In defense of the cafeteria

I was in high school when I first heard the term cafeteria Christian. The American preacher was telling us about it at church camp, he was a passionate apologist, and I remember a lot of “them” and “those people,” a lot of derision about the idea, shaming. Because cafeteria Christians, especially those cold and liberal mainliners, just pick and choose whatever they like from the Christian faith, more concerned with political correctness than the Real True Doctrines.

Cafeteria Christians, well, those people don’t take what they’re given, the whole nutritious balanced plate, no, they make a meal at the ice cream sundae station, chase it with Lucky Charms, they skip veggies.

In my tired years, I was a mega-church refugee, a burned out ministry wife, a doubter, a questioner, a people-pleaser, a tired performer, a new seeker all over again, and I found my way to the Anglican Church. And they helped save me a time or two, because I was not taking communion, I was receiving the Eucharist, just another twenty-something evangelical kid on the Canterbury Trail.

One day, I was on a lunch break from my credit union gig in downtown Vancouver.

I walked up Burrard, hugely pregnant with my second child, hurrying through the crowds of business suits, sidestepping buskers, pressed by the constant hum of conversation, of busy and capable people, the feeling of go-go-go-go on the young city’s sidewalks. I cut from the crowd at the corner of Georgia to climb the stone steps of the old church.

From the voices and the bustle, the modernity and money of our glass towers and dime-a-dozen sushi joints, to the narthex of an old cathedral. This silence and holiness, this quiet, was existing right at the same spot, but for the seeking. The weight of holiness and prayer, the smell of candles, old wooden pews, lanterns, musty papers. The dull light coming through hundred-year-old stained glass windows illuminated only dust swirling in the air. The church was completely empty, yet the doors were open, and even that small grace felt like a whole new thing to me.

Despite my enormous belly and ungainly posture, I managed to kneel down on the kneelers in front of the altar. There was a prayer book for people to write down prayer requests for evening prayers, and candles that could be lit to symbolize one’s own prayers, the unspoken, unshared, the ones that didn’t make it to the book.

In those years, it was the deepest question of my lonely heart …. 

what is it to live as if you are loved?  To no longer feel this need to strive or prove anything? to just rest in the unforced rhythm of the grace of God? I had no idea what that would look like for me, I had no idea if it was even real. Every week, I came here, and I struck a match, in hopes the wick would light for me again.

The oddest thing happened on that day. I started to cry. I don’t know what it was, maybe just the pregnancy hormones, a miracle encounter, who knows. It was all so wonderful and beautiful and quiet, I suddenly couldn’t stop myself from crying.

There was space for me there, and I felt air filling my lungs, arms wrapping around me, and a tremendous sense of rest came over my soul. The wick caught, I dropped the match.

I felt overwhelmed by Love, surrounded and enveloped.

I didn’t have any desire to pray for anything. I didn’t want anything. I didn’t need anything. I felt sufficient and whole, mended and healed, caught. I just wanted to rest there, in that Presence for a while longer.

A line of Scripture that I’d been memorizing rose up in my heart: He will quiet you with His love. And it made sense to me. I felt…quieted. I felt that love, that peace and suddenly everything else seemed to fade in importance. It seemed funny to me that everything seemed quieter – my failures, my fears, my still-angry questions, my worries, even my victories, all quiet now. There was just Love there. I felt like a child in that space between awake-and-asleep, wrapped in the arms of their mother.

I got my start in the small organic faith churches of western Canada, and it was good, but I needed the kind conservative Southern Baptist pastors’ wives I discovered in my early twenties, and I needed the Mennonites to teach me about pacifism and thrift, and I needed the mega-church’s passion, and I needed the newly-reformed friends, and I needed the mysticism of my charismatic roots, and I needed the desert Abbas and Ammas.

I needed Lectio Divina, a labyrinth, liturgy, and the Jesus Prayer, I needed my Bible, and my friend Tez in Australia, and I needed the Book of Common Prayer. I needed the established theologians, and poets, and the up-and-coming bold bloggers, I needed the emerging church, and now I need my little community Vineyard. I need happy-clappy Jesus music, and I need the old hymns I sing into the cavern of the bathtub while I wash these small tiny souls in my care, and I need Mumford and Sons, too. I needed my husband’s seminary textbooks and discussions, and I needed big hairy worship anthems in stadiums with light shows, and then, when I didn’t, I needed empty cathedrals, pubs, the Eucharist every week, open fields, and church outside of the lines, and I need it all, still, always, I hold it all inside.

I used to call myself a Jesus-follower, unable to identify with all these Christians

—I wanted to rid myself of my affiliation with the Church, emphasize Christ as the centre of my faith without the baggage of the Church. But I couldn’t be a Christian by myself, and I am the Church, too, and here I am, there you are, there’s room for all of us.

Part of what restored me to the Church was this: learning that the Body of Christ is bigger, wilder, far more glorious, than my own narrow ideas and personal experiences with her. Now I prefer calling myself a big-tent Christian, a no-labels Christian, a Christian with a generous orthodoxy (thanks to Brian McLaren for that term), a banquet table believer, a mismatched homemade quilt of all the ways to walk in The Way.

I’m a picker-and-a-chooser, maybe that preacher would call me a cafeteria Christian, but I’m just like everyone else, and the picking-and-choosing, the matching together of seemingly disparate ways of being a Christian, it all helped save my life.

I needed to spend a bit of time in the cafeteria, I needed to settle down at a big table with a crosspatch of food. The Body of Christ is bigger and bolder, more lovely, in the wilderness, than I’d ever known or expected if I’d remained only in my one little camp. It was my crossing camp lines through reading, conversation, friendship, showing up to listen, that kept me. I’m all of it, I think it’s mismatched and holy and beautiful.

[photo: basykes, Creative Commons]

  • Holly

    This is beauty, Sarah. You know what’s funny? My husband swears that what won me over to him was when I professed that I thought God was like an all-you-can-eat-buffet. At the time, I was young in my faith and not very wise and I wanted to talk big for God so I grabbed a hold of an image that sung of excess. But reading this piece, I see that maybe, even in my green days, I caught a glimpse of how you have described your faith journey. What others may call a “cafeteria faith” is really a huge buffet, all for the taking and sometimes my eyes are bigger than my stomach but that’s why you say grace before the meal. Thank you for this.

    • Sarah Bessey

      I love that story, Holly! Love.

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  • Susan

    I love that you have found what I did when I left the harsh churches I grew up in and moved into the Anglican Church. Yes, it is a large house with room for many. The beauty of the masses minister to me.

    • Sarah Bessey

      A beautiful church that ministered a lot of life to me in that season.

  • Melissa

    beautiful Sarah…my mom used to call us “Heinz 57″ Christians because after leaving the catholic church when I was two…we denomination/tradition hopped all through my growing up years, to the point where I could not deny God’s presence in each church we found ourselves in…now, I am in my “mega-church ministry” recovery phase, myself…and thankful for the reminder of how BIG God and the Body of Christ is..

    • Sarah Bessey

      Heinz 57 – that’s hilarious. Love it.

  • Cynthia

    Oh yes. I was just thinking about all of this last night, the way bits from here and pieces from there all speak to my soul and how rich we are, truly, because of all those different expressions of worship and love and all the rest.

    • Sarah Bessey

      Yes, well put, Cynthia.

  • Shalom

    I love love love this post. I, too, struggled with this issue. Growing up Catholic, raised by Catholic parents and grandparents, and having gone to Catholic schools both in elementary and high school, I was told that the Catholic teaching was the only valid teaching in Christianity. When I grew up, and especially when my family and I moved to Canada, I was exposed to other Christian denominations – the Baptists, the evangelicals, the orthodox Christians, etc. Such exposure actually helped me grow my faith. It made me realize that that Body of Christ is diverse and that I, as a member of it, am proud to be a part of such a diverse and rich heritage.

    We, here, in Canada always boast of our multiculturalism and diversity. We find that there is richness in diversity. We, Christians, should also realize that there is richness in our diversity – in our differing opinions, beliefs, and practices. As much as it may seem that diversity poses problems and/or conflicts, we should know that in diversity lies our strength, as Christians and followers of Jesus.

    There’s an Anglican Church that I passed by almost everyday on the way to school. It looks exactly like a Catholic cathedral. I’m pretty sure they do things a bit different there, but one thing I know for sure is that the people there are no different like me. They follow Christ as I do. And that’s the only thing that matters.

    • Sarah Bessey

      Fellow Canadian! Glad to read this, Shalom.

  • Michael Moore

    Beautiful… Passionate and heart-touching… Thank you! As one rediscovering ministry and calling after years in the desert, you touched my heart…

    • Sarah Bessey

      Thanks, Michael.

  • Caris Adel

    I love that someone’s defending the cafeteria style. I used to feel so guilty about picking and choosing, but really it is just getting to experience a little bit of every style.

    • Sarah Bessey

      Yep, some Lucky Charms are a nice treat now and then. ;-)

  • Emily Wierenga

    oh sarah. what is it to live as though we are loved? i’ve needed to hear this for so long. this is what i’m searching for. this kind of peace. sharing this all over the place. love you.

    • Sarah Bessey

      I love you, too. Miss you!

  • Jacqui Buschor

    Sarah, thank you for this.

    Recently, I was talking with one of the teenage girls who hold part of my heart about some big questions and ‘what if’s’ she has about her faith. This girl’s questions and desire to seek and find a faith she can own all her own, and at such a young age, is stunningly beautiful to me. It’s not hard to feel intimidated away from asking big questions in the Midwestern mainline protestant tradition in which we were both raised. We had a long conversation about how God is so big and so untamed that there just must be more than one way to find God and experience God’s love, much like you’ve described.

    This girl had lost her mother to cancer less than two months earlier and so, in all of our meandering, ‘what if’ theological conversations, which she loves, I had paid special care in steering far clear of anything to do with Heaven. But toward the end of this particular conversation she thoughtfully questioned, “But if God is that much bigger than I thought, that must mean Heaven is a lot bigger, too.” I said, “Let’s just say I think your mom might be eating better than casseroles and bundt cake.” She grinned.

    • Sarah Bessey

      Beautiful, Jacqui. Love that you are walking this road alongside of her.

  • Charity Jill Denmark

    It’s such a great thing to be reminded that we need to have grace for our past selves, for the things we’ve picked up along the way. There was a time in my life that I needed the rules of an Acts 29 Church; sure I get embarrassed sometimes that that church is part of who I am, that God had to bring me THERE. But then there is grace. Thanks for sharing this piece, Sarah!

  • Paige

    Sarah, I walked into that same cathedral about mid-day on Good Friday with my husband and kids. We were traveling home from Whistler to Spokane, but I needed to be in a church on that day, and having spent the night in the hotel across the street and looked out from our many-floors-up window and seen the church, I decided that was the one. There was some bustle in preparation for evening services, but we were welcomed and encouraged to look around. It wasn’t silent, but the holy hush of an old church dampened the noise of the activity, and I felt the welcome mediated by the Spirit that I so needed on that day. (And then in POURED rain on us as we ran for our van.) This was a lovely reminder.

  • HopefulLeigh

    How I relate to this, Sarah! In some ways, it reminds me of when I was getting my masters in social work. We were learning all of the theories and putting various things in to action in our fieldwork placement, figuring out our strengths and weaknesses as practitioners. Most of our instructors said we wouldn’t adopt one theory but would instead become an eclectic blend of what we learned and what we liked. And that turned out to be absolutely true in my social work practice. We are all eclectic in our own way, faith or otherwise. We pick and choose from different perspectives, ferret out the truth, figure out what we believe and it all blends together.

  • Shelly Miller

    I call myself a spiritual mutt, grew up Catholic,Baptist youth group, then evangelical mega churches (my husband pastored one) and now we are Anglicans, leading a church planting movement in North America where we meet in funeral homes, movie theaters, under trees on a sunny day. I think I have taken the beauty of each experience and shaped into a table ready for consumption. I like your term big tent Christian. Always enjoy reading your thoughts.

  • Jen

    Love this, especially the part about He will quiet you… I listen to the chaos of the church at times, the directives, the distractions, and feel like I should be more anxious, more active, more something. But He has quieted my heart, He has taken away the anxieties and wrapped me in Him.

  • Emily Wierenga

    ps. this reminds me of the post i wrote today, about our church experience yesterday: love how God’s knitting his believers together.

  • Jenny

    Such a beautiful writer and a beautiful soul. So thankful you share your journey. I’ll share this blog. So many need this grace. He is preparing a banquet – perhaps not unlike a glorified cafeteria.

  • kelli woodford

    Oh, you had me here: “The wick caught, I dropped the match.”

    Says all of it together in that one sentence, I think. That describes the transition you made.
    And are making. Like us all.
    (and the line that stuck out to Emily W. — she shared it to fb and it grabbed me cuz it’s been the tag-line on my blog header for a month . . . to live like I’m loved.)
    A hearty Amen.

  • Kelly Sauer

    A beautiful, introspective piece – I can relate to so much of it. God is so good in the way He draws our hearts…

  • Mama Bean

    Deus ex maior quam is – God is bigger than. In this case, bigger than Church. I love cafeterias, that’s how I get. my. fill. of Bigness.

  • Linda Stoll

    If our faith is healthy, it keeps on growing, evolving, changing, thriving. The dead, dusty, dry stuff falls off and blows away. Roots go down deeper, stronger. All that is green and blossoming and fragrant and ripe and good keeps reaching toward the heavens, where the nourishment comes.
    And all the glory goes back to Him.

  • Jennifer Harman

    Thank you for this. I have been trying to figure out how to explain who I am in Christ, and have done the same: Jesus follower, in the attempt to distance myself from all the preconceived notions many have when I say I am a Christian. This article made my heart sing; I saw myself in this. Blessings :) ~jennifer

  • Ryan Haack

    “what is it to live as if you are loved?” Boom. That right there is where I am at this point in my life. Thank you for sharing your experience and for encouraging me to live mine.

  • Dawn

    Thank-you for a wonderful piece of writing. For years I’ve said,” I am Christian”. Neither protestant or catholic or liberal or fundamentalist; please don’t label me. I love the Lord, the trinity. I try to live a life of gratitude and try to not hurt anyone. In a 12 step program they often say take what you like and leave the rest. I find I am always changing as is my understanding of my of God,so I guess the cafeteria offerings and my appetite changes too. Moderation and a balanced diet in most areas is a good idea.

  • Mary (

    Grew up a deeply conservative Lutheran preacher’s kid. Still go to a Lutheran church. Love the people there, love the ‘Berean’ (search the scriptures) emphasis, love the old hymns, and also the new choruses (with one of my sons on drums, and another on guitar) at the start of the service.

    But I also love the big emotional stuff at other churches,the raise your hands and sway and sing at the top of your lungs with passion. I love the very stuff that my dad was afraid of, because he said sometimes feelings can waylay us and confuse us, and really, the best truest wisdom comes straight from the Bible. I see his point and I still believe that Scripture is the first place to turn.

    But I’ve had enough of God talking straight into my heart to know that He doesn’t only talk to me in the Bible. And the older I get the more I see that different people sometimes need different approaches, different styles of worship. We each have a unique story, unique strengths and weaknesses and needs. God is big enough to talk to us in ways that fit each of us. Not saying I believe every faith has all the right ideas, because there’s some mixed up stuff in this world, (mostly surrounding a human wish to ‘do’ our own salvation by our own power, under our own steam, when really it’s all Jesus.)

    But I believe in a God bigger than a particular building or a specific denomination, and I totally understand how God was able to speak to you at so many different points in your life.

    Blessings on you today,
    Mary, momma to many

  • Sue Cramer

    Love this, thanks.

  • Charlotte

    Sarah, you write so beautifully and I just love it. I like the idea of a buffet because I want to experience everything, I want to experience lots of different expressions of faith. I love the fire and passion of my Pentecostal roots, and I love the contemplation and liturgy of Catholicism. I felt welcomed in the Lutheran church I visited for a class in college. One day I hope to visit an Anglican church, an Episcopalian church, a Presbyterian church, and a monastery. When I visit another church I tell myself I’m visiting another side of the family.

  • idelette

    I didn’t know the term “cafeteria Christian,” but I am certainly that. I have been all over the place and have found God every time, in the farthest corners of the world, in *every* denomination. For me, it’s such a beautiful picture of Kingdom. I do prefer a picture of a picnic on the hill, rather than a cafeteria, though. But I know that I know this: there’s “food” in every tribe and tongue, if we have ears to hear. Love love love you and your big heart.

  • kedamak

    “In my tired years…” I think I might be in my tired years and looking for a simplier and quieter way to live out my faith. Thank you for sharing these words; they were an encouragement to me.

  • kedamak

    “In my tired years…” I think I might be in my tired years and looking for a simplier and quieter way to live out my faith. Thank you for sharing these words; they were an encouragement to me.

  • kedamak

    “In my tired years…” I think I might be in my tired years and looking for a simplier and quieter way to live out my faith. Thank you for sharing these words; they were an encouragement to me.

  • Melissa Fedd

    Good grief. This is glorious and holy and I love that wildness…and I too tried to not be a Christian…The capital C just looked like it spelled conservative and I couldn’t stand it. “learning that the Body of Christ is bigger, wilder, far more glorious, than my own narrow ideas and personal experiences with her.”…Ah-mazing

  • Diana Trautwein

    LOVE this, Sarah. Thank you for acknowledging that there are actually some truly lovely things about denominations/different worship styles/mixing it up a bit. We are all wired differently AND at different stages of our lives, the wiring morphs a bit. I’m grateful for lots of different experiences of Jesus in my story – from what I learn in different places, for what I bring to different places. It’s a lovely mish-mash, isn’t it? It’s good to celebrate that – so thank you for this. (always and forever, amen. :>)

  • Diana Trautwein

    LOVE this, Sarah. Thank you for acknowledging that there are actually some truly lovely things about denominations/different worship styles/mixing it up a bit. We are all wired differently AND at different stages of our lives, the wiring morphs a bit. I’m grateful for lots of different experiences of Jesus in my story – from what I learn in different places, for what I bring to different places. It’s a lovely mish-mash, isn’t it? It’s good to celebrate that – so thank you for this. (always and forever, amen. :>)

  • Diana Trautwein

    LOVE this, Sarah. Thank you for acknowledging that there are actually some truly lovely things about denominations/different worship styles/mixing it up a bit. We are all wired differently AND at different stages of our lives, the wiring morphs a bit. I’m grateful for lots of different experiences of Jesus in my story – from what I learn in different places, for what I bring to different places. It’s a lovely mish-mash, isn’t it? It’s good to celebrate that – so thank you for this. (always and forever, amen. :>)

  • Annie |

    Sarah, this is such a hope-giving journey. The way churches and cultures bear the image of God, the way you write about it, it reminds me of the way different children in a family bear their parents’ image – in looks and inflections and temperament and character. Grateful for your eyes to see this beautiful broken body here and for your sharing it.

  • Terri Trewin

    I still need you and your journey, SarAH.

  • Kelly Seminoff

    What a beautiful challenge, to design a church that could be all those things you described. But of course, that’s not the point, is it?

  • kt_writes

    I love your recognition of this moment: “I didn’t have any desire to pray for anything. I didn’t want anything. I
    didn’t need anything. I felt sufficient and whole, mended and healed,
    caught. I just wanted to rest there, in that Presence for a while

    And it’s funny—I wasn’t familiar with the idea of “cafeteria Christians,” but a year or two ago I wrote a post that has stuck with me, about the idea of this table we gather around being a potluck rather than a pre-plated meal. In the plated meal, you have no choice but to eat it all, or you don’t get dessert. The potluck invites everyone to come and taste as little or as much as they want. There’s plenty of food and plenty of time to digest and stir up new appetites, try new things. I really think this “clear your plate” approach to belief scares away so many who might otherwise be up for approaching the table.

  • Maryanne Thomson

    Love it

  • Pam Hogeweide

    Beautiful writing. Beautiful insights. Just You. Beautiful.

  • Hope

    I love THIS! When we say “I have a personal relationship with Jesus” it really DOES mean to worship Him in a way that gives us that intimacy with Him (which is why He created us in the first place)!
    I like that I can draw from my Baptist/Christian/Calvary Chapel/Foursquare background to worship Him by lifting my hands or swaying or standing so very still. In June, it gave me peace to light a candle in a Catholic hospital chapel when a baby died and to pray with the chaplain who I trust so much.
    Thank you for pointing out the freedom we have in Christ!

  • Sherry

    Oh my, how this ministered to me today. I came from a highly fearful Charismatic background, to a very strict Calvary Chapel church, to a Bapti-Costal megachurch. I crave the quietness and liturgy of the mainline churches. I am a cafeteria Christian. No one has it all figured out, and God is not a in-the-box God who follows the same formula for every one of His children. Thank you for this–this ministered to me today.

  • Martha

    From my Baptist, Seventh-Day Adventist, Assembly of God, Charismatic, and now Episcopal spiritual journey, I thank you for saying what I wanted to say and what I needed to hear from someone else. LOVE IT!!!

  • Phillip

    I am a first rime reader and I can honestly say you have a refreshing way with words. Thank you for taking the time to share your gift with us. As a pastor I realize our church is just one expression of the various ways people worship God and you have expressed it beautifully.

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  • Mary Kaye Ashley

    Sarah, I love this. Here in MN, we have smorgasbrods – and we each take what we want & need, and leave the rest for others. Just because I don’t like pickled herring doesn’t make it bad stuff; it’s someone’s delicacy! Give me the broccoli, and the Lutheran liturgy, and a friend praying for me over the phone when I need that, and and the crab, and people who put up with my messy desk, and introverted and extroverted colleagues, and used books, and great thoughts, and music that gives voice to my prayers, and keeps my heart whole – and a bunch of other things, but you get it. If I try to eat everything at the banquet, I can get ill, but just enough, and I am blessed

  • Laura

    Apparently we have a very different understanding of the term “cafeteria Christian”. It sounds like that for you, this means different types of worship or focus of a church.
    Where I grew up, cafeteria Christian was a term used to describe those who would pick and choose which parts of the Bible to follow. This may often fall along denominational lines as these are the areas in which churches broke up over understanding of Scripture but it always was based on picking and choosing from the Bible.
    So while singing hymns or the latest in pop-worship may be a church and individual preference, I do not consider this part of the cafeteria Christian lifestyle but rather could be considered a cultural or personal expression of the same Biblical principle. The underlying principle is still the same which seems true from all the examples you gave.
    Where cafeteria Christians differ, in my understanding, is that they pick and choose which Biblical principles to follow and use them against each other to cancel each other out. For example, an individual with a homosexual brother may be aghast that the Bible says it is wrong so they use other parts of the Bible about loving one another to cancel out the unpleasant part. Another example would be to insist on some of the OT laws such as no tattoos and head coverings for women while ignoring the ones in regards to a cutting her hair or anyone wearing cloth of two different materials.
    The idea of a cafeteria Christian in my parts of Oklahoma and San Diego (haven’t talked about it here in N.Carolina yet) has always been understood as a person who is essentially creating their own doctrine based on the Bible rather than using the Bible as the formation of doctrine. That is why being a “cafeteria Christian” is so looked down upon because in the end they are not putting God first but rather using their own value systems to dictate what will be included in their personal religion.
    All the stylistic differences mentioned in this post are still Biblical in nature and as you pointed out at times you will be drawn to a different style/focus based on how God is working with you. But they are all part of the Church and the basic tenants of faith remain the same – that isn’t being a cafeteria Christian.

  • Lori Pollard

    Loved this. I’ve travelled all over the church bride in my 25+ yrs. of Christian idendification. I have just recently come to realize and appreciate this cafeteria experience in forming who I am and what I might do with that life changing knowledge. Thank you for sharing your insights!

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  • Karen S.

    I, too, am a picker-and-chooser. And I, too, have needed all those things to help me heal me. The strictly Evangelical and sometimes Fundamentalist path tore me up. And I am so thankful that God and His church are bigger and better than all of our denominational ramblings and know-it-all-edness. I am learning to be more and more comfortable living in the not-knowing, in the questions. Thank you for sharting.

    • Karen S.

      Oh dear! I just realized I typed sharting!! Of course, I meant sharing!

  • Joy Martin

    Oh thank you! What a breath of fresh air this post is to me right now. I’ve been trying to figure out how to love the Church these days when sometimes I just don’t and this just put it all out there in a good way ! This pastor’s wife sure appreciates your words! Keep writing real !