A new moment in American church history occurred on Sunday, June 10, 2008. That day the business section of the New York Times devoted a full half page to a story about a church supper. Such suppers are hardly breaking news, being a part of the yearly rhythm of most congregations and dating back at least to Jesus’ Last Supper or Moses’ Passover Meal. Yet the paper’s editors decided this one merited treatment alongside stories of attempts to turn around media giant MGM, Bank of America’s plan to buy troubled mortgage lender Countrywide Financial, and Emotiv Systems’ new headset that will allow video gamers to give up their joy sticks and move their avatars with brainwaves. Why? It was the meatballs.

The Times reported that on July 19, 2006, a women’s group at Salem Lutheran Church in Longville, Minnesota put on a smorgasbord that became a tragedy. Seventeen people who helped themselves to the meatballs became ill; another member, Carolyn Hawkinson, died. The meatballs, it turns out, had been tainted with E. coli bacteria. The story moved beyond the level of sad local gossip when the husband of Mrs. Hawkinson and one of the other members who had become ill filed a lawsuit that named Nebraska Beef, the supplier of the ground beef and pork, as the culprit. When Nebraska Beef responded not with an out-of-court settlement but with a lawsuit of its own that placed responsibility on the women who had prepared the meal, the story escalated to become national news.

Now the case will move to court, where the focus will be on the mixer in the church kitchen, whether or not the cooks wore gloves while making the meatballs, the lack of use of a meat thermometer to determine that the meatballs were thoroughly cooked, and comparisons of bacteria found at a Nebraska Beef slaughterhouse with that found in the victims’ stool samples. Welcome to congregational life in the 21st century.

A story like this evokes many responses. Yes, it is one more example of the litigiousness of American society. Yes, it sends a cautionary message to all those other congregations that regularly serve Swedish meatballs, jello salads, green beans, or anything else. But there is more to this story. Perhaps, somewhere in some seminary or university library, there is a dissertation that traces the history of the potluck supper in American religious life. I have not found it. But my own journeys along the serving tables of many American congregations have taught me just how important these dinners have been and still can be. As a child, I saw them as opportunities to load up on desserts when my parents turned their attention to fellow members. And the chance to run around the church building with other sugar-saturated young folks allowed a different kind of encounter with its sacred space.

What I could not grasp then, but have come to understand now, is how much happened at those dinners. They were really high-stakes affairs. As families mixed with other families at the dinner tables, sermons were reviewed, news about members was exchanged, commitments to help were made, and opinions about church matters were expressed. In, with, and under all the conversations, a tradition of faith was being exercised, in very particular and everyday ways. Moral stances were tested, obligations to the neighbor considered, and invitations to become part of a larger “we” were offered. As food was passed, hugs were exchanged, condolences were offered, and the trustworthiness of a human community—and of God—was demonstrated.

Back in the kitchen, cultures were transmitted as certain foods were prepared in certain ways, as new members or younger helpers were given instructions about how to set the table or arrange the flowers. As the cooks worked, they told stories about their lives, about previous generations, about the meaning of the congregation in their lives. Powerful but flawed ways of life were passed on as Gospel bird (fried chicken) and collard greens were prepared by Mississippi Baptists, as elegant brunches were put together by Chicago Episcopalians, or as hotdishes and molded salads were set out by Minnesota Lutherans in a style Garrison Keillor has made famous.

As the Salem Lutheran Church story tragically reveals, these simple dinners, so basic to the forming of human community, are becoming more complicated. Several generations ago people did not know about E coli. But they did know who raised and butchered the beef that was put on the table. The idea of suing a congregation and the people who prepared a dinner was unthinkable—until now. In Salem’s story we see how much life has changed from the time when all the food was produced and shared by people who knew and trusted each other. Food is prepared differently now. I recall the first time I spotted a paper bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken in the middle of the casseroles at a potluck dinner in the 1970s. It was a signal that congregational life was adapting to meet the realities of modern life.

As Nebraska Beef squares off against Salem Lutheran, we are reminded that every congregational dinner is a life-and-death matter. Clearly, the way food is produced and delivered today raises the bar for congregations in many ways. It will be tempting to have fewer dinners—something already encouraged by our frantic lifestyles—or to hand them over to professionals to deliver for a fee. If our congregations succumb to such temptations, though, they run a greater risk than contaminated food. They risk the loss of one of the most basic ways human community is formed and faith is created—the practice of preparing for and enjoying a meal together.

Rev. Dr. James P. Wind is president of the Alban Institute.