Local Church and Local Food

I am still at this house church conference in Denver, Colorado. Words being used here to describe this new movement are “simple”, “organic” and “house” church. I have introduced another word that may add another layer or two of meaning.

My contribution to the conversation in my group yesterday was about being a “LOCAL” church. That may sound quite mundane because the word has been thrown around for decades, but driving 30 minutes across a city once or twice a week is NOT a local church, its a DISTANT church. I think we will see a new movement of “local” churches. This is what i mean.

In the USA, changes in society’s values have been reflected in the cuisine as well as in the church. I love food and cooking so it speaks to my mind as well as my stomach. Here are some trends i have noticed over the past 20 years that have affected the way i see both food AND church.

The gourmet food movement in the 80’s, which educated hairy alpha males in the nuances of brie cheese and balsmanic vinegar, focused on bespoke foods of excellence. Churches in the 80’s were also pursuing excellence in programing and worship. Second best was not good enough for God. We aimed at health, growth, and a high level of communication and art.

Sometimes gourmet food had to do with relative scarcity. Sometimes regional identity (coffee beans from the south-west slope of a remote Sumatran mountainside) allowed geographical location to add exotic value to the eating experience. Information about the food also enhanced the experience and increased the price.

The organic food movement in the 90’s contrasted the artificial nature of industrial-processed food and offered a higher standard of food grown in environments free from suspect chemicals and stimulants. Many churches used the word “organic” to focus on the simple churches not enamored or ruled by institutional structures or outside leadership or value systems imported from another time or place. The word is still in use.

The recent slow food movement, which may come partly as a reaction to fast food abuse, challenges people towards cooking slowly and eating in. People are re-imagining their own kitchens and enjoying the cooking experience. Also in the church, we see house church meetings that linger over long casserole meals and conferences that resemble parties. Going OUT for church is in competition with staying IN with friends in the confines of a home for an extended period of time.

and here is the one i want to talk about . . .

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The local food movement, as I understand it, brings equality and justice to local workers rather than lining the pockets of absent executives. It protects the environment by reducing transportation. It’s speed of delivery ensures freshness of product. It honors local traditional cooking techniques unique to that location. It is contextual, economic, just, and deeply connected to history and geography. It doesn’t cancel out previous movements but it does build on their strengths.

The early church was a LOCAL church. When Peter was thrown in jail, the believers arrived quickly to pray in a home. I’m talking about easy walking distance or close enough to be involved in each other’s lives on an almost daily basis. The idea of driving all the way across town a few times a week is a distant church, not a local church and we may be heading towards a time in history when churches will be asked to measure their carbon footprint.

Can you imagine the impact of local churches composed of people that live on the same street or block or suburb? Spontaneity and regularity. No hiding behind pulpits. Lives visible to all.

Not saying that existing churches should transition to this.

And I am not saying that we cannot be DISTRIBUTED churches. Our deep relationships online might be geographically distant but may be absolutely vital to our church life.

But i am saying that when someone begins to follow Jesus and starts to throw parties for his friends, many of those people may be from the same neighborhood and a local church might come into being. And thats a good thing. Not the ONLY thing – there will be times to meet regionally and even nationally, and beyond comfortable denominational/network borders, but the stuff of church life will probably happen among those who are close enough be involved on an almost daily basis. Nuff said.

Any thoughts?

Andrew

Andrew Jones has been blogging since 1997. He is based in San Francisco with his two daughters but also travels the globe to find compelling stories of early stage entrepreneurs changing their world. Sometimes he talks in the third person. Sometimes he even talks to himself and has been heard uttering the name "Precious" :-)

34 Comments

  • This is good thinking. It is something I have longed to see from Church for years, but it does involve being visible and open doored to the people around us. That is a “new” concept to alot of churches that are just trying to keep from getting swept away in the “liberal cultural tide”.
    Also, the idea of being local does carry with it a natural sense of organic/authentic. After all, your driving by, visiting, living around (maybe even with) the open doored people of your community and they are going to tell you when your trying to be something your not.
    Churches thinking and living this way will (in my head) just erupt rather than parachuting in.

  • all very good stuff andrew. I think that maybe organic and “local” esp. in a church context are difficult to separate. I think that you could have a local but not organic community but it would be hard to have an organic but not local community.
    maybe similar to how organic food does not necessarily HAVE to mean local but it sure is the best that way.

  • What do I think? I think it’s great you had to fly to Denver from the Scottish Isles to find it 😉
    More seriously – I think this is good thinking. Nature is *always* local. You don’t touch on the environment/carbon aspect, but it’s a huge one. People ought to audit how many ‘church miles’ are used to gather people each meeting. And then minimize them.

  • Andrew,
    Great thoughts. You should share them with the whole group who is here, before the conference ends.

  • thanks for the the great post andrew! you’ve hit the nail on the head and written a very easy-to-grasp “ecclesiology of geography.”
    there’s a bunch of us over on vancouver island who’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about theologies of the built envirtonment (after reading eric o. jacobsen’s “sidewalks in the kingdom”)and you’ve articulated the conversation from yet another excellent angle!
    keep the thinking coming and keep looking local!

  • My question is how do we get there? Perhaps if it becomes someone’s conviction that this is how it should be they could move to a nearer church? But what if, like me, they are part of a church that meets really close to them but other people travel in across the city? Perhaps their message to their fellow members could be to relocate into the community that is local to the church? What do you think?
    [TSK: DAvid, We could make a real difference here when people come to Jesus and we start helping them build a community [LOCAL] around their friends rather than sending them across town once or twice a week to join a group of strangers.

  • Great parallels with food (my favorite topic!, I must admit I never thought of it like that.
    In regards to “local church” and being organic, one thing we have had to acknowledge is that having a car does change the meaning of local.
    The reality is that one can comfortably travel a fair distance to gather with others, so ‘local’ has a wider sense whether we like it or not. Our family lives rurally and gathers organically with others on the same rural road but we are very uncommon because of what I call the car factor.

  • The concept of the local church is well articulated in Being Church Where We Live, written by another kiwi.
    “Church is something we are, not something we can attend. To be the body of Christ in the place where we live, we must live close to the rest of the body. Our Church should be a central part of our being, so we must belong where it is.
    Each Church should be attached to a particular locality, so there can be as many Churches as there are different localities. Ideally, there should be one Church in each location and each location should have one Church. To have a number of different kinds of church in the same locality is inconsistent with the New Testament.” (p.27)

  • I’m at the same meetings and had the same thought during the last morning session. I would never have been able to articulate it as Andrew has, but the LOCAL church is the predominate church seen in the New Testament.
    I was thinking how just a little over 100 years ago, this very trip to Denver would have taken 6 months from my home state of Indiana. Our ability to travel by trains, planes, and automobiles is a beautiful thing. I probably would have never met Andrew without this speed of travel. But for the CHURCH, we can leave our locale way too easy. How many believers do you know who travel 20 miles or more to gather with other believers?

  • my thoughts are that this is the 6th church that i have belonged to over the last 20 years that has been formed almost entirely from friendships between the people who live on our street (well this most recent one isn’t exactly formed officially as a church yet, but a while longer and we will) – meeting in our house or backyard – always gathered around food – always simple – always intergenerational and family oriented – always inclusive and interdenominationally mixed – always taking shape around the gifts, personalities and needs of the people involved and where those things seem to resonate with what God is up to in our neighbourhood – always slipstreaming on the movement of the Spirit in this time and space – always concerned and focussed on bringing the best life ever to the people that live here – always emerging from the culture and context that we find ourselves in – always innovating our own liturgy, creating our own rituals, reimagining our own rights of passage, festivals, seasonal celebrations – and never, ever, ever recognised by the official institution of the church – you are talking about a very big secret – local, simple, organic church has been such a lifetime of JOY !!!! – thanks andrew for reminding me about that – God is very good, don’t you think ?

  • We used to live in a suburban area and drive 20-25 min to church. I cant even say what a difference it makes now that we live in the city, and church is just a couple blocks away.

  • Really great thoughts. I really like the food metaphor! Have you ever read Randy Frazee’s book The Connecting Church? It’s an interesting case study of a mega-church trying to re-think church in terms of neighborhood: meeting regularly, but also spontaneously and frequently. Consolidating friendships and relationships and church into a more cohesive, inter-dependent whole.
    And even though we can travel long distances quickly with cars, the trip is still an official, or intentional one. It seems to me one of the keys of LOCAL church is the spontaneity and serendipity of being able to accidentally meet up any time. Seems that’s when you really start to be involved in one another’s lives, when you stop vacuuming the house every time someone comes over?

  • To me, this is sort of a rethinking of the parish – our church is in this neighborhood. This approach would actually HELP people be missional because we would see our grocery shopping, petrol buying, and walking our dog (all things we do in our neighborhood) taking place in our “mission field.”

  • This also raises questions about our work. If we are building local communities perhaps people should also try to work in their local community rather than travelling every workday across the city or to another town. There is also the conflict between being missionaries in our workplace and building our local church if we work many miles away. Typically people I work with also travel large distances, so they may be close or even further away from where I live.
    When people become Christians – whether as a result of workplace or neighbourhood ministries – planting a local church around where they live sounds like a really good idea. But in practice I don’t seeing it happening maybe because we are not growing as much as we would like. I wonder if even the most enthusiastic convert necessarily has within them the ability to plant the sort of local church we are talking about. Perhaps we need to nurture this ability a lot more than we are doing?
    It looks to me that until we are moving in this sort of dynamic people will continue to use lots of petrol to travel large distances. So I still wonder what we need to do to get us to that point of faith and vision. Any ideas?

  • I want to build on David’s comment…
    Kiwi, I share your dream, and I lean forward to the scant possibility that such a movement might be in the cards.
    But in the U.S., I think it would have to be accompanied by a secular cultural revolution in favor of “localness”.
    You talk about the natural thing being to invite one’s neighbors over for a house party, but I don’t think that’s actually what most people do. I think most people invite their co-workers, friends from the “club”, and those who share common interests. In urban and suburban areas, these people are often gleaned from a 10-mile radius, at least.
    Everything in our culture has moved toward picking us up out of our particular location, and making us “global citizens”.
    Satellite TV made us PAY EXTRA for local channels. Satellite Radio made our radio experience consistent wherever we go. Franchising made sure we could eat and shop at the same places no matter where we travel. And the internet gave us a community of friends who don’t have a clue about our neighborhood (appearance, voice, character, gender!)
    And people move so often that a neighborhood is merely a temporary container… the land that contains the building that contains our stuff. No commitment to it is necessary… indeed, none is expected.
    A small “local church movement” may be in the works, but as I said, without a cultural upheaval, sadly, I don’t see it as a wave of the future.

  • ryan, thanks for that.
    firstly, i am not saying this is the ‘wave of the future” but rather just one of the hundreds of tiny shifts in culture that may inform our practices with parallel vocabulary and values.
    Secondly, i am not pushing the idea of house in this post but the idea of “LOCAL”. If you say the word “local” or “my local” in some countries like NZ or Australia, it normally refers to the local pub. But this is not a house vs. pub vs. cafe argument. Instead, i am just saying that our local cafe, pub, is probably a 5 – 10 minute journey as it is for others and that proximity will enable greater frequency of conteact and the possibility for greater fellowship and impact.
    in fact, i think churches that hate the term “house church” might be willing to think again about being “local”

  • I hear ya about the “wave vs. tiny shift” thing.
    But actually, I wasn’t necessarily talking about House Church, either. I think it would be great for more people to find their church home in their own neighborhood… no matter what type of church it is.
    I agree with you, though, that is something I see people opening up to. We just have to get away from our cultural obsession with “maximum choice”. I wrote about this in my post called “First Church of Aloe & Watermelon”.

  • fair enough, ryan. and also there are many people living this out already in their local neighborhood and they do not attend “church” meetings at all.
    thanks for the link to your post. must look at it when i get a mo.

  • Could it be that we are coming full circle from God’s spontanious version of the Church, as He brought on at pentecost and which the people carried on for the next couple of centuries or so, before getting confused by carnal religiosity?
    So what we have in our modern days and that God is calling us away from, are all the theologies and movements that exist to explain why God did not want the Church of pentecost to go on and on. The US alone contains over 50,000 divisions of christian churches, who all share in that consensus of perpetual divisions, as mentioned above.
    The one Spirit of the one Faith of the one Church knows that God’s version of the bride is eternal and everlasting, no question about that.
    “May You have Your way in our midst dear Lord, from within each one’s mature obediance of the Faith, as You mean for Your bride while on earth while preparing and waiting for Your return…amen to Your Yes in us all…”

  • Hey Andrew,
    One area you left out in eating local is that we get better connected to nature by eating “in season” what the earth is giving us. I would think that harvest time might become special again, which would renew our sense of Thanksgiving day.
    The problem is I haven’t figured out how this works with the local church metaphor. I’ll leave that up to you.
    Cheers

  • I think that smallgroups/housegroups/cellgroups within our churches help some of us be a little more local. Perhaps we need nudges towards our groups being organised more on locality. And maybe reminders that our long term goal is to plant out churches where people live is another thing we can do as well as preaching environmental awareness. All these could be ways to prepare us for a time will we will resent paying so much for petrol to drive around so much. What do you think?

  • carlos – we live in a multi-cultural world so maybe its not out of context at all for you.
    and david . .. . yes. and maybe the time is coming when people will resent the church for making them drive so often and so far to pick up and drop off their kids 30 minutes from their home, especially when they pass up 20 churches on the way.
    and the other thing is this: its really easy to drop out of a commuter-based church but your absence is more obvious when its local and its easier to keep in touch.

  • @ Ben – the seasonal aspect of eating local would seem to me to have a potential tie-in with the rediscovery of what it is to live counterculturally in liturgical time rather than secular time (feasts, fasts, seasons). To me, not eating strawberries when they’re not in season is just like not singing Christmas carols in Advent.

  • I have thought of this much lately. I live in the Denver metro area (Boulder County). People here will drive from Boulder to neighboring cities 20 miles away to attend church and vise versa. Our house church ministry is focused on doing life with our immediate neighbors…the people next door, not 20 miles away. It’s challenging and more time consuming to develop, but it feels more authentic when you connect with the person 20 feet away than someone 20 miles away.
    What was the conference you attended?

  • I am resonating with you on this local thing. I want to run into people from church at the store and when I do my local routines. Better yet, I hate leaving south Austin/Buda at all and try to do everything as close in as possible.
    I long to see the existing church get in on the house church action and wonder if this idea of highly localized small groups would give churches a way to access the beauty and power of house churches.
    Having walked through breast cancer with Shelly(my wife) this past year, I am thankful we were at a traditional Baptist church. After her surgery, folks brought meals for weeks, sent cards, visited, prayed and provided the kind of care that you only get in a traditional church.
    The church may ask me to help launch a small group ministry to reach out to our exploding community…they will function like house churches-I just won’t call them that!

  • I’m a geographically-minded person so I’m always thinking about things like this. The end of the cheap fuel era brings back the tyrrany of distance, and for many this will mean life lived more locally, a bit like the pre-car era.
    In the last decade, five of the largest churches in Adelaide have gone multi-site. One church in name and in leadership, but in another way, sub-denomination of a few churches. (It’s fitting that one of these 3-in-1’s is called Holy Trinity!) For many people who drove a long way to the big church, they’re now able to go local and still be part of the big church.
    With the current lot of Google technology I’ve been able to generate maps from address lists easily, and I did this on the contact list of a large inter-ch youth event, and noticed that a lot of churches have their members spread all over the place, while some had a lot of theirs living close – walking distance in one case. In Adelaide, the Uniting churches (formerly methodist mostly) tend to be quite local, while the ethnic churches tend to be the most spread out.
    It’s a constant annoyance to me that my home, my church and my workplace are all a long way apart, with none of them likely to change any time soon.

  • I think the whole local and organic movement is a sham. Here is why. (this is taken from andrew potter’s blog)
    Organic is a straightforward bit of yuppie competitive consumption. It is an aspect of the anti-consumerist values at the heart of the mass society critique, and simply creates a market for expensive goods that make the purchaser feel like a better person while simultaneously creating an invidious contrast with those – primarily the working poor – who cannot afford to shop at Whole Foods or comparable stores found in yuppie enclaves.
    This line of argument drives a lot of people crazy, for good reason. There are a lot of people who have a vested interest in redescribing their status goods as virtuous. But when I’ve argued with journalists, interviewers and other critics, the one point they reluctantly accept is that organic produce is very expensive, and they need some way of either justifying it or mitigating it, in a way that is not so obviously offensive to the working classes. To my mind, the most obvious answer would be to propose organic food subsidies for the poor. No one has ever suggested this to me, for an obvious reason: If we start subsidizing organic food for the poor, organic produce will lose its capacity to create an invidious contrast with the masses. That is, it will no longer serve as a marker of status.
    That is why the usual answer I get is a version of the “economies of scale” argument. The idea is that yuppies serve as the big-spending early adopters of the organic revolution: They are willing to pay a fortune for organic lemons, which gives the industry the profits it needs to scale up, at which point the price will go down and everyone will be able to afford organic.
    This is a bad argument for a number of reasons, but there is no longer any real need to argue about this. The fundamental lie at the heart of the organic movement was revealed in – where else – the New York Times this weekend, with this editorial lamenting Wal-Mart’s entry into the organic market. Check this outfrom the NY times:
    “Even a couple of years ago, the thought of Wal-Mart selling organic food would have seemed unimaginable. The only question is whether it would have seemed unimaginably good or unimaginably bad. That question has now been thrust upon us by Wal-Mart’s recent decision to start offering organic food at just 10 percent over the cost of conventional food.”
    So far so good, no? Wal-Mart brings organic within the price range of the normal American family. But, fromthe same article, here’s the rub:
    “There is no chance that Wal-Mart will be buying from small, local organic farmers. Instead, its market influence will speed up the rate at which organic farming comes to resemble conventional farming in scale, mechanization, processing and transportation. For many people, this is the very antithesis of what organic should be. People who think seriously about food have come to realize that local is at least as important a word as organic.”
    Right. Which is just another way of saying that, for people who think seriously about consumerism, “status” is as important a word as “justice.”

  • I think the whole local and organic movement is a sham. Here is why. (this is taken from andrew potter’s blog)
    Organic is a straightforward bit of yuppie competitive consumption. It is an aspect of the anti-consumerist values at the heart of the mass society critique, and simply creates a market for expensive goods that make the purchaser feel like a better person while simultaneously creating an invidious contrast with those – primarily the working poor – who cannot afford to shop at Whole Foods or comparable stores found in yuppie enclaves.
    This line of argument drives a lot of people crazy, for good reason. There are a lot of people who have a vested interest in redescribing their status goods as virtuous. But when I’ve argued with journalists, interviewers and other critics, the one point they reluctantly accept is that organic produce is very expensive, and they need some way of either justifying it or mitigating it, in a way that is not so obviously offensive to the working classes. To my mind, the most obvious answer would be to propose organic food subsidies for the poor. No one has ever suggested this to me, for an obvious reason: If we start subsidizing organic food for the poor, organic produce will lose its capacity to create an invidious contrast with the masses. That is, it will no longer serve as a marker of status.
    That is why the usual answer I get is a version of the “economies of scale” argument. The idea is that yuppies serve as the big-spending early adopters of the organic revolution: They are willing to pay a fortune for organic lemons, which gives the industry the profits it needs to scale up, at which point the price will go down and everyone will be able to afford organic.
    This is a bad argument for a number of reasons, but there is no longer any real need to argue about this. The fundamental lie at the heart of the organic movement was revealed in – where else – the New York Times this weekend, with this editorial lamenting Wal-Mart’s entry into the organic market. Check this outfrom the NY times:
    “Even a couple of years ago, the thought of Wal-Mart selling organic food would have seemed unimaginable. The only question is whether it would have seemed unimaginably good or unimaginably bad. That question has now been thrust upon us by Wal-Mart’s recent decision to start offering organic food at just 10 percent over the cost of conventional food.”
    So far so good, no? Wal-Mart brings organic within the price range of the normal American family. But, fromthe same article, here’s the rub:
    “There is no chance that Wal-Mart will be buying from small, local organic farmers. Instead, its market influence will speed up the rate at which organic farming comes to resemble conventional farming in scale, mechanization, processing and transportation. For many people, this is the very antithesis of what organic should be. People who think seriously about food have come to realize that local is at least as important a word as organic.”
    Right. Which is just another way of saying that, for people who think seriously about consumerism, “status” is as important a word as “justice.”

  • thanks mike. i heard you the first time.
    as for local food, this morning i made crepes from eggs that were only hours old. yes – we have laying hens. some eggs were still warm. wish you were here to eat them with me.
    its a lot of effort, and if there is “status” involved then it has not yet been awarded to me.
    but dang those crepes were good!!!

  • I’m not entirely certain I see any difference between Wal-Mart offering organic food and Target, or Whole Foods or any national chain. In order for a national chain to sell organic food on a scale that allows the company the sort of profit that makes it, well, profitable, for them, the method of production MUST be anti-thetical to the organic food ideal.
    So we can be all grinny and happy that at long last we have healthy food available to us, but it still comes at a great cost. We don’t seem to have any idea how to measure that cost at all.
    Neither do we understand the cost involved when we travel great distances to have church. When we do this, we lose the opportunity to minister in our own neighborhoods with our own people. Being amongst the people with whom we do our daily business is important, more important than we can imagine. Otherwise, church just becomes another part of our consumerist ideology, rather than a partnership with God to bring in His Kingdom.

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