Breakfast in America: A Litmus Test for the Church?

We can forget that we are ambassadors for Christ everywhere we go, in everything we do, and to each and every person that we meet

I was listening to an interview of Kevin Finch. He is the nephew of the well-known pastor, author and thinker, Eugene Peterson. Kevin comes from a long line of pastors going back generations, and he is the founder of a ministry to people in the food industry called The Big Table.

The food industry may seem like a strange idea to target for a ministry. Kevin is eloquent in explaining his call to this ministry, hearing the clear voice of God and all. The website provides some further insight.

The restaurant and hospitality sector of the workforce is the largest sector of the workforce in the country, doubling any other industry. It is also growing faster than any other segment of the workforce. The Big Table website describes it as a “catch basin” for “all of the most vulnerable demographics” – single parents, at-risk teens, immigrants, ex-felons trying to turn their lives around, etc.

Perhaps, one reason for the vulnerable demographic is that anyone willing to work can get a job in the restaurant and hospitality world. It is often the first place people look for entry level work and the last place people look when all else fails.

“But put so many at-risk individuals together under one roof and it is not surprising that this industry has the highest rates of people struggling with alcohol and drug addiction, massive amounts of divorce and broken relationships, redline stress levels, job instability, rapid turnover, and almost no safety net.”

Restaurant and hospitality workers get paid (often not very much) for serving others with smiles on their faces, while a large portion of them suffer in own their lives. The website reports the following:

  • Forty three percent (43%) of workers in the restaurant and hospitality industry fall below the “survival” line – DOUBLE the rate of any other working population;
  • Workers in the restaurant and hospitality industry struggle with drug and alcohol addiction more than any other working group; and
  • Benefits, like health insurance, vacations, sick time, etc. are largely not available for workers in the restaurant and hospitality industry.

In my own experience, I see that workers in the restaurant and hospitality industry are often exploited. They don’t get paid overtime. Bosses often schedule them part time to avoid overtime pay so they have to work multiple jobs to make ends meet. Many get paid less than minimum wage and must rely on tips. They sometimes get paid “under the table”, which usually means they are paid less.

Working conditions can be extremely stressful in a hot kitchen or full restaurant, under the pressure of demanding bosses, expectant and often ungrateful patrons, and ever changing conditions. The lowest paid workers are often the first target of angry customers and critical bosses.

One of my first jobs in high school was as a busboy in a popular restaurant. I noticed (and can still see in my mind) that every seasoned waitress, Maître d’, cook, and kitchen worker smoked cigarettes like chimneys. The stress of performing in that pressure cooker environment clearly showed in the worry worn faces of those veterans on which smiles often lost their battle with the struggle of simply getting through the night.

So, what does any of this have to do with the Church in America?

In the course of the interview, Kevin Finch said something that made my ears perk up. He was explaining how God called him into the ministry to restaurant and hospitality workers. His entre into the food industry was as a food critic for a local newspaper while he was pastoring a church as his “day job”.

People in the restaurant world, naturally, like to talk about food. Kevin noticed that conversations were passionate and lively until someone inevitably asked him what else he did. When he said he was a pastor, the air went out of the conversation.

After this happened a number of times, Kevin decided to respond to the question that inevitably came by saying that he was in “public relations”. The difference was dramatic. Conversations no longer fell flat and would continue as before without missing a beat.

The difference bothered him. Why was the knowledge that he was a pastor a conversation stopper? He asked a Christian friend who worked in a restaurant why people reacted that way. Her response is what caught my attention.

She commented to the affect that people cringe when Christians come into the restaurant. Christians tend to be more demanding than other groups of people. They are more critical. They notoriously tip less. They often overstay, taking up tables that should turn over more often. She said that no one wants to work Sundays after church for that reason.


This isn’t an isolated experience in the Pacific Northwest (where Kevin King began his ministry). My son, who worked for several years as a cook and waiter in a restaurant in Arkansas during college, told me the same thing. Sundays after church were the times no one wanted to work for all the reasons Kevin King’s friend disclosed to him. The church crowd was the worst!

Why is that?

I have to admit that I kind of shrugged it off when my son made those comments to me. At the same tine, I spent a summer in Arkansas. I know what the religious crowd is like down there. They love to “fellowship” with church people, but they are kind of naïve and aloof (for want of a better description) when it comes to outsiders.

Kevin King’s story stung with the painful bite of reality. I can see why a restaurant worker might call them rude and insensitive.

Kevin’s personal story, which was really just an aside in the larger story about his calling to the serve restaurant and hospitality workers, is something I can’t shrug off. From the Bible Belt to the Pacific Northwest, the pattern is the same. It is too similar and too disconnected by geography and local culture to be a coincidence.

The evidence is only anecdotal, but that doesn’t mean the evidence tells a false story. There is something about the Church (generally) in America that is generating people calling themselves Christians who have reputations for being rude and insensitive among the largest workforce in America.

Considering the vulnerability and neediness of that workforce, we might appropriately say that it is “a field ripe unto harvest” for the Gospel. More than any other work population in America, it is filled with people who are hurting, struggling, suffering from poverty, addiction and simply the pressure of dealing with a demanding and ungrateful public.

These are the people Jesus came for.

Jesus didn’t come for the healthy and wealthy; he came for the sick, and he came to preach good news to the poor. Jesus came for the least. He calls us to follow him and treat the least among us as we would treat him.

Paul said, “Test everything!” When I consider that restaurant and hospitality workers in America comprise such a large segment of the working poor who are plagued disproportionately by the ills of society, I would say they are a good litmus test for how the Church in America is doing with the Great Commission and the fruits of the spirit.

Not very well it seems.

This is what leads me to consider that something is not quite right with the Church in America. Something is wrong if the world does not know us by our love, but rather by our rudeness and insensitivity.

We might try to shrug it off. We might offer that, once people know someone is a Christian, they start looking for cracks in the holy façade. They expect (and maybe even demand) more. They become more critical and less forgiving of Christians than “regular” people who don’t claim any special connection to God.

I think there is some truth to that, but then again: shouldn’t they expect more from us? Do we not have the Holy Spirit resident within us? Are we not ambassadors of Christ everywhere we go?

We might add that Christians are simply “sinners saved by grace”. We aren’t better than anyone else. We just realize our need for a savior. The “world” doesn’t understand that. Right?

If we are saying that in humility, I completely agree, but we sometimes use that line as an excuse (let’s face it) for not measuring up in our daily lives and relationships with other people.

We aren’t perfect, but the fact that a Holy God is at work in us should unsettle us when we recognize a sin problem that seems to have become normalized in our midst. These observations shouldn’t sit well, and we should not be lashing out or making excuses.

We have the antidote to sin, and we need to use it. We need to confess our sin and take it to “the foot of the cross” where it can be forgiven – and more importantly, where God can work in us to root it out.

More importantly still, we need to take seriously who we are. We are not our own. We were “bought with a price”. If, indeed, we are grafted onto the Vine that is offered to us in Jesus, shouldn’t it make a difference?

Shouldn’t we bear fruit consistent with the presence and work of the Holy Spirit in our lives?

Shouldn’t the fruit of the Holy Spirit be evident in our lives?

If the Church in America is known not by the fruit of the Holy Spirit, but by the distasteful fruit of persistent sinful attitudes and behaviors, that is a problem. This reality is a sign that the American Church is unhealthy.

I realize that this diagnosis is not very scientific. I do not mean it as an indictment on all Christians in America. Maybe (just maybe) these anecdotes are the outliers. “A few rotten apples spoils the bushel”, as they say.

But, even that is not a small problem. That’s why we need to take this seriously. Some proportion of Christians in America are not representing Jesus accurately to the world, and it reflects on each one of us. It reflects on the Body of Christ. It spoils the message of the Gospel which is a lifeline to the world.

When we accepted Jesus as our Savior, He became our Lord. When we asked Him to take His rightful place in our hearts, we ceded control to Him. We may not have understood all that meant when we were new believers, but maturity in Christ leads to the understanding that we are now His ambassadors in the world.

As the saying goes, “We may be the only Jesus some people will see”. Are we a good reflection of our Savior who died for the sins of the world?

We tend to focus on the big things: church building campaigns, church planting, missions, “ministry”. We put much effort into things like vacation Bible school, Bible studies and outreaches, but we can forget that we are ambassadors for Christ everywhere we go, in everything we do, and to each and every person that we meet.

The real test of the fruit of the Holy Spirit in our lives and the maturity of our faith is not in the big things where we concentrate our attention, but in the little things where we pay little or no attention. The little things reveal our authentic and true selves.

A tree is known by its fruit.

Fortunately, there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ. If you are convicted, as I am now, you can take any failure you see to the cross where God is faithful to forgive you. There, you can renew your commitment and willingness to allow the Holy Spirit to work within you to grow you into the child of God you are called to be.

If we fail the test of the fruit of the Holy Spirit, this is our opportunity for pruning and growth. God the Father corrects His children He loves. We can be grateful that He is committed to complete the good work He began in each of us by exposing pockets of unrepentant sin.

“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,  gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” Galatians 5:22-23

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.” I Corinthians 13:4-5

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