I said in my book, Small Town Jesus, that good missionaries learn to identify what their small towns worship, they show the insufficiency of that idol, they call out the idol for failing to do what only God can do and they show how Jesus is better. I also said that a good missionary doesn’t worship the idols that the town worships.

To illustrate this, I’ve often used the example of a boat in my seaside community. Having a boat where I live is, for many people, where hope is found. We live to be out on the water and we believe that it will cure all things from health issues to broken marriages. It’s only when you get a boat and try to do something as simple as anchor a boat with your spouse that you realize you made a huge mistake!

That said, I’ve been a bad missionary in many ways. As hard as I’ve tried, I’ve still fallen prey to bowing to idols in my community. Part of this is probably complicated by the fact that I’m indigenous. These were my “gods” growing up and I still wander off after them. But few idols have been more damaging to myself, and to so many others in little towns like mine, then the idol of food.

Maybe my journey isn’t your journey with food. However, I believe that knowing how to navigate this issue in your small town is essential to us being good missionaries.

Why Is Food Such A Big Deal In Small Town Culture?

Food is a complicated thing in small towns. I’m not saying it’s not important in big cities, but it is more visibly worshipped in small towns. Maybe for many living in urban centers, the disdain of being obese and the worshipping of fashion and success is enough to keep food in check? I’m not sure why, but in small towns it is different. The differences aren’t all bad.

There’s Something Uniquely Beautiful About Food In Small Towns

Food is worshipped everywhere nowadays. Have we ever lived in a time where so many people post perfect pictures of what they are about to eat? We are food obsessed.

That being said, being from the South, food is the one thing that so many of us take pride in.  We are proud to cook things the way they’ve been cooked for generations. If you want to see what I mean, watch season two of “Mind Of A Chef” which follows Sean Brock, a southern rock star chef, from Charleston. Watching this made me so proud to be from the south. Our food is, in many ways, our identity. It reminds us of our roots.

It’s not just that the food reminds us of who we were; food also reveals who we are.

We love to be hospitable. We love to “bless people” and that usually means cooking them food with butter. Small towns love to “eat local.” Many churches like ours have their own pig cooker for hosting large events. The best of small town food culture is the idea that anyone is welcome for dinner and we are the first to bring you a meal when tragedy comes. One example of this is my dad, who has single-handedly prepared hundreds of carrot cakes and pound cakes for folks through the years.

Cooking in ways that remind you of your ancestors isn’t a bad thing. Being hospitable is a beautiful thing. Many of my friends who live in large cities love visiting us and experiencing this hospitality, but that’s not all that’s going on.

There’s Something Tragic About The Way Small Towns Approach Food

Food is literally what brings many people in small towns comfort. “Comfort food” is actually what we call a lot of the food we love. Because of this, obesity, and the diseases that stem from obesity, remain one of the major killers in small-town America. A lot of this has to do with our definition of what tastes good, but it is much bigger than that.

Many folks in small towns and rural areas have not been kept up to date on the trends towards health and nutrition that dominate much of urban America. The shopping choices are not remotely the same in small towns so access to “healthy food” is not as much of an option. Additionally, the poverty that much of small-town America faces forces them to eat cheap food that is invariably unhealthy.[1]The way that our farming and food production are now hyper-industrialized has played a radical role in making the food that is available to many in rural areas very dangerous to eat.

All of that to say, “Rural residents face greater challenges to living healthy lives…Rural America is fatter than urban America…We’ve ignored rural America in public thinking. We do know this is a population with major needs.”[2]

I grew up in a small town in North Carolina and moved to an even smaller town in Texas when I was eighteen. By the time I met my future wife in Southern California, I weighed 340 pounds and had never eaten a salad. I didn’t know what a calorie was until I was in my twenties. I was clueless and headed towards an early grave because of it. In Southern California, the land of gyms and beautiful people, I stuck out like a sore thumb. Eventually, I learned about nutrition and had the ability for the first time to really make a change. I started working out and lost 110 pounds over the course of a year and a half. I felt better than I had ever felt in my life.

Tragically, this was short lived as I moved back home to plant a church in my small town where I had grown up only to restart this vicious cycle of overeating and gaining weight again.

Food, Like Anything, Is Dangerous When We Worship It

Tim Keller is famous for illustrating how things become an idol. An idol, Keller points out, is a good thing that we make into an ultimate thing, or a “god thing.” That good thing then becomes bad. This is what many in small towns do with food. We aren’t content with making it good; we make it “god.”

Gluttony is an obsession with food that the bible warns us against.[3] It could look like overeating that produces obesity or it could look like a skinny person who is obsessed with nutrition.

There’s much that could and should be said on this subject, but for brevity’s sake, it is important to note that not everyone who is overweight is necessarily a “glutton.” For example, there are many who are overweight because of injury or other health related issues. Laziness is another possible culprit behind being overweight. But again, we must avoid quickly labeling anyone who is overweight as a “lazy glutton.”[4]

The point that we need to see is that food is a good thing, but food becomes bad when we make it ultimate.

Where Did My Journey With Worshipping Food Start?

Looking back, I remember food being a very key part of my “happy moments” in life, but I think it took a real turn towards idolatry when I was in high school.

This was when my dad went to prison and my mom had to travel for work a lot to make ends meet. This often left my brother and I at home alone. I learned to cook out of necessity. I was terrible at it for a long time. But eventually it clicked for me and ever since I’ve been the main cook at almost any event I attend. Along the way, I began to associate food with happiness and being accepted.

Presently, I have a large smoker on a trailer frame that can smoke twenty racks of baby backs at a time. I pride myself in my creative brines and ability to perfectly sear meat. Even many of my closest friends order whatever I order at a restaurant because I see any menu as a list of ingredients to be played with instead of already put together meals. I want to find the best use of these ingredients and I feel confident that I’m better suited to make this decision than the actual chef of the restaurant. (Arrogant, I know!)

You get the point. I don’t just like food; I love food. Food isn’t just something I eat for energy; it represents a part of my identity. Cooking food is one of the first things I was ever good at in a time of my life where I felt all was lost. People often joke that if ministry doesn’t work out they will back me in a restaurant. Food plays a major part in my life.

What Does This Mean For Me As A Missionary?

Conviction has been building about this for some time. I came across Philippians 3:19 and considered for the first time what this actually means and, most importantly, if this was true about me.

“Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.” – Philippians 3:19 (ESV)

What does it mean to say, “their god is their belly?” Paul is calling for the Philippians to live in a way that makes sense considering where they are headed. To remember where their real citizenship lies, where Jesus is waiting for them. He’s calling them to live like being with Jesus is where true hope is found. The opposite of this is to live for this world. To live pursuing pleasure found in “earthly things” like food and drink.[5]

I’ve come to see the ways in which this is not only true for me but for so many in small-town or rural America. For either reasons of pride of culture or seeking comfort, we have bowed before the god of our stomachs. We have put hope where hope cannot be found. We have an idol called food.

What Do We Do About This Idol Called Food?

It’s no surprise that, as I’ve learned to apply the gospel to this part of my life, I’m seeing real change. I’m learning that Jesus is enough and seeing how gluttony keeps me from demonstrating the sufficiency of the gospel. I’m not out of the woods yet, but I’m off the roller coaster.

If this is you as a leader or represents those you lead, what should you and I do about it? We confront this idol, like all other idols, with the powerful gospel of Jesus!

Before you start passing out dieting books at church on Sunday, here are some ways I would suggest going about addressing this:

In Love, Help People See The Destructive Consequences Of Worshipping Food

It’s highly possible that many of the folks you lead have never actually seen this as a problem. On the other hand, many of them have and feel trapped. It’s our job to say hard things in love and we should remember this rationale of love when we go to speak truth to people who worship food. And as I said earlier, in doing this, don’t assume that everyone who is overweight is worshipping food. Ask questions before jumping to conclusions. But when you do need to speak truth, remember to speak it in love.

Consider Jesus with the “rich young man”[6]. What did this man worship? Most likely it was his wealth and his freedom. Jesus did indeed call him to walk away from all of that and follow him, which is a hard thing to say. But what we often miss in our effort to speak truth is the motive:

“…Teacher, all of these I have kept from my youth. And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing…” – Mark 10:20b-21a (ESV)

Can we say hard things like food is killing you and your witness to people that “from youth” have been taught to worship food? I think we can but only if we are looking at these people with the love of Jesus.

C.S. Lewis said, “Idols always break the hearts of their worshippers.[7]” Keep this in mind. People who have a love affair with food will suffer broken heartedness much like the rich young man who was “disheartened” and “went away sorrowful.”

Point Out The Insufficiency Of Food To Truly Satisfy

This is not about weight loss per se, however, many people I know from small towns, including myself, have tried to lose weight and have had seasons of victory in our self-control. But all of this was in vain because it failed to get at the root of the issue. Our problem wasn’t just a lack of self-control. It was worshipping the wrong thing. By missing this, we applied the wrong tactic to change. We applied the moralistic formula of “do better/try harder” instead of “see how Jesus is better.”

As many have said, “do better/try harder” always results in one of two unhealthy destinations: pride or despair. This is the case for many when it comes to health. They ride the roller coaster of pride and despair because they don’t understand that the root is not just a self-control issue; it’s a “love” issue. We love something that won’t satisfy.

Show How Only Jesus Can Do What Food Promises To Do

In a food dominated world like the South, it’s always been so amazing to me the analogies that Jesus chose to use when he wanted people to really understand how amazing he was:

To a thirsty women at a well in John 4, Jesus says, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again.” – John 4:13b-14a (ESV)

To a group of hungry disciples Jesus says, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” – John 6:35 (ESV)

Jesus, not Snickers, satisfies us. Hunger and thirst are prompts to remind us that we are deeply hungry and thirsty for something that this earth can never fulfill. We are left with sand in our mouths as we run to mirage after mirage hoping that we will finally be satisfied until we come to Jesus and find what we’ve always hungered for.

As Augustine said, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in Thee.”

Remind Them Of The Hope We Have In Jesus’ Obedience!

I recently read Job 23:12b, “…I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my portion of food.” I was convicted again at how untrue this is of me. I have loved food more than the words of his mouth so many times.

But then I remembered what Jesus has done in my place. He has given me his perfect record of obedience and that includes not worshipping food over the will of God:

“Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.” – John 4:34 (ESV)

I get to stand in the love and acceptance of God not because I’ve perfectly navigated my relationship with food and God’s will but because Jesus has! This sets me free from condemnation and shame. When I do well, I rejoice in Jesus. When I mess up, I find comfort in Jesus.

Call Them To Live Differently By The Gospel And For The Gospel

As important as it is for us as leaders to model something different, we aren’t the only missionaries; those in our churches are too. Show them that the way they relate to food matters for the sake of the gospel.[8]

Help folks see that the watching community is hungry for something that cannot be satisfied by the temporary food of this world. Call them to put that on display by enjoying food but not worshipping food.

Provoke Them To Long For The Meal Of All Meals

The belief that a particular meal will bring heavenly satisfaction is as old as the first lie in the Garden of Eden. That was a meal that led us away from God’s presence. But, through a new meal we are called back to the presence of God and reminded that one day we will feast with Jesus forever.

Taking communion, feasting and even fasting together as believers is meant to call us to remember that a day is coming when we will celebrate the “marriage supper of the Lamb.”[9] That is the meal we are living for! We will be united with him and all our desires will be finally and eternally fulfilled.

We live for this day and for this meal. By doing so, we apply the gospel to our own lives and put it on display for the starving all around us.

[1] For more on this, read “Hillbilly Elegy” by J.D.Vance

[2] “Rural America Is Fatter Than Urban America” by Dr. Julieynn Wong ABC News Medical Unit, September 14, 2012

[3] See Proverbs 23:20-21

[4] Obviously, there are obviously some who are “lazy gluttons.” See Titus 1:12

[5] See also 1 Corinthians 15:32

[6] Mark 10:17-22

[7] See “The Weight Of Glory” By C.S. Lewis

[8] For an interesting example of this, see Galatians 2:11-14

[9] Revelation 19:9