The Potluck Party of God
by Michael Rhodes ’08 and Robby Holt ’93, with Brian Fikkert
New Prospect Missionary Baptist Church, a large congregation serving a predominately African American population in Cincinnati, operated a soup kitchen for homeless people for many years. After a while, though, ministry leaders realized they weren’t building relationships with those they served. So they began asking people who came to the soup kitchen about their skills and abilities, their dreams and desires.
The results were shocking: the congregants found carpenters, plumbers, artists, musicians, teachers, and caregivers, all coming to the soup kitchen at New Prospect. But most astonishing of all was the fact that over 50 percent of these men and women being served food prepared by church leaders listed cooking as one of their talents.
New Prospect got the message. As Pastor Damon Lynch put it, “Folks were telling us, ‘We don’t want to stay over here on the receiving side of the table. We’re not just recipients. . . . We want to cook and serve, too. We want to belong by contributing.’” And so the homeless people began to cook the food and church members began to receive it. Instead of a soup kitchen, New Prospect created the kind of community that can only emerge once everyone is empowered both to give and to receive gifts.
The King’s economy calls us to care for those who are struggling economically. But so often, the metaphor for our compassion becomes the soup kitchen. We line up on one side of the serving line and scoop heaping hot resources into the bowls of hungry people standing on the other side. We might ladle out soup or clothes or shelter or education or counseling or spiritual nourishment. We can ladle anything we want so long as we have it, they don’t, and they are willing to take it from us.
But what if in God’s economy our goal isn’t a soup kitchen? What if it’s a potluck? A soup kitchen divides us up into haves and have-nots. At a potluck every single person both gives and receives. Food comes from everyone and goes to everyone. Everyone gets fed and everyone brings a plate.
Now, I’m not talking about some WASPy millennial potluck either, the kind where you grab potato salad from the grocery on the way. I’m talking about a potluck like the ones we have in my South Memphis neighborhood. I’m talking about sweet potato pie, fried pork chops, and greens . . . with bacon in them. South Memphis potlucks are so good because folks spend all day in the kitchen getting ready. When my neighbor Betty brings a plate to a potluck, it’s the best plate of the week. The potluck God invites us to isn’t a last-minute compilation of leftovers. It’s the party to which everybody brings their very best dish.
In community development circles, we often quote the proverb about giving a man a fish and feeding him for a day versus teaching a man to fish and feeding him for a lifetime. Sometimes we even talk about who has access to the fishing pond. But in Jesus’s economy, the primary goal isn’t captured by any of these. Eating, fishing, and access are all necessary, but not sufficient. The ultimate goal is to be so vested economically and socially in the neighborhood that you and your neighbor can participate in the potluck fish fry. This changes the way we think about helping others. If God’s economy is a potluck rather than a soup kitchen, our primary problem isn’t that poor people “out there” are hungry and hurting. Our primary problem is that because of economic poverty and sin, the poor aren’t “in here,” participating fully in the joyful life of the community, giving and receiving gifts around the Lord’s table.
Think about it for a moment: What’s the goal of your economic life, of your habits of working, producing, consuming, and investing? For many, including many who most shape our economic policies and agendas, the present shape of our economy produces people oriented toward selfish ends, so that we aim our economic lives toward self-gratifying consumption.
Isn’t that true for most of us? I mean, we probably include a spouse or aging parents or our children in our economic goals, and we certainly would like to tithe when we can, but at the end of the day, our economic agenda primarily serves our individual benefit. Like archers, we aim our arrows at the target of “me and mine.”
This view works nicely with the soup kitchen. Each family makes sure they’ve got enough for themselves, however they define it, and then they hopefully have some left over. Those leftovers are just what we need for the soup kitchen! But if what we’re after is a potluck, then the potlucking community becomes our target right out of the gate.
We typically begin conversations about our economic lives by asking what individuals are like and then working our way toward what this means for our community. We in the United States actually represent the extreme end of the spectrum on this issue when compared to other countries and cultures.
So in our US cultural climate, we tend to think of society as just a collection of individuals; the community itself is more of a bonus in the background of our minds. But for God’s people in the Old and New Testaments, the pattern tends to start the other way around. In other words, the Bible sees the community as absolutely essential for the sake of both individual and communal flourishing. Kingdom economics, then, calls individuals to aim at the community for their own sakes and for the sakes of everyone else.
Individuals matter and communities matter. We can’t have one without the other. If we begin with the idea that the community God wants is a potluck, where the poor are not only fed but also bring a plate, then that will shape the entirety of our economic lives.
Excerpted from Practicing the King’s Economy: Honoring Jesus in How We Work, Earn, Spend, Save, and Give by Michael Rhodes and Robby Holt, with Brian Fikkert. Published by Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group (bakerpublishinggroup.com), 2018. Used by permission. For more information and to download a free sample chapter, visit PracticingTheKingsEconomy.org.
About the Authors
Michael Rhodes ’08 is the director of community development and an instructor at the Memphis Center for Urban Theological Studies.
Robby Holt ’93 is the senior pastor of North Shore Fellowship in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and an instructor for the Chattanooga Fellows Initiative.
Brian Fikkert is the founder and president of the Chalmers Center for Economic Development at Covenant College, where he also serves as a professor of economics and community development.