GRAPEVINE, Texas — Sunday morning worshippers at Fellowship Church used to satisfy their spiritual hunger with God and their growling stomachs with Krispy Kreme doughnuts.
Then pastor Ed Young preached a series of sermons on the biblical principle of the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit.
“People loved the Krispy Kremes, but the more we started thinking about this, we were saying, ‘We can’t talk about this on the one hand and on the other hand have all these doughnuts,'” Young said. These days his 18,000-member suburban Dallas church touts healthy eating and physical fitness.
In the Bible Belt, fried-chicken fellowships and potbellied pastors are as much a part of the culture as NASCAR races and sentences that start with “Y’all.” Churches traditionally have not worried much about waistlines.
As Autumn Marshall, a nutritionist at church-affiliated Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn., explained, most evangelical Christians don’t drink, smoke, curse or commit adultery.
“So what do we do?” she said. “We eat.”
While the Bible frequently condemns gluttony, Marshall said, “it just appears to be a more acceptable vice.”
A 1998 study by Purdue University sociologist Kenneth Ferraro concluded that church members were more likely to be overweight than other people.
Ferraro analyzed public records and surveys involving more than 3,600 people. Broken down by religious groups, Southern Baptists were heaviest, while Jews, Muslims and Buddhists were less likely to be overweight.
“In many respects, a lot of the Christian religions, especially the fundamentalists, just have not made the connection yet that you can dig a grave with a fork,” Ferraro said.
That’s readily acknowledged in “High Calling, High Anxiety,” a new book by the Rev. O.S. Hawkins. Hawkins heads the board that administers medical and retirement plans for Southern Baptist pastors.
The top two medical claims paid by the denomination’s health insurance program in 2002 were for ailments such as back problems and high blood pressure, often the results of obesity or a sedentary lifestyle.
“It seems the secular community is sounding the alarm over the evils of obesity, but Christian churches do not seem to have heard the message,” Hawkins wrote.
He cited denominational statistics that showed 75 percent of Baptist pastors eat fried foods at least four nights a week and 40 percent snack two or more times a day on cookies, chips or candy.
“We’re pretty good at avoiding alcohol and tobacco, but 25 percent of us drink six or more cups of coffee a day,” Hawkins wrote. “Baptists definitely hold the heavyweight title in ministry.”
The Rev. Byron McWilliams once fit that bill. Two years ago, when he weighed 260 pounds, the pastor of First Baptist Church in Buna said he didn’t dare address the subject of healthy eating to his South Texas congregation because he would have felt hypocritical.
Then, he turned 40. About the same time, he watched a family in his congregation suffer through the death of a middle-aged father from heart disease, and he went to a Baptist meeting where Hawkins talked about the need for pastors to take better care of themselves.
“I realized I was probably more of the problem than the solution,” McWilliams said.
So, the father of three started running and limiting himself to 2,000 calories a day. He shed 50 pounds and 6 inches from his waistline.
“It was pretty amazing as to how quickly the body — the way God has designed it — responds to regular exercise and eating correctly,” he said.
It’s a message McWilliams now freely proclaims — even from the pulpit.
At Fellowship Church, a similar emphasis on God’s role in healthy living persuaded Angela Wicker, 35, to improve her diet and exercise for reasons other than vanity.
Along with changing her own diet, she replaced her children’s fast-food chicken nuggets and fries with turkey sausages and steamed vegetables. Her 12-year-old son Christopher has lost 20 pounds and kept it off, she said.
To help promote physical activity, Fellowship Church offers running and cycling clubs and competitive team sports and even a fitness “boot camp.”
Young, the church’s pastor, said he works out in a gym and runs three or four times a week. His wife, Lisa, joins him at the gym and leads a “walking with weights” program for church members.
As part of his “Body for God” sermon series, his wife cooked on stage, showing how changing a few ingredients in a meal could cut the fat grams.
“We’re not like purists,” Ed Young said. “It’s not bean curd and tree bark and carrot juice every day. But I would say about 95 percent of the meals that we eat at home are healthy. She uses lean meats, fresh vegetables, not a lot of butter.”
Still, the Youngs’ congregation — like churches in general — has a long way to go.
That’s evident to anyone who stops by a restaurant chain near the church after Sunday morning worship.
“You’ll see a group of people who have obviously been to church,” Ed Young said. “And you’ll see them order all this fat-laden food and then they’ll say, ‘Let’s pray together. God, bless this food to the nourishment of our bodies.’
“The deal is they should have prayed before they ordered, ‘God, help me order stuff that will glorify you.'”