The clipping is long gone, but I read several months ago in the Washington Post about a new trend in upscale dining in New York City: “pop-up” restaurants, with five or six tables, total, or even one large table where the entire evening’s clientele sits together to dine. Chefs are opening these eateries as a way of downsizing their administrative workload and living out their vocation in a more personal way. Rather than overseeing the many complicated operations of a large kitchen with a large staff, chefs get back to basics by doing all the cooking themselves. They offer just a few dishes each day, change the menu based on their own preferences and availability of ingredients, and serve a small group of folks (sometimes as few as 10) who are up for an adventure with a group of friends or strangers.
As I read the article, my mind went immediately to the downsides. Sure, it could be fun to try something new, and I’m enough of a foodie that I’d give it a go… but sometimes (more often than I’d like to admit) I just want to slip into the booth of some large, comfortably generic chain place and eat food that tasted exactly like it did the last time I was there.
It would be much harder to be anonymous at such a micro-restaurant. Sitting with people one doesn’t even know? What if one of the other patrons turns out to be a first-class boor? You’re stuck with him for the whole night. And the economics of the thing must be daunting for the proprietors. Dining at these places isn’t cheap (though to be fair, the price tag isn’t that outrageous, given that it’s New York).
And yet, I saw plenty of upsides. In many of these places, atmosphere is secondary—the focus is where it should be, on the food. It seems like a big (OK, maybe a small) “in your face” to our culture’s decades-long slide toward homogeneity and away from mom-and-pop establishments. How cool would it be to have an accomplished chef explain the evening’s dishes that have been prepared just for you—a little bit of intimacy, connection and care in a big bad anonymous world. Yes, you walk into one of these places not knowing quite what the menu will be, but isn’t that just a little fun and unpredictable? And while it’s true that the stranger sitting next to you at the table could be a boor… so what? That’s life—real, gritty, authentic life. And who knows? He or she could be perfectly delightful: an angel unaware. (Maybe this is why some people like to stay in B&Bs over hotels.)
As I near my first year as pastor of a small church, I’m intrigued by the parallels between these tiny restaurants and the congregation I now serve. People have asked me "is it really part-time?" and the answer, at this point, is yes. Sure, the buck stops with me, but it's a much smaller buck, so it's manageable. We've also had a season in which the pastoral care load has been very low---we're pretty healthy at the moment---which helps keep ministry manageable. And I am blessed with capable lay leaders and elders, who keep things running smoothly. They also appreciate the gifts of the smaller church---they'd rather serve a few dishes well, programmatically speaking, than to try to become the church equivalent of the Cheesecake Factory.
Certainly we don’t have all the bells and whistles, yet our hospitality is unmatched. Like the chefs of these pop-up restaurants, I’ve had friends who pastor small churches say that they feel free to experiment in worship in quirky ways that may be more difficult in larger places. (A friend of mine did a fun summer sermon series on “spiritual lessons we can learn from the Roomba.” Yes, the vacuum cleaner.)
I also know that in our culture of “bigger is better,” small church folk can sometimes feel a little inferior to larger churches with more resources and members. Perhaps this restaurant trend provides a way of thinking about the work of local congregations that honors their own unique flavors—regardless of their size.