Confused by Food…and Maybe Church

Indian food 3I’ve started a thing that whenever I’m down in the Chicagoland area to do my DMin (Doctor of Ministry) class, I try a local restaurant. I’m not talking chains or franchises, I’m talking something local and with flavor. Last time it was a Mexican restaurant. And before that a Mediterranean version of Subway or Q’doba. This time, I had a hankerin’ for Indian food.

I asked around and one person said, “Oh, you got to try ___________.” I thought about it and then did the only logical thing and asked Siri on my phone what Indian restaurants were around. She (yes, I’m referring to my phone now as she) gave a good number and __________ was on the list and not that far away. Awesome.

If you weren’t looking for the restaurant you wouldn’t have known where it was or where to park. As I walked in, the place was filled with the design, artwork, and cultural heritage of India (and also Nepal as well I found out). The hostess didn’t even ask me how many, she just offered me any table I wanted to sit at (it was kinda slow at the time). As I sat down, she brought out water and a brittle bread with four types of sauces. She took the time to explain the sweet sauces from the spicy ones (do not try the Mint or Pickle unless you want a fire upon your tongue!). I asked her a few other questions which she did her best to answer. When she couldn’t she offered to get someone else.

And then I waited.

I looked around the place. Beautiful artwork depicting Indian culture and ideals were hung around the large room. There was a Indian couple sitting at a large table next to me and then a large group of blond middle aged white women gabbing loudly up near the front (and by middle aged, I mean like mid to upper 40’s or over, and they were ALL blond, seriously…it was weird). As I sat there waiting, a young family of Indian decent came in carrying a baby, and then some more people of Indian decent came in. The couple at the large table next to me started speaking rabidly, rotating between English and what I think was Hindi (I wasn’t sure since I really am a clueless white dude who doesn’t always know cultural differences, I’m really sorry about that).

I tried not to eves drop, I really did. But between my waiting for someone to come, the gaggle of middle aged blonds and the boisterous family to my right, it was hard not to.

And then I saw a gentleman of Indian decent wearing a shirt and tie with a cell phone constantly blinking blue in his shirt pocket, fluttering back and forth between the big famil and the big group.

Indian food 1He eventually came to my table. He quickly asked me what I wanted to order, I asked my questions, and he had a hard time explaining things, as if I really should know what they were. I ordered my food (an appetizer and then later, much later, a main dish). As I ordered my main dish, he asked “And bread?” Bread? Was I supposed to order bread? Sure I said and asked how to pronounce a certain type of bread. He rattled off the name quickly, took my menu and left.

I saw him fluter between the two big tables and noticed that the others in the restaurant weren’t getting the same attention (there was a small family and an older couple there as well).

My food arrived and I was a bit puzzled how to eat it. I struggled through my appetizer (did I just cut into it with a fork or did I pick it up and eat it?). And then when my main course arrived, I was really confused. I thought I had ordered something that would come out on nice plate, maybe garnished with some stuff and displayed. Instead, I received a very decorative stone bowl, a basket of bread, and an empty plate. The dude with the tie left.

I glanced over at the big family gathering next to me and noticed one of the dudes had the same dish as me. I watched him eat it. He placed the meat from the bowl onto the bread and ate at. I tried doing the same but felt like a clumsy oaf.

It was interesting. The blond club up front and the family next to me understood how to eat the food, how to interact with the dude with the tie. Others not so much. And as I was leaving, so did the blond club. The dude with the tie stood at the door thanking them for coming and then half heartedly did the same to me as well.

I don’t think he meant any disrespect at all. Not in the least. It was just culturally different. The blond club and the big family knew how to interact, knew the food, and knew what to do and what to say. They knew the language and knew the people there. Nothing wrong with that at all.

Indian food 2As I sat in the restaurant and looked around, I began to wonder if this is how people experience church for the first time. People who may never have graced a church door in their life or hadn’t come to one in years or maybe come from a different tradition, walk into our church, what do they experience? Is it a culture shock? Do they struggle with not knowing the language? Do they wonder about how to read the bulletin? When to sit, when to stand, when to speak, when to listen? How do they feel when they may not fully be able to follow along just what’s happening? Do they feel out of place? We’re speaking English but sometimes rotate between English and Christianese, does this confuse them?

More than that, but do we assume they know it already? Do we assume that they can figure it out? Do we help them navigate through the weirdness that is a church service?

No disrespect to the Indian restaurant I went to. They had wonderful food and I made sure to tip well. I wanted to try some of their desserts as well but didn’t want to spend the money (or calories).

I wonder how much people grasp the culture of church. I wonder if they get lost once they enter through the doors Sunday morning.

How can we help people walking into a different world, filled with displays of our own cultural heritage, our own language, our own customs and ways of doing things, navigate through it all and feel comfortable enough to want to come and experience the culture once again.

I want to try Indian food again down the road. I want to see what my wonderful wife thinks of the Mint sauce. I’ll have to find one in the greater Grand Rapids area though.

Will those walking through our church doors want to try it again later on down the road even if they don’t full understand the culture?

These are just questions I thought of as I waited, looked around, and observed the people, culture, and place I was at last night. How can we help those outside the culture of church, experience church in such a way that they want to know more about our culture of church, and more so, about why we are there–to know Jesus.


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