Fifty-five years ago the United States was deep into The Cold War. Paranoia, patriotism, and poor communication combined to allow such bizarre and embarrassing phenomena as McCarthyism and backyard bomb shelters. Our government, in an effort to protect and defend the American public, launched into a research frenzy — looking to find any and every way to keep John and Jane Q. Public safe. Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent to insure our competitive advantage over the Commies. Of the thousands of studies, none perhaps was more vital to our way of life than the U.S. Government Study on the Consumption of Pancakes. The final 1954 report — 656 pages, with an additional 71 pages of footnotes and citations — rests in some dusty archive somewhere, but I stumbled across an abstract of the study and share here some highlights, focusing on parallels that I believe may apply to congregational life in The United Methodist Church. Please keep in mind that the report on Pancakes is 55 years old, but, hey, some things never change.
Who eats pancakes? — In 1954, 99% of people in the United States reported having eaten a pancake at least once in their lifetime. 81% claimed that they liked them — 5% saying that pancakes were one of their “favorite foods” — 7% saying they did not eat them/did not enjoy them, and approximately 11% reporting indifference. 22% reported having pancakes at least once a week. Compare this with the church. Approximately 98% of Americans claim they have been in a church at least once in their life; about 80% claiming membership or regular affiliation with church, mosque, or synagogue. About 8% of our population claims “never to attend church services,” and 4% not to believe in God or a divine power. Approximately 11% report indifference, and just under 1-in-4 Christians (23.8%) attend church once a week.
What is a pancake?— dairy, fat, and flour comprise a tasty, non-nutritious flat cake in the most common U.S. version, also known as “flapjacks,” “hotcakes,” and/or “griddlecakes.” One of the most enlightening discoveries of the government study is that the pancake itself is not what makes it popular, but what is put in and on the pancake. Pancakes are popular as “delivery systems” for fruits (blueberries and bananas, most popular), nuts (pecans and walnuts), fats (butter, sour cream, peanut butter), sugars (maple syrup, honey, jams and jellies, molasses, powdered sugar) and often partnered with high fat meat products (bacon, sausage). Though the term wasn’t used in 1954, pancakes are the epitome of “comfort food.” People are attracted to them because they are yummy — like candy and cake for breakfast! The government study concluded that there is no true nutritional value to pancakes, and that a person would suffer greatly from a steady diet of them. The study also notes that the appeal and popularity of pancakes diminishes greatly if efforts are made to increase their nutritional value — wheatcakes, johnny cakes, those made with wheat germ and whole grains, etc., are much less popular than good old fat, greasy flapjacks. The parallel to the church is simply this — our local churches are delivery systems for gospel goodness, chock full of fruits, nuts, fats, and sweets. It is our challenge to seriously consider what nutritional value we offer. Many churches provide the equivalent of “comfort food,” not making many demands or calling for much sacrifice. Metaphors are limited and break down, so I want to say that this does not apply to the majority of our churches, but I offer it as an invitation to look at the content value of what we do in our congregations. In the same way that all edibles are not “good food,” not all activities and programs are “good ministry.” Too often we judge success on popularity and participation not value and impact. Many people want church to simply comfort them and make them feel better. Such pancake piety feels good, but it is questionable whether it is “transforming the world” or providing an overly healthy witness to the will of God in Jesus Christ.
Military uses of the pancake (I kid you not…) — there is virtually no good military use for pancakes: no identifiable use as a weapon beyond as a medium for poison has ever been discovered. Pancakes do not travel well in their cooked form, and pancake batter has a very limited shelf life, even with refrigeration. The non-nutritive aspects of pancakes makes them a poor ration for soldiers, and while the high carbohydrate and sugar levels offer a quick energy boost, they result in a logy, sluggish, and lethargic state in those who consume them. Syrups and toppings are generally sticky and therefore not practical in the field. The U.S. government study recommends that pancakes not be a staple of the military diet, even though they are very easy to produce/prepare in bulk. The parallel I see for today’s church is that just because something is easy, popular, and makes people happy doesn’t mean we should be doing it. Christianity is a religion of commitment, discipline, sacrifice, and service as well as comfort, joy, and contentment. Many church leaders shy away from the things that make people uncomfortable and unhappy, preferring instead to focus on the uplifting side of our faith. While this may produce apparent harmony, it does not produce faithful Christian community. What we “feed” our parishioners should energize, vitalize, equip, and prepare them to go forth into the world as the incarnation of Christ. We don’t want the body of Christ sluggish, lazy, and out of shape.
Even back in 1954, the government came to the conclusion that fruits, vegetables, fiber and high-protein/low-fat meats were the better way to go. Though it would be decades before a truly nutritional approach to diet would emerge, even in the fifties it was becoming apparent that the leaner, cleaner, and more natural the intake, the better the output.
Pancakes are great — almost 9-out-of-10 people agree — but good for you? Not hardly. No one can exist for long on pancakes. Healthier foods and moderate exercise are necessary to keep the body functioning well. Same goes for the church body. The happy, friendly, upbeat and comforting messages are great (9-out-of-10 people agree), but to become the healthy people God wants us to be? We need a lot more. We need a diet that challenges us and confronts us, that forces us to change and grow, and that prepares us for the hard work of ministry and service in the world. There are aspects of our faith that just aren’t easy, happy, simple, or fun — and no amount of syrup can change it.