Tuesday night is “Family Night” at the local Chick-Fil-A near my daughter’s preschool in Burlington. On a recent Tuesday night when my wife has to work late, I pick up Ada from school, and, with no plan for dinner (nor the skill to cook anything worth eating beyond “Spaghettios”), we make a beeline for chicken strips and waffle fries. Ada squeals in delighted expectation.
The Chick-Fil-A is hopping with activity. Cars are lined up for the drive-thru in a long loop that extends all the way around the building. The parking lot is jammed-full. Inside are congregated all of the young families in our area who seem to be missing from the church.
Chick-Fil-A has prepared for us. When we walk in, the restaurant is decorated with brightly-colored balloons and Christmas greenery. The “Eat Mor Chikin” cow is making the rounds greeting the kids. When we place our order the cashier (as they all seem to be at Chick-Fil-A) is unfailingly kind and polite: he has clearly been trained to “yes-sir” me to death. As we make our way to an open booth (“Yes! A booth!”), a hostess at the restaurant offers to spread out a kids’ placemat for my daughter: it is a little gesture of hospitality demonstrating her empathy for what a mess a pre-schooler can make at the dinner table. I’m grateful for anything that will help in the post-dinner cleanup process.
Ada and I offer our blessing and open our bag of gustatory wonder. I notice that even the bag has been designed with Ada in mind. Decorating the outside of the colorful container are lessons about the gift of giving, using good manners, and recognizing the good in each person. Inside the bag, next to the food, is a free children’s book, “The Berenstain Bears Hug and Make-Up.” Ada can’t wait to read it, and neither can I. We love the Berenstain Bears books for their real and yet hopeful depiction of what a family can be. They are the kind of family we hope to be, the kind I hope all of the families around us might be.
As we savor the waffle fries and giggle over our nuggets, an employee of the restaurant performs a simple magic show in a corner for a group of rapt kids. Later, I watch children going in and out of the little playground area in the restaurant. I notice that the door handle to the playground is located down low at toddler-level, so that even the smallest child can let him or herself in and out on their own. Meanwhile Mom and Dad can stay seated and enjoy their meal in peace.
One little girl bumps her head on the playground equipment and cries. Soon a solicitous manager appears to check on her and her family. He brings a bag of ice for her bruised forehead, and a free ice cream cone for her bruised feelings. It’s clear she’s going to live.
I look around at all of the families who are congregated here together on a Tuesday night. I look across the table at my daughter, her face bright with satisfaction. I wonder, “Why doesn’t the church look this way on a Tuesday night?”
It is then that, for a moment, the thought occurs to me that Chick-Fil-A may love my daughter more than the church does.
I am aware that Chick-Fil-A imagines itself as a “Christian” business. Their restaurants are (admirably) closed on Sundays. On the wall hangs a plaque that states Chick-Fil-A’s corporate purpose: “To glorify God by being a good steward of all that is entrusted to us. To have a positive influence on all who come into contact with Chick-Fil-A.”
I am tempted to be skeptical about all of this. I know that someone might look at some of what I am experiencing with my daughter and just see manipulative child-marketing. I wonder whether a place that serves its food in hundreds of millions of landfill-filling disposable paper containers can ever be “a good steward,” in any sense. I am disappointed to see no recycling container for my water bottle. I especially wonder where the restaurant’s chickens come from, and how they are raised: and whether Chick-Fil-A is just another of the powerful corporate entities who collude to pay contract farmers as if they were serfs.
Can any fast-food restaurant ever glorify God?
And yet, on that Tuesday Family Night, I am not cynical: I am wistful. It is clear to me that these families are here for something that is about more than tasty Chicken Strips. Through little gestures of thoughtfulness and hospitality to harried families (the decorations, the politeness, the place-mat, the book, the magic show, the playground, the door), the folks at Chick-Fil-A have managed to turn this restaurant into what sociologists describe as a “third place”: not work, not home, but a third place where people enjoy gathering together.
The people at Chick-Fil-A are no doubt motivated in this (at least in part) by a bottom-line desire to increase their profits – and yet they seem to understand that the best way to get people to come to their restaurant is to invest in genuine kindnesses to people like my daughter and me. Caring for people is good for business. They understand that whatever they may spend monetarily on these gestures of hospitality are investments that are likely to be repaid in return visits. In this they are, to borrow a phrase, “innocent as doves but wise as serpents.”
As a result, this Chick-Fil-A is thriving.
As my daughter and I drive home with our stomachs full, Ada sits in the back thumbing through the Berenstain Bears. Up front, I dream of a church that is as innocent and wise as the restaurant we just left. I envision a church that would offer Tuesday night meals- for free even- to folks making the transition between work and home. That would give little gestures of hospitality and love to children. That understands the demands on overwhelmed young families. That would be willing to take risks and make sacrifices in the trust that such acts are “good for business,” investments in the future.
I see a rural church with a full parking lot, and a line of cars stretching around the building.
It can happen. It will happen. After all, we have something to offer even more, yes even more appetizing than Chicken Strips and Waffle Fries:
the Bread of Life.