SHAWN NILES

Don't Blame The Brick

Or, why alcohol & the church are not bitter enemies

     I am a minister, and also a professional chef. I’ve worked in Pentecostal churches, Baptist churches, and currently as pastor of a non-denominational charismatic church. In 2017, I was accepted as a contestant on Fox’s MasterChef which was the fulfillment of a life-long dream to cook for Gordon Ramsay. While I didn’t win the show, I did hear Gordon say something that dramatically impacted the trajectory of my life; he said “Shawn, it’s clear that you were born to serve your community. But it’s also clear that you were born to cook.”

 

     Since that time, with an incredible team, I’ve created a multi-faceted culinary organization that includes a free business and cooking school for teens, an underground dining club, a high-end catering arm, and restaurant consulting. We also compete on the international level at events such as the World Food Championships, the world’s largest cooking competition. My team is comprised of other pastors and ministry leaders. We see our culinary work as a very effective arm of the ministry God has called us all to. It’s led to incredible discussions, opportunities, and networking outside of the typical church culture. We’ve seen Jesus show up outside of the four walls of the church time and time again, through food! 

    One of the aspects of combining ministry and the culinary world that has caused interesting discussion is the topic of alcohol. While alcohol is certainly not necessary in order to enjoy food, it is without question a very important element to many chefs around the world. It always has been. But when you start talking about ministry and food and alcohol, you start drumming up a variety of responses, feelings, and biases. In fact, I recently read an article giving 50 reasons to not drink alcohol. This was written from the perspective of a pastor who has clearly and admittedly had a very negative interaction with wine, beer, liquor, etc. This person absolutely must be given the freedom to address the issue of alcohol in their life in a way that promotes and sustains their own freedom. But one thing I have learned in life and ministry is that whenever someone is unable to handle “something” (money, food, alcohol, etc.,) in a certain area of their own life, it never works to legislate rules and regulations for others. 

"When you are unable to handle 'something'

in a certain area of your own life, 

it never works to legislate rules and regulations

for others."

    

For instance, the person who struggles with sexual immorality will not solve their struggle by declaring that sex is always a sin, in every situation. This is something that has actually been done in history, and the consequences were extreme. 

    Sugar has become a deadly ingredient for many people who suffer with diabetes. But it would laughable for someone to outlaw sugar for everyone, in every scenario, because of the damage it has done to an individual. Perhaps we are more concerned about how something affects OTHERS, than how it affects an individual? 

The Bricks

    If I placed two identical bricks in front of you, you wouldn’t know much about those bricks until I told you their story. One brick was thrown at a person, while the other brick was used to build a house. Based on the two stories, we could potentially say that all bricks are evil and no one should ever buy a single brick ever again. 

    You can’t (legitimately) blame the brick when it’s thrown at a person, you deal with the person who threw it. You can eliminate bricks, but the person will find something else to throw, and more people to throw it at. 

    In the same way, we need to look at alcohol as a brick. As a chef, I’ve created many meals with specific wines in mind. I’ve created burgers with the intent of pairing them with specific beers. My team has collaborated on desserts meant to be served with certain liquors. And there is a beauty that comes with understanding the quality, the labor, the vision, the story behind every different type of alcohol that can be enjoyed. We’ve never crafted a meal, paired with alcohol, with the intent of taking someone over the edge of sobriety. And I hope that no one would. But we certainly have not run away from something that has come to be recognized around the world as a phenomenal, artistic and delicious craft. 

    As with almost anything in life, you will be able to find ways to use and abuse and bring harm with alcohol. But the greater issue is not “can it cause harm?” The greater issue is, “is there harm already in my heart that I will use alcohol (or anything else) to mask?” Jesus was pretty clear that it's not what goes INTO a person that defiles them, it's what comes out (Matthew 15:11, Mark 7:15, Mark 7:20). Paul expressed in several different ways, that the point is not what you eat or drink, it's that you live your life in a way that glorifies God (1 Corinthians 10:30-31). 

"Is there harm, or anything else in

my heart that I will use alcohol 

to mask?"

    We don’t blame food for causing harm the way we blame alcohol, because we are not concerned about the person killing themselves in the privacy of their own home. We’re concerned about alcohol because it has the potential to harm other lives as well. I get that! But what we must understand and address is the fact that any addiction to anything at all is pointing to a problem that starts in the heart - not in the source of addiction. The point is this: blaming and removing alcohol will not solve the problem. It will merely increase a dangerous trust in my own self-righteousness. How? By putting the responsibility on an exterior object, rather than examining the motives of my heart. 

    Another reality is that there are many people in and out of the church, who are respectful of alcohol and enjoy it with wisdom and responsibility. In many cases we have taken away the ability to honor their good decisions for fear of empowering the bad decisions of others. 

    In other words, let’s stop talking about sex because some people have sex outside of marriage. 

    We glorify the evil by forsaking and discrediting the good. 

    We recently had a local brewery owner come into our church, and share how that the wine and beer industry is making a difference in our region. The point was not to tell people that they should or should not drink alcohol. The point was to honor a person and a business and an industry that is using grapes, wine, hops and beer to bring a LOT of good.

    This is something that many pastors would never do for fear of offending or empowering bad decisions, which is a travesty. We brush the good under the rug, and allow the negative to have it’s full glory. 

    We also, by default, are telling the winemaker, the brewer, the hops farmer that they are far from God because of their trade. “Come to Jesus, but forsake the industry that has provided a successful, legal income for your family, that has created jobs and has benefited the economy.” 

    The wine and beer industry is changing. It’s becoming less of an opportunity to escape your problems in a dark and seedy bar full of miscreants. I’ve visited countless breweries with my wife and young son, alongside many other families, all while enjoying a beverage that was made with quality, care and creativity. Many such breweries are doing more beneficial work in the community than many churches. This is worth careful consideration.

    Guns are still being used to promote violence. Sugar is still harming diabetics. Food is still being used to cause premature death in those who overeat. Alcohol will probably continue to be abused. But let’s stop creating a dividing line between God and alcohol - the same God whose son was called a glutton and a drunkard. Whether he was or wasn’t is not the point; the point is that he was unafraid of the label because he was walking in power and authority that transformed a culture, not submitted to it. He was less concerned about the products being abused, than He was His mission to restore the hearts that had been abused. 

    I’m not saying that alcohol is good for you or bad for you. I’m just trying to encourage you to become powerful - so powerful that you can make good choices. Whether that’s a choice to enjoy a glass of beer or wine or to abstain from alcohol altogether. 

    But don’t put God’s approval or disapproval on a product. He’s put His approval on people, and that’s where we need to learn to take that approval, and walk in responsible, intentional freedom. Whether you pick up a glass or not! 
 

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All photos copyright Shawn Niles, MAY NOT be used without permission