak Hill Baptist in Hernando, Miss. He’s been railing against bad eating for years, after noticing that many church members were overweight.
Church members may resent such dietary meddling, but it’s squarely in the purview of church teaching, according to Fred Bahnson.
“Church leadership needs to be preaching the whole gospel…. which is healthy bodies as well as healthy souls,” he said.
Mr. Bahnson would like to see pastors to take a cue from Mayor Michael Bloomberg—who recently barred the sale of large, sugary sodas in New York City eateries—and ban soft drinks in churches.
“Right next to the soda, we should put out cartons of free cigarettes,” he said. “That would get people to understand that soft drinks are a huge health hazard, along the same lines as smoking.”
United Methodist pastors aren’t issuing wholesale bans, but some churches are making small changes. They’re hosting healthful potluck meals, offering cooking classes and hosting community gardens.
The Church of the Master, a United Methodist congregation in Westerville, Ohio, recently hosted a “Healthy Living luncheon.” The chef from a nearby retirement community prepared the meal and shared tips and recipes.
At Green Street UMC in Winston-Salem, N.C., church members are bringing healthier foods to potlucks and other events now, following “Forty Days of Health and Wholeness” in 2011. The church-wide event had members praying, setting goals for healthier habits and tracking progress. The Forty Days also helped spawn an ongoing small group called “Health, Prayer, Love” which meets regularly to learn about nutrition, exercise and stress relief.
Dr. Morris is executive director of the Church Health Center in Memphis, a ministry supported by St. John’s and other area churches. A big part of its mission is a clinic that provides affordable healthcare to the working poor.
But the Church Health Center also works with congregations to promote healthier lifestyles, teaching healthy cooking classes and training “congregational health promoters” who take what they learn back to their churches.
Covenant United Methodist in Cordova, Tenn., adapted the Church Health Center’s 12-week health program, starting in January. Church members took up walking, learned about healthy habits and took a class in nutrition, where they learned how to make healthy snacks like granola bars and smoothies.
“I think knowledge is power,” said Brooke Beck, the Church Health Center’s registered dietician. “People see that eating and serving healthy foods is another way we can serve the Lord.”
Steps like these can encourage better eating, but unhealthy foods may still turn up at church-sponsored events, Bishop Hope Morgan Ward (Mississippi Conference) says, because church members may think lavish meals will help bring folks to church.
But, she says, healthier meals might extend an even better welcome.
While attending a “healthy covered dish dinner” a few years ago at Centenary UMC in McComb, Miss., Bishop Ward discovered that some church members had turned up for the first time.
“Normally they weren’t able to attend covered dish dinners, because everything on the table was things their doctor said, ‘Don’t eat,’” Bishop Ward recalled. “So these people were saying, ‘I can finally eat at church.’”
Healthier options are a way of welcoming folks who are on restrictive diets. “You can have salads, baked chicken, green vegetables,” she said. “You can offer food that’s not fried or sauced. It doesn’t take that much creativity.”
Community gardens can also help welcome the broader community, Bishop Ward adds—while helping alter eating habits.
“Starting a church garden is the best way that you can retrain people how to eat well,” said Mr. Bahnson, who co-founded Anathoth Community Garden, a ministry started by Cedar Grove UMC in Cedar Grove, N.C.
He recalled a woman who was morbidly obese when she began working in the garden. Gradually, she started replacing fried foods that she’d eaten with vegetables grown in the garden, and lost 75 lbs.
“Just being around the culture of healthy food, she was learning new habits,” he said. Anathoth hosts bi-weekly potlucks, where people eat fresh foods just picked from the garden.
“This was the culture of the table, connected to the culture of growing the food,” he said. “What we’re really talking about is a church trying to reclaim a holistic way of eating.”
Feeding the sheep
Dr. Morris wants United Methodist pastors to talk about eating from the pulpit, too.
“It helps if pastors will preach about this, from time to time, in a positive way,” he said. “The moment the pastor says, ‘I’d like to have some healthy alternatives at Wednesday night supper,’ it happens.”
But many pastors are reluctant to preach about healthy eating. Some may preach against vices like alcohol, tobacco or porn, but won’t touch the vice of gluttony, according to Joel Soza, professor of Biblical studies at Malone University in Canton, Ohio, and author of Food and God: A Theological Approach to Eating, Diet and Weight Control.
Dr. Soza, an Assemblies of God minister, says pastors worry they’ll make overweight parishioners feel stigmatized—or call attention to their own failings.
“It’s tough to talk about,” he said. “We don’t want to embarrass folks, and we don’t want to embarrass ourselves.”
But church leaders are called to minister to both body and soul, Dr. Morris says.
“You can’t separate the spirit and leave the body to someone else,” said Dr. Morris. “That’s fundamentally a theological flaw.”
“Much of our fellowship revolves around eating, which it should be, it’s very Biblical,” said Dr. Soza. “But we’re not really thinking about what it is to have table fellowship in a healthy way.”
If churches can figure that out, they’ll save lives, according to Linda Ross, clinical manager for community & congregational partnerships, for United Methodist-affiliated OhioHealth, a healthcare network in the Columbus, Ohio area.
She works with 43 local churches, many of them United Methodist, to teach good nutrition and encourage habits that promote heart health. Faith groups, she believes, are the best venues for spurring people to make difficult and needed change.
“There is no other organization … where the focus is on the health of the whole person, mind, body and spirit,” she said. “We haven’t gotten there yet, but the church is a great place to begin.”
Eat like Jesus
Dr. Morris says that Christians can look to the example of Jesus for a vision of better eating.
“For Jesus, the concept of fast food would be unacceptable,” he said. “From the Gospels, we know that Jesus liked to have conversation with his meals. He used meals to create community.”
Fast food, he added, is made to eat alone and in a hurry, “a formula for spiritual isolation.”
Church suppers encourage people to slow down, enjoy the fellowship of others—all of which promote health, if good foods are on the table.
“This whole issue of living well is a matter of faith,” he said. “It’s not something you do outside of church. It is church.”
The Church Health Center offers a wealth of information at www.chreader.org, including a recent issue of Church Health Reader devoted entirely to food.
For guidelines on healthier eating, visit www.choosemyplate.gov.