The Buffet vs. the Potluck

Over the last few days my husband and I attended an organic church (house church) conference, THRESHOLD, in Orlando. Despite being sore and tired both emotionally and physically from the car accident, we boarded a plane, knowing God had something for us there…and He did. I have so much that I hope to share and write about on Modern Reject over the next few weeks, including today’s post…

Growing up I used to love Chinese food buffets. I loved the variety, the endless row of choices. I would gorge myself of crab rangoons and sweet and sour chicken. My single mom liked buffets because they were cheap and easy. She could feed her growing girl for half the price.

The traditional Sunday church is very much like an all-you-can-eat buffet. There are 3 reasons, in fact, why Sunday morning church as we know it resembles a buffet:

1. Sunday church is cheap. The same reason my mom liked taking me as a kid to Chinese buffets is the same reasons many believers attend. It is cheap, meaning it doesn’t cost them much. They can literally sneak in the back on a Sunday, warm a pew for an hour, and then sneak out. They can remain anonymous and unaffected.

They are also not required to give (spend) any of their own time, resources, gifting, or heart with others. The traditional Sunday model has, for many, become an inexpensive alternative to what God really desires.

3. Sunday church is fast. Like I said, many Christians attend a Sunday service and call it a week. 1 to 1 1/2 hours is often all that is required or asked of them. No one is engaging them. No one is equipping them to serve, to participate, or to lead. It’s as if they show up with a punch card. Clock in. Clock out.

4. Sunday church is easy. If a believer isn’t being asked to spend time or energy, well then, they aren’t being asked to spend their life. They are instead being asked to spend a portion of their life. Frank Viola, author and voice for the organic church, calls church “shared life.”

If we are really sharing our lives with people, well then, it should be anything but easy. Real church life is messy, difficult, emotional, ongoing, and costs us.

That being said, real, organic church life is less like a buffet and more like a potluck. There are 3 ways that organic church is like a potluck:

1. Potlucks are home cooked. I love eating at restaurants, but nothing is as satisfying, tasty, or comforting as a home-cooked meal. Potlucks are defined by everyone bringing a dish. Each person prepares a meal and comes ready to share that meal with others.

An organic church operates very much the same way. Everyone is called to participate, not just the select chosen few. Unlike buffets (Sunday morning service) which is prepared by others ( a pastor, for example) for you to consume, in organic church, we all “cook” so we can all “eat.“Buffets are about “being fed.” Potlucks are about “feeding others.”

2. Potlucks are always different. One reason people love potlucks is because of the variety of dishes present. Sure, buffets give you lots of choices initially, but by the 2nd or 3rd go around, it all starts to look unappealing and the same.

A true church family, where everyone is participating and serving, is filled with variety. Every gathering will look and feel different. Our God is a God of variety and He loves to express this through His Body.

3. Potlucks take time. While buffets are fast and easy, potlucks require more time and commitment. You have to plan in advance, show up prepared. You could just stop by the store and buy a box of prepackaged cookies, but you know that just wouldn’t cut it.

Instead, organic church requires you to heed the instructions in 1Corinthians 14:26: “When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.” Instead of pre-made cookies, you want to share a delicious dish–a hymn, a lesson, a revelation–with your church family. You want to edify the saints, not just satiate them.

More than that, you can’t just check out after a Sunday service. Shared life, as it were, is life being lived together and that does not happen only between the hours of 9 and 12 on a Sunday morning.

To be clear, I don’t dislike buffets–meaning, I don’t hate the traditional Sunday church. I happen to disagree with the model in many respects, but I love the people. We are all the Bride of Christ. I have also experienced great spiritual and emotional growth within Sunday churches. I know, however, that God has called me away from that model to the organic church model, instead. (Here’s another post I wrote about the need and benefits of organic church, if you’re so inclined.)

I am glad He had done so. I love the fulfilled, satisfied, personal, intimate and even messiness of potlucks. Potlucks are delicious.

Do you agree or disagree? Do you think Sunday church is like a buffet or something else entirely? Have you ever experienced what you would call “shared life”?

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25 thoughts on “The Buffet vs. the Potluck”

  1. Great post Nicole. Not only do I love potlucks, but I prefer them. The typical cultural buffet is loud, impersonal, “religious” and frankly you are there to eat and run.

    Buffets are personal, intentional, different variety of cultural meals, and all that you mentioned.

    I think and pray that the next generation of Christians get this and be Church instead of do church.

    1. Moe,
      Yes! You pulled out so many other great adjectives.

      Buffets are loud and impersonal. I love too that you said potlucks represent a variety of cultures. So true and so important.

      I am joining you in praying for the very same thing.

  2. Nicole,

    Welcome home!

    I have the belief that church life, *ack!*, is nothing more than us taking The Kingdom and reducing it to a cafeteria. Pick and choose, pick and choose, and sit with those you like the best.

    Denominations? Ha. Just another way to say “Salad Bar”, “Hot Food”, “Cold Foods”, “Soups”, Desserts”, and “Throw your trash away here”.

    Shared life, for me, was when we met together outside of any formalized structure and fellowshipped as, wait for it…, FAMILY. Yes, family, with all the drama, prayer, worship, debates, sarcastic playfulness, and issues that every true family has. But all done under the aegis of a mighty God, with Jesus as our Priest.

    I miss those days.

    Nice to have you back!
    Your tweets about Frank Viola were money.

    1. Donald,
      You nailed it, of course.

      “Family” is the key word. It ain’t always pretty or easy, but it is fulfilling and satisfying always.

      SO what are you going to do to get back to those days? Just curious….

      1. Nicole,

        Well, I’m reading Frank’s books, seeking out your husband when I have questions, and gently awaiting the moment my Father says, “Go get ’em, son!”

        He’s not in a rush, so I’m not in a rush.

        But I shan’t lie…I really do crave family-style Christianity. I was raised in it, so to speak, after my Salvation. It was so different from “church life”.

        1. Well reading Frank’s books will only grow that desire. They will ignite a fire in your heart for authentic church family or grow the flames that are already there…

          I hope God says “soon” for you and your family.

          Church life vs. family life. I see a post in there somewhere.

    1. Frank,
      Thank you for stopping by! I so appreciate it.

      I would agree with you that most “house churches” are just smaller versions of Sunday service only they happen to be taking place on a couch.

      I use the term “house church” because I think most people are more familiar with the term. Whereas “organic church” takes more explanation.

      All that to say, I plan on writing a post in the next few weeks explaining the differences between the two.

      Blessings to you Frank and your ministry.

  3. I dig the analogy. My only concern is that you don’t put too much emphasis on the model. A house church can be just as much of a buffet if you aren’t careful.

    Models are great catalysts but don’t guarantee anything.

    The Holy Spirit will move anywhere He is invited from the mega church to the 2-person Bible study.

    It’s more about creating the right atmosphere for God to move than a specific format.

    Full Disclosure: I attend a sort of hybrid church. We do break into home groups 3 Sunday mornings of the month and we meet in a ministry center on the 1st Sunday of the month. I love our model but it can easily become powerless if we didn’t know how to steward the presence of God.

    1. Tony,
      I agree and you are correct. Model is key.

      This post was already too long without going into the model.

      My house church has no “pastor” no assigned “leader.” Jesus Christ is our head and Shepherd within the group.

      It is a deconstructed model, if anything. It makes many people uncomfortable. But man, can God truly reign when we get out of the way and let Him lead.

      I do plan on writing a practical post discussing the model and structure of organic churches. You beat me to the punch! Thanks for the great thoughts and additions to the conversation.

  4. Love your Post Nicole….. Love a potluck vs a buffet… awesome analogy….And really think a “shared life” is key.

    I have really been thinking about this a lot lately. Relationships that are quick, get the prayer requests in and your on your 30 seconds GO! I tend to get involved and then the next year it is like you don’t know the people, they do not even say hello. Or you really do not know what’s going on in your friends/fellow believers life. Sort of Drive thru relationships?

    I guess relationships with fellow believers could be thought of the same as with Christ… the more of “you” that is in it the more you become like him.

    Sadly it is often like this with friendships not just church and the body. I just game back from Nebraska where I have a friendship that is not like this. We used to hang out each week, always know what is going on in our friends lives, live the moments with each other. Pray together. Stop at each other’s houses, our kids run the streets (safely with us there), and when my friend watched my house as we moved to Arizona her and her husband decided to paint the laundry room because they felt it would help us. It did. I think this is what a “shared life” is.
    Something silly I will mention that isn’t about church’s but I feel fits. I found out a friend moved on Sat and closed on their new house. She is pregnant. I couldn’t help but be very sad we didn’t know, didn’t help. My husband mentioned how they probably paid for the help… but still.. In our old days, when someone moved…we knew, you bought the pizza and beer (or soda) and everyone was there. Helping. Even with paid movers. To me this sense of “community” is something I long for. God created us to desire helping each other, bringing something to the table.
    I agree with Tony the spirit can move where he is allowed and creating the right atmosphere. This is where your potluck comes in. The church’s I have been to that have that atmosphere are people who bring to the potluck and are encouraged to do so. Become the body of Christ and all or most “pitch in”. They are truly family. Whether an organic house church, a church in a warehouse, or a church in a highschool… or a large church. This is the difference. IF the people do not welcome growing together, being honest with each other and viewing the church as “theirs” to contribute to… Good Bad and Ugly it will definitely be a buffet. The church’s I have been to that really have this difference and do what God intended really foster the atmosphere that we are ALL here to help out and be there for each other and grow. We are ALL the body of Christ, as a parent in our church WE do not raise your children for you (buffet style), that is your God given job but the church is a part of it to love on them and here to offer guidance and community. Ironically the church’s I have been to that create this atmosphere successfully make it very hard for you to go “unnoticed”.

    1. Jen,
      I love your comment. You nail it in the end. Yes, if there is authentic family then you cannot go unnoticed or even unappreciated for that matter.

      I also love the expression you used, “drive-by friendships.” I might steal that for a blog post.

  5. In the midst of planting a church, I can’t help but be afraid that ‘Sunday morning’ will get in the way. I think that is God’s way of reminding me that our church life is so much more than that. This is constantly on my heart and mind and I wonder if I won’t end up in a different setting in the future. For now, I’m content and happy with where I am.

    I’m curious about how this model works for people who are exploring Jesus and don’t really know much yet. Is it hard to invite friends or are people just as open to this setting as they are a large service? Would love to hear more on that specifically.

    Can’t wait to hear more about your experience at the conference. Thanks Nicole!

    1. My husband and I just recently planted a house church. It really is only fair to call it an organic church because we have no pastor or leader, except Christ as our head.

      I do think Sunday morning services can get in the way. They reinforce, often times, the come sit, be fed mentality. Instead of, participate, edify, and glorify.

      As far as I have read regarding organic churches, they are often more appealing to new believers or the unchurched precisely because they don’t take place in a “special building.” Also because you have a more immediate, built-in family.

      I’m looking forward to writing the follow-up post on the model. I hope to hear your thoughts on that post as well Heather!

  6. There’s so much here that resonates. We’ve been exploring and engaging with “shared life” (exact words used too) for the last eleven years. What an audacious ride.

    I just finished an article I’m contributing at on July 25th titled, “Why I Don’t Go To Church” and it touches on a few of the threads you mentioned. It’s always a wonder to discover that God is whispering similar things into the hearts of His people.

    Good words and thoughts here, Nicole.

    1. Erika,
      Wow. I cannot wait to read that post! I’m marking my calendar so I don’t forget to read it.

      I’m sure I’ll have so many questions for you, as someone who has been in shared life for so long.

      Thank you for sharing. I’m looking forward to it.

    2. Chris,

      I respectfully have to disagree with you on this one. I don’t think the key question every church should be asking is “are we living missionally?”

      I don’t even know what that means. “Missional” has become a hot-button, Christian buzz-word. Most Christians couldn’t even tell you what it means.

      More than that, it is not a Biblical term (although it might, on some levels, be a Biblical concept).

      I would say the key question every church body should ask is: “Is Jesus Christ our Head?”

      In many traditional Sunday morning church settings, while Jesus may serve as Lord, He does not serve as Head. The role of head is usually relegated to a pastor or teacher.

      If we are the body, then He must be the Head of that Body.

      To be clear, the church life I practice is “corporate.” Who says corporate has to be a certain number of people. Is 50 corporate or only 200?

      The Bible offers no specifics on church size. None. And all of the examples we have are actually of smaller churches that met in homes.

      My organic church is NOT a small group and does not operate like one, in any sense. It is church.

      I know what traditional churches have to offer. I have been blessed, equipped and encouraged there. However, to think that a smaller number of believers gathering with Christ as their Head is any less powerful or glorifying is simply not true.

      I hope you get to see an organic church in action someday. I think you’d be surprised.

      Thank you Chris for your thoughtful comment. I’m glad you are a part of this discussion. Blessings to you.

      1. I don’t doubt you in the least. I trust that when you say you are doing church that means you are experiencing community, developing relationships, worshipping both together and on your own, taking care of those less fortunate, defending widows and orphans, raising up new leaders, celebrating each other and the gifts that each has, sending people out to be leaders and be the church in other places.

        I don’t worship my pastor. I respect him and his leadership above me. But I can assure I worship only one person and that is the risen King Jesus Christ. He is the head of global body of followers, His Bride, the church.

        But as a congregation, we come together to be the hands and feet of that body, to point people towards a Christ-centered life. We do this by intentionally raising up new leaders and equipping them to be sent out to be the church where there is no church.

        Is this not what the Apostles did in Acts?

  7. Hi Nicole,

    First, let me say that I have eaten so much Chinese food that I am shaped like Buddha.

    Next, although a Christian, I avoid attending church meetings as much a possible; I’m of the “where two or three” school of religion.

    My wife and I attended the same church actively for 27 years and intended to be buried in the churchyard. Then our denomination changed some basic doctrine and we slipped away without fanfare. Good move.

    I have noticed that home churches tend to grow into regular Sunday-Go-To-Meeting churches in a hurry. Practical problems arise such as a nursery for babies, a class for kids, and parking in front of a neighbor’s drive. And home churches tend to solve these issues the same way stable churches do.

    That’s just an observation.

    I like the idea of attending a church meeting the same way you’d attend a movie: you go to the theater, see the show, then go home without even having to speak to anyone else there.

    You get to escape your problems for an hour. Nobody tells you about how the candy concession needs to make more money. The theater manager does not unload the problems of the business on you or reveal his personal problems. And nobody meddles in your business.

    Unfortunately, churches like that tend to show B-grade films or documentaries.

    Were I stranded on an uninhabited island and never see another soul, that circumstance would make me no less of a Christian than I already am.

    The camp-song, group-grope atmosphere of home churches I have seen make me shudder.

    OK, I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness but that’s ok; I happen to like the wilderness.

    Maybe if church meetings served egg foo young, I’d be more attracted to attend. But that’s just me.

    John Cowart

  8. I think your analogy is very interesting. But I also think that at the end of the day you have to be very careful because, like mentioned above, model is part of the key. You can do organic church to your heart’s content, but if the house church one attends thrives solely on the variety of the people already there, then how does it become any different than the buffet churches that have burned you in the past?

    The key question that has to be asked of ANY church is, “Are you living missionally?”

    I don’t think it matters what model you attend as long as you are doing something to reach lost people. Period.

    If there is no emphasis on missions, no emphasis on being the church, then you have done nothing more than create another denomination.

    Denominations are nothing more than the breed of thought that I can do something better than somebody else. It may be seeded in doctrinal differences, disputes in interpretation, but at the end of the day, I PREFER this way and I can do it better than you can.

    I applaud your effort to be the church and I will for sure pray for you by name.

    I prefer the “corporate” setting. I need my small group. I also need the community of the corporate worship service. A chance to recharge, regroup. A chance to re-engergize and dip my sponge back into the bucket so I can go wring it out on other people daily. I need my personal worship, the lifestyle that I try live daily as I glorify God in everything I do. I need the leadership of my local church as they have skill-sets and gifts that I do not have and they help speak into my life and create a culture of growth and learning.

    Please understand that I am not knocking what you choose to do, nor am I attempting to place what I do on a soapbox. I don’t want to seem like the guy who attempts to flame everyone in one comment, never to return.

    In fact, my church has 5 campuses worldwide, one of which is a house church model in Bangkok, Thailand.

    I just know that the general public lives in a culture/society that does not get excited about Scripture and Worship and I am thankful for my church that creates a culture where people can be excited and then we can equip them with the tools they need to go be the church both locally and globally.

  9. I LOVE the thought of an organic, house church. So here’s the deal. I’m in seminary, I’ve done my share of internships at the traditional big churches, and I’m not in any way calling them out as bad or wrong. But the idea of church as you present it seems so refreshing. It’s the type of church I’d love to be a part of or plant when I finish. May have to steal this idea and pray about it, blog about it!

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