The Holy Smoker
The Holy Smoker at work

What I Did on My Summer “Vacation”

Friends and readers of this blog will know that BBQ has become one of my passions in recent years. As a Southern boy who likes to eat, I’ve always enjoyed BBQ. But for the past few years it has become one of my most consistent hobbies, pastimes, and obsessions.

I’ve been cooking since I was a kid. I still remember the first meal I prepared: simple French toast as part of my Boy Scout cooking merit badge. Now, I do most of the cooking for our family. I enjoy hosting dinner parties and cookouts. As much as I like eating out at fun restaurants, I also like trying to replicate those meals back home.

In many ways, I’m riding the recent wave of DIY cooking among foodies. I read an article in the Chicago RedEye early last year about how more and more Millennials are getting into gourmet cooking. The growth of the Food Network and cooking shows on other networks is further evidence that people don’t just want to eat good food, they want to make it themselves. I think this is yet another example of what Doug Pagitt calls the inventive age—instead of simply consuming, emerging generations want to be producers.

For me, this most often gets expressed through BBQ. A few years back I purchased a cheap smoker that I could use on our condo balcony. I practiced the art of slow smoking meats and people responded well to what I was doing. My friend and colleague Hardy Kim challenged me to an East vs. West BBQ Throwdown, pitting his Korean BBQ against my American BBQ as a fundraiser for Chicago Lights. This only increased my drive and resulted in the development of a signature rub and a great arsenal of side dishes. The success of the first throwdown has turned into a series of four competitions, one of which benefited our friends Kurt Esslinger and Hyeyoung Lee and their mission work in Korea. Altogether we have raised over $15,000 by simply doing what we love, cooking for others as a platform for building community and supporting mission. It’s amazing that people will actually pay for this.

This summer I upgraded to a couple of awesome Weber Smokey Mountain Cookers, which has increased my capacity and efficiency. I also took the opportunity while traveling in Kentucky and the Carolinas to try as many different BBQ styles and restaurants as I could. This has become pretty standard for me when I travel. Not only does it beat fast food and add to my growing knowledge of all things BBQ, it’s a fascinating way to experience America. In fact, some of the things I love most about BBQ are the regional varieties and the deep links between this traditional form of cooking and the communities in which it flourishes.

Another thing I love about BBQ is the opportunity to gather together a big group of people to enjoy a meal and table fellowship. Cooking meat over fire is an ancient form of cooking. In many cultures, this is considered sacred. So is breaking bread together and all that comes with it.

At churches like St. Lydia’s in New York and Grace Commons right here in Chicago, Christians have been experimenting with a “dinner church” concept that integrates worship and a shared meal. For a long time I’ve dreamed of doing this with BBQ. I’m thrilled to finally have the opportunity to give it a try at the 4:00 jazz service at Fourth Church this Sunday. The liturgy will be fully integrated with a meal out in the church courtyard. Instead of pews, we’ll be gathered around tables. In addition to communion, we’ll share some BBQ. Our prayers and sermon responses will be more conversational.

If I were to create a new worshiping community, this is how I would do it.

Be sure to check back next week for a report on my first real experience with BBQ Church.

John W. Vest

John is a "church hacker" attempting to overcome the limitations of church as we know it. To connect with him and learn more about his work, please visit

Reader Interactions


  1. I’m intrigued by your description of your liturgy.

    Any chance you’d be willing to send me a copy (of the plan, even if that isn’t exactly how it went 🙂 ?

    Doug Browne


  1. […] Two years ago I orchestrated a “BBQ Church” worship experience at the Fourth Presbyterian Church afternoon jazz service. The liturgy was modeled on “dinner church” services at St. Lydia’s in New York and Grace Commons here in Chicago. The jazz worship team thought it would be fitting to do this again for my final worship service at Fourth Church. So I slow smoked a bunch of pork shoulder in the church courtyard overnight and provided some simple sides. Some people brought additional sides potluck style. Rain prevented us from doing the service outside, but it was actually kind of fun to be squeezed into the church dining room with Fourth’s amazing jazz band right there among us. […]

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