A Church That Reinvents Itself

I guess it’s partly because I’m a hopeless foodie, but I seem to find bizarre connections between restaurants and the church. I’ve explored before the trend of tiny restaurants as they relate to the gifts of the small, intimate congregation. Today it’s Grant Achatz’s new place, called Next, previewed in the NYT. (NEXT Church people: how can you not be intrigued? It’s right there in the name.)

From the NYT:

When a chef has nothing to prove and nothing to fear, what does he cook?

Now that is a compelling question!

Now 36, Achatz is at the top of his profession, having achieved his lifelong ambition last fall when Alinea was awarded three Michelin stars. He has the sober perspective and what-the-hell attitude brought on by a near-death experience.

That’s right. Achatz had advanced throat cancer and was told that his tongue would need to be amputated. His life would probably be saved but he’d be a chef with no ability to taste.

He sought a second opinion and is cancer-free today.

(Does it belabor the metaphor by pointing out the diagnosis some have given the church? Yes, some have called us “deathly ill.”)

His food at Alinea is already highly inventive; now, Mr. Achatz has set out to reinvent the restaurant itself.

Achatz felt he would be bored and complacent simply changing the menu every so often. So they will be changing the actual restaurant each season:

So, rather than the earthbound categories of Japanese, Italian or Peruvian, the food will evoke cloudier concepts: Kyoto in springtime; Palermo in 1949; Hong Kong in far-off 2036. A menu might be designed around a single day — say, the Napa Valley on Oct. 28, 1996, the day Mr. Achatz started work at the French Laundry, where he remained until 2001.

…All involved insist that Next will not be a kind of Disneyfied time-travel restaurant, but a serious exploration of culinary history and creativity, executed with the perfectionism that is entwined with Mr. Achatz’s intense personality.

Now on one level, there’s something crazy about this kind of restaurant—the prices are truly mind-boggling, and there are people who can’t afford to eat, after all. But there is something powerfully spiritual about a beautiful meal, be it in your best friend’s kitchen or a lovely restaurant. I remember hearing about a restauranteur that planned an autumn menu and somehow filled the restaurant with the faint aroma of burning leaves. People were in tears, remembering childhood days gone by and dearly departed parents and grandparents. (See Big Night and Babette’s Feast for more about the spiritual resonances found in food and drink. See also the stories of Jesus.)

So. When a church has nothing to prove and nothing to fear, what does it do? Maybe it does something radically new each season.
…Not as a gimmick, but as a challenge to innovate for the sake of the gospel.
…Not out of desperation, but out of an awareness that we, as a community are always changing.
…Not to be clever, but because people are starved for a real, authentic experience of God and community,
and maybe sturdy, reliable liturgies that change only imperceptibly over time aren’t going to cut it anymore.

We already have an incredible scaffolding at our disposal: the liturgical seasons. I’ve appreciated for years the fact that the Presbyterian order for worship is, basically, set. It’s the skeleton on which we put the skin and sinews each week. Which sure makes life easier in the throes of worship planning. Then again, should the season of Lent and the season of Eastertide really have the exact same skeleton, just with different hymns and prayers?

Random additional thoughts:

Maybe it’s a crazy bad idea. My nonagenarians would rise up and ride me out of town on a rail… joined by several Boomers and probably a Gen Xer or two.

Or maybe we already do this seasonal reinvention, sort of: sermon series, small group studies for Lent. I don’t know though, it feels like we could be even more daring.

This would take an incredible amount of effort. But it’s effort that could energize folks in very powerful ways.

Small churches seem ideally suited for this—it’s easier, perhaps, to be responsive to the real shifts going on in the community rather than changing for change’s sake. On the other hand, I’m talking about the layout of the worship space, liturgical art, music, maybe even lighting. You need people for this, not to mention some Benjamins to pull this off.

Would it create rotating congregations? People who check out until the new “menu” appears because they don’t like the current one? On the other hand, how is that worse than sticking with a single menu that appeals mainly to folks who’ve grown up eating that kind of food?

People who need church to be a rock, a place of consistency, would probably hate it… Unless the core values and practices could somehow remain constant and consistent. And they still might hate it.

Unless they absolutely love it.

5 thoughts on “A Church That Reinvents Itself

  1. Martha Fein

    There is a cycle that constantly reinvents itself and thus changes things — the seasons. Jewish holidays all have multiple components — a biblical one, a spiritual one, and a seasonal one. Thus Passover is a celebration of our liberation from Egypt, a celebration of family and our connection to our history, and also a celebration of springtime. All three together create the meaning of the holiday. (Plus lots of complaining about matzah!)

    So could a church incorporate the seasons into the worship? I don’t know enough to discuss it knowledgeably, but I’m sure there’s room to grow there. That would mean that rather than changing the congregation, you incorporate the community into the cycle of change around them.

  2. Rachel Heslin

    The seasons change every year, yet every year, we still have the seasons. Is there a balance to be found between celebrating continuing cycles and embracing that *this* cycle is new to us, something like the understanding that one can never step into the same river twice — ?

    What makes *this* spring different?
    How are *we* different?
    How can we evoke just enough nostalgia for springs (and summers, etc.) past to provide the comfort and stability we need to feel excited about moving forward into something new and unknown?

  3. anne

    your discussion today made me think of one of our book/video groups—the hosts in this group often plan a menu that goes w/ the book:beef on weck when we did tim russert’s book, chinese table setting and food when we did the red violin, etc, and we HAD to have beef when we did the movie temple grandin. it does seem to energize things to ‘take it to the next level.’ when we do doris kearns goodwin’s ‘wait till next year we might have hot dogs and jello.

    i recall the draping of the cross at bpc and the splashing of the baptismal water there too. getting all of our senses involved is powerful!

  4. Rev Dr Mom

    This is a fascinating post. As an Episcopalian, I suspect that my “skeleton” might already be “meatier” to start with in that our liturgy is more set, but I do vary it with the season in very distinct (I hope) ways.

    IME, though, it’s larger churches, not smaller ones who have the resources to do some of what you mention: move the furniture, change the art, be more innovative in music. I’m thinking of one church in particular that spent time being very intentional in how they arranged the seating (and as cathedral, they have chairs and not pews), and that uses their sanctuary to showcase art to great effect. That kind of innovation would not go over very well in my current setting I’m afraid, nor do I have the architecture or $ to allow for it (although a lot of what they did/do is not costly) but I would love to (Just so you know not all boomers are against that sort of thing 🙂

    1. MaryAnn

      Yes, my husband said the same thing about the church size—you really need the resources to pull it off. So I’m thinking there’s gotta be a sweet spot—small enough that you’re not trying to cater to a huge number of different constituencies and tastes, but large enough that you have some depth of resources there.


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