On the Distinction Between BBQ and the Kingdom of God

All my reading material was on my computer so on the way into the air and on the way down I read the American Airlines American Way magazine. It’s not often that one finds stories about churches in the in-flight mag, but there it was: New Zion Missionary Baptist Church. Why? Because the church operates an apparently spectacular BBQ restaurant in Huntsville, TX.

It seems that back in the 70s folk were fixing up the church and someone was making BBQ for the workers and someone else asked if he could buy some of that good-smelling BBQ. Before they knew it, New Missionary Baptist Church had a revenue stream and a new ministry. Now the “New Zion BBQ” is one of the more famous BBQ places in America.

There are a couple of lessons to be learned here. The first is that the church got into BBQ business the way churches often get into such things: It just happened. People doing ordinary things and failing to make some important distinctions along the way leads to confusion. This is precisely how the medieval church ended up with seven sacraments in place of the two instituted by the Head of the Church (Christ). Good intentions eventually became sacraments. Indeed, the medieval church was “transforming culture” for Christ long before the neo-Kuyperians. The medieval church baptized ordinary (and often misguided) private religious acts and made them into sacraments.

New Zion should have done what the early, high, and late medieval church should have done: just say no. When someone proposed making the BBQ business an operation of the church, someone should have said, “No, that’s not proper to the visible, institutional church. If one of our members wants to operate an excellent BBQ six days a week and fulfill an honorable vocation that brings glory to God that’s proper but the church as an institution has no business being in the BBQ business.” Evidently, no one made that speech or, if someone did, the church didn’t listen. Now the minister spends 10 hours on saturday cooking BBQ. Ironically, according to the article, Sunday’s sermon was “The Marks of a Christian.” The title, at least is promising as it comes right out of Belgic Confession Art. 29. One wonders if there will be a follow-up sermon on “The Marks of the Church” and if so what will they do with the BBQ business after that sermon?

The second lesson here is to distinguish between two kingdoms, between things heavenly and things earthly, between things sacred and things secular. The church is the divinely ordained, institutional manifestation of the Kingdom of God on the earth. To her alone has been given the ministry of the gospel and discipline. As an institution, She has been commissioned by her Lord to do precisely three things: Administer the Word and sacraments, pray, and administer discipline. The ministry and vocation of the visible, institutional church is spiritual. That doesn’t mean that it’s ethereal. The preaching of the Word uses spoken, human, language (which strikes the very real eardrums of its hearers) and the ministry of the sacraments uses ordinary water, bread, and wine set apart for holy purposes—by the way, what do the anti-dualist, neo-Kuyperians do with the business of “setting apart” the sacramental elements? Does not that very act declare a clear and inviolable distinction between the sacred and the profane?—Rather, in this instance spiritual means “to do with the Holy Spirit.” The Spirit has been promised to the church and has promised to operate through certainly divinely instituted ministries: preaching of the Word (law and gospel), the administration of the sacraments, prayer, and the administration of discipline. Indeed, one of those sacraments is a meal. In the case of Annie Mae Ward’s BBQ, it appears that a secular meal has displaced the sacred meal instituted by Christ. No church of Christ should be more famous for its BBQ than for the broken body and shed blood of Christ.

The point here is not that I don’t like BBQ. I love BBQ. One of the great things about living in Kansas City for six years was the great BBQ just round the corner from us (The Smokehouse). The point here is not that Christians shouldn’t make BBQ. If a Christian has the ability to make BBQ and sell it for a profit, he should—six days a week. The point here is not that congregations should not break out of their shell and engage the community. They should. Rather the question is this: with what should we be engaging the community? What do we have to offer? To paraphrase the old saying, “If we don’t sell BBQ, someone else will. If, however, we don’t preach Christ and administer his sacraments and discipline, who will do that?” As much as I enjoyed reading about Annie Mae Ward’s famous BBQ place and as charming as the story was it was also a little heartbreaking.

BBQ is not “cult” (worship, sacraments, discipline, and prayer). It’s “culture.” It’s true that not everyone can make BBQ the way they do at New Zion Missionary Baptist Church, but anyone (Christian and pagan) can contribute to culture. What makes Christ’s church distinctive in this world is not the quality of its BBQ (or the breadth of its diaconal ministries) but the unique, scandalous, stumbling block message of the obedient Second Adam, his crucifixion, his resurrection, his ascension, and his future and certain return.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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11 comments

  1. Thanks for that, Scott. Good points all. But not the sort of thing I should be reading right before lunch. You just stirred up my craving for BBQ, and this in a BBQ wasteland.

    • I might have a solution. Costco sells good pulled pork and I’m a big fan fo Sweet Baby Ray’s BBQ sauce. Get some sweet pickles & some fries and you’re in business.

  2. Interesting. Beyond even the 2K confusion of this situation there is the matter of the IRS. IIRC, churches who operate a business like this (be it day care, counseling, or apartment rentals) must operate it as a side-line business fully separate from the non-profit books of the church itself. I hope they’ve taken this into consideration.

    On a different level, I love BBQ also and make most of my own. Every Independence Day I smoke six racks of pork back ribs slathered with a scratch recipe BBQ sauce. The friends and relatives are most appreciative. Fooling around just last week I BBQ’d some thick-cut pork chops that I’d brined overnight in a special mixture along with a mess of fresh brats. Every Thanksgiving a large fresh turkey goes into the smoker along with a mixture of cherry and apple wood for a mild flavor.

  3. I’ll take BBQ Baptist Church over Special Music Reformed Church, Glory Bells Reformed Church or Advent Candles Reformed Church any day…

  4. Thanks for the encouragement. As to iTunes, I’ve taken a look at this page which gives pretty detailed instructions, but they seem to assume that the podcast is hosted differently than it is here. It’s not clear how to get a WordPress.com hosted podcast on to iTunes. This page helps a little but I’m still working on it.

  5. Scott,
    Here is a question: what about “ministries”? Most set themselves up as 501(c) organizations, but the CEO might be pulling in an annual income of $250,000.00 or even more. This is the case in many of the so-called reformed ministries as much as it is in many others.

    These exist alongside of the church, as self-appointed “partners”, but function as an business would, under the protection of a tax shelter.

    Thoughts?

    • Hi Chris,

      It might be self-interested but I don’t have a problem with Christians forming private associations to do things the church shouldn’t be doing. E.g. I don’t think the church is called to teach geography, but I’m glad for Christian schools and others to teach it. A seminary is a little more difficult, but I’m influenced by J Gresham Machen’s argument that the church shouldn’t be in the seminary business directly inasmuch as the church as such (as institution) isn’t called to teach Greek and Hebrew or Church History or speech or even systematic theology exactly. The church is called to teach doctrine and to confess the faith but systematics as an academic discipline is distinct from those ecclesiastical acts and functions.

      As to the CEOs of Christian 501 (c) 3s making large salaries, I’ve heard stories but I’ve never seen it with my own eyes! Most folk I know in such entities are underpaid and overworked.

      I think organizations such as WSC and the White Horse Inn/Mod Ref can help Christians and indirectly help the church. In that sense, I’m not even sure that they are “para-church.”

  6. By the way, as a dabbler in Dooyeweerdian philosophy, I agree with you in regards to separating business from the church. Dooyeweerd emphasized the distinct function of every social sphere. The answer to your question is: no.

    The Lord’s Supper is bread and wine. But, not all bread and wine is the Lord’s Supper. Does that mean that every other time I eat it is not “as unto the Lord”? Nope. Paul’s admonition comes to mind here. “Whether you eat or drink….” My whole life is Christ’s, but I do not live my whole life in the ecclesiastical gathering of the saints. I give thanks for all of my food, every-time I eat— God is there, because I am His and He is mine. This does not mean that I make every meal a sacrament— that is getting too precious.

    Any way. I would love to hear your thoughts on the whole “ministry” thing.

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