5 Things The Church Can Learn From Anthony Bourdain


He’s abrasive, crass, and never hesitates to speak his mind.

Look, I get it. You might not like him. In fact, you might loathe him.

But me? Other than my wife and daughter, there’s nobody I would rather travel the world or share a meal with than Anthony Bourdain. Without even knowing the (hypothetical) destination, I know it would be fascinating and the food, oh the food would be amazing because Bourdain (being the chef that he is) has a spiritual gift (with the help of great fixers) for finding delicious, delicious food.

You probably know (or maybe you don’t) that I’ve got a baby to take care of these days. She’ll be 6 months old in just a couple of weeks. It’s crazy. Like most parents my age, I like to indulge in some Netflix while I feed my daughter.

I used to love Anthony Bourdain’s old show No Reservations and watched it religiously when it was still on the air (and we still had cable). So, you can imagine my joy when I discovered that Netflix is now host to Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. Parts Unknown is his new show with CNN, but it’s basically just No Reservations 2.0 which is just fine and dandy with me.

As I’ve been vicariously traveling the world with Anthony Bourdain from the comfort of my couch, I realized that this guy has a few things to teach those of us in the church. Now, if you’re familiar with Bourdain or his show, then you’re probably thinking either A) that show isn’t remotely religious, so what the heck am I talking about or B) the church has a few things to teach him.

But bare with me here.

I don’t think Bourdain can help us reinvent Christianity, but I do think he (unintentionally) has a few things to teach us – or perhaps remind us – about how to be the church in and for the world.

So, if you’re a Bourdain hater, I ask you to set your Bourdain distain aside for a moment and consider that maybe, just maybe there are a few things the church can (and should) learn from Anthony Bourdain.

1. The World Is Much Bigger And Diverse Than We Realize

This one goes for American Christianity especially, but I suspect it rings true for every church no matter where it’s located. But in America we seem to have a spiritual gift for seeing the faith (and life in general) through red, white, and blue lenses. This American outlook is something Bourdain is keenly aware of and tries to shed in each episode. Not because he’s embarrassed to be an American, but because he realizes that our “America is the greatest country ever in the history of ever” rhetoric not only doesn’t endear us to our global neighbors, it creates real problems in the world for just about anyone and everyone who isn’t blessed to be an America.

We suffer from this same sort of patriotic myopathy in the church, convincing ourselves that the things we in America believe are essential to the faith or essential for Christian living are the definition of Christian orthodoxy and Christian orthopraxis (right living) everywhere. This is a position of arrogance we absolutely must abandon.

As the world shrinks and we come face to face with the stunning diversity of creation (and the challenges that come with it, we have to accept the fact – and wrestle with the consequences – that there are other Christians in the world who love Jesus every bit as much as we do, but think about the faith and live out the Christian life in distinctively different ways than we do here in the States.
2. Embrace Difference

Yes, Anthony Bourdain takes his fair share of cheap shots at all sorts of things (and people) on his show, but his biggest target by far is the cookie cutter cubicles of comfort we love so much in America. We want our food to be recognizable, our homes to look like our neighbors, our “adventures” to be predictable, and as for “those” people – you know, the ones that look and act and talk and smell different than us – we go out of our way to avoid them, lest we ever feel uncomfortable for any reason. But on his show, Bourdain goes out of his way to seek out this sort of difference. He wants to meet the people the rest of us avoid, hear their stories, experience even just a small bit of their lives, and of course, share a meal with them.

Our churches have become bland, predictable, and monotonous. Rather than breaking new ground for the kingdom, we tread old predictable paths that have already been deemed safe, proven “successful,” and made comfortable by some celebrity pastor or megachurch somewhere. Worse, far worse, we go out of our way to avoid the people in our community (and churches) that makes us uncomfortable.

If we are going to answer the call to carry the gospel to the ends of the earth, we must change our ways and learn to embrace difference.

3. Judge Less And Ask More Questions

I’m always struck by the lack of judgement Anthony Bourdain brings to each new culture or group of people he encounters in his travels – not least of all because he’s got plenty of judgment for people and culture back home. But when he’s out on the road, he leaves his presuppositions and prejudices at home, choosing instead to accept the people he meets on their own terms. Instead of trying to force foreign cultures and people to conform to his worldview, he asks questions about why they do the things they do and eat the things they eat and believe the things they believe.

It should go without saying that we should approach missions with this same sort of attitude of humility, grace, and curiosity. But if we could find the courage to judge less and ask more questions of our neighbors here at home, then maybe, just maybe our churches wouldn’t be so monochromatic and judgmental.
 4. Church Meals Don’t Have To Be Awful

Ok, I confess, this one might just be personal. After all, church potluck dinners are the downfall of my ministry – I hate casseroles. The thing is, every time I see Anthony Bourdain get together with a big group of people in whatever country he’s in and no matter how poor the people might be he’s hanging out with they always have a delicious looking spread and I think, “Why can’t church meals be this good?” I mean, we all have people in our churches who can cook, some really well. Maybe every Wednesday night meal can’t be awesome, but at the very least on those special occasions when we all get together to eat (especially when the community is invited!!), we can do better. And Anthony Bourdain’s show is indisputable proof that despite our doubts and claims to the contrary, it is in fact possible to serve great food to a big group of people…and not just settle for an endless array of green bean casseroles.


5. Table Fellowship Can Change The World (Or At Least Your World)

Speaking of food, this last point might be the most important – and church appropriate – point of the whole bunch.

If nothing else, Anthony Bourdain’s show is a testament to the healing power of a meal shared together around a common table. Many of the places Bourdain travels to on Parts Unknown are countries the rest of us would never visit; sometimes because there are legitimate safety concerns, but often because those places, the people that live there, and the food they eat, just make us uncomfortable.

In each episode, Bourdain makes it a point to sit down for a meal with locals. Sometimes they’re affluent locals and they eat at expensive restaurants. But more often than not it’s a simple meal shared around a simple table with people we’re taught to believe we should fear or even hate simply because of where they live or what they believe. Which is why every time Bourdain sits down at a table with the people we’re supposed to consider our enemies, he demonstrates both how difficult it is to keep hating people when you have to share a meal with them and the simple, but beautiful reality that our supposed enemies can sometimes be more kind, gracious, and gracious than we have ever been to them.

Like Anthony Bourdain’s show, the life of the church centers around a meal – the Lord’s Supper. We believe it is a meal full of grace that has the unique ability to mend and heal the broken relationships that exist between God and one another. If we learn nothing else from Anthony Bourdain it should be this – if the Lord’s Supper is the only time we share a meal with strangers and enemies, then we’re missing out on an incredible opportunity to heal a broken world.

I don’t mean we need to book plane tickets for Afghanistan this afternoon, head out tomorrow, and find random strangers to eat with. Most of us don’t have the money to travel the world like Bourdain does. I know I sure don’t. But all of us have the ability to share a meal at home or at church or in somebody else’s kitchen with people other than our close friends and family, with people that can and will challenge the way we think about, look at, and act in the world.

Which is why I believe if we can find the courage and creativity to make sharing a table with strangers a regular part of our lives, then maybe, just maybe we can begin to change the world (or at least the way we act in it) one meal at a time.