a “proof” of true Christian faith.

Early Christian writers claimed that sharing life, including meals, with persons of different backgrounds was a “proof” of true Christian faith. They were convinced that practicing the broadly–even radically–open hospitality that Jesus taught meant that they would welcome Christ himself as their guest—as, of course, Christ himself teaches in Matthew 25—and that their actions would “portray a clear message—that of equality, transformed relations, and a common life.”

Yet, the Christian habit of sharing meals regularly and with “the least of these” all but disappeared as a significant moral practice in the 1700s, along with the major societal and economic changes of that era. Today, if churches feed the poor, they usually do so in the context of ministries like soup kitchens and food pantries; it is the rare group that—like the L’Arche communities founded by Jean Vanier—regularly practices sharing meals across the boundaries of social class and backgrounds.  But it would seem that this kind of sharing more closely approximates Jesus’s ideal. As Christine Pohl writes, “meal time, when people sit down together, is the clearest time of being with others, rather than doing for others.” When we eat with others, we sit on the same level with them, acknowledging our common creatureliness as we stop and do the necessary, joyful business of eating. When we eat the same food, the same food goes into each of our bodies, building up our cells, becoming, quite literally, a part of each of us. We may or may not share much conversation, but we are nonetheless bound to each other in breaking bread together. And Christ is with us.

Sadly, in our society, shared meals of any kind are quickly becoming a rarity—many people regularly eat alone and on the run. A few years ago, the BBC presented a magazine article titled “Portrait of the Meal-for-One Society,” reporting that half of all meals eaten in the UK are eaten alone. The article attributed this trend, in part, to the ubiquity of ready-to-eat meals and to the dramatic rise of single-person households. When I lived in the UK for three years, I noticed how very many people ate while walking around town—the pedestrian culture’s alternative, I suppose, to drive-through food and drink consumed in automobiles. Although I was not able to find data suggesting just how many meals are eaten alone in the US, current research regularly reports a steady decline in the number of meals that children eat with their parents; in a 2007 study, for example, just 39% of 12-17 year olds reported eating with their parents 6 or 7 times per week; 30% ate with their parents three times a week or less.

If eating together is so much a part of being human, and if extending our tables to those who are different from us is such an essential part of living the Gospel, what does it mean that meals shared—even among family members—are on the decline? At the very least, I suspect that it’s a sign of ill health, both physical and spiritual.

Coffee Cake Communion

(or, the dilemmas of Sunday Coffee Hour)

Recently I talked with a woman who’s in recovery from bulimia. “We’d never bring a bunch of recovering alcoholics into a room full of booze,” she said, “but you can’t really avoid food, and especially not at church.” Indeed, eating and drinking together is an important part of the community life in most churches, whether it’s limited to the celebration of communion (or Lord’s Supper, Mass, or Eucharist) or extended in “coffee hour” and potlucks. Eating together–as in MOST DAILY MEALS together–was an important part of the life of the early church. And it’s still important, though it’s different and in some ways, more complicated.

Some people really struggle with overeating, and I’ve heard from some folks, firsthand, that the platters of doughnuts and coffee cake and other goodies set out after church entice them in ways they don’t fully understand and want desperately to resist. (Before you’re tempted to cry out “they need willpower,” consider that the food industry does all it can to press the right ‘buttons’ to get us attracted and addicted to their offerings; if you don’t believe me, read this book.) Other people struggle with various forms of under-eating, and dread having to attend potlucks.

Eating in front of other people can be embarrassing, complicated, and messy in ways both literal and figurative. Maybe that’s partly because, despite all the rituals surrounding cooking, serving, and eating, eating is still so primal–such a naked acknowledgement of need. But I still think we’re meant to eat together. Eating together is good for what ails us–whether we’re inclined to binge, restrict, or whatever. A number of studies suggest that eating family meals protects children and teenagers emotionally, physically, psychologically, and socially. The most effective treatment for anorexia involves little more than love and meals eaten together. And people who eat with others are likely to be better nourished and at a healthier weight than those who eat alone.

So I think it’s important that churches eat together–especially when they eat together in ways that really focus on the togetherness. That’s not possible in all churches–say, in really big ones–but it’s more than possible in small churches and small groups. I do wonder if we’d not serve one another (and maybe even the Lord?) better if in these settings we’d be careful to meet the needs of those who are struggling with food issues in one way or another. I won’t say “no desserts!”–but I do wonder if communal meals (or snacks) that focus on simpler nourishment–like soup and bread, or fruit and cheese, or vegetable platters–would better serve the needs of those who (given the dismal statistics on these things) are likely to be struggling with food and weight.

At the same time, intentionally simpler and more mindful table fellowship can draw our attention to the meaning of the Lord’s Supper–which points us to Christ, our Bread of Life, and unites us to one another, Christ’s Body. “Don’t eat and drink without recognizing the body!” St. Paul wrote. Our food sustains us, as Christ sustains us–and as we sustain each otherthe body of Christ. Eating is complicated, unduly alluring for some and unimaginably anxiety-producing for others. When you eat with others today–whether at church, at home, in a restaurant, or outdoors (lucky you!)–consider how you might build the body.