Food is a core aspect of what churches do in actively serving their communities through social action. Sometimes, this takes the form of projects which exist explicitly to provide food for those who need it – for example, food banks or soup kitchens.
As part of the GRA:CE Project research, I have shared meals with church communities across the country. I have experienced incredible hospitality from congregation members and volunteers in parish contexts ranging from inner city to very rural, across the spectrum of most to least deprived and with diverse demographic make-ups. Here are some of my observations about why eating together is important:
Eating together can foster relationships.
According to the 2017 Church in Action survey, a third of clergy stated that food poverty is a significant social issue in their locality. Churches make a significant contribution in supporting food banks to combat this and many are active in feeding people in a literal sense.
But relational poverty – as well as material poverty – is increasingly prevalent in our communities. Loneliness is the single most widespread social issue identified by clergy in the 2017 Church in Action survey, with relatively little variation observed between the most and least deprived parishes. The same survey found that 86% of Anglican churches are involved in some way with the provision of lunch clubs, coffee mornings or similar initiatives of hospitality for older people. 53% are involved in other forms of community cafés.
These spaces bring people together and reduce social isolation, irrespective of whether or not those who attend have particular material needs. This can help build relationships, both within a congregation and with the wider local community.
Eating together is important for worship as well as fellowship.
For the church, perhaps unlike other charitable organisations or service providers, food – is symbolic and important in worship as well as social action. Breaking bread together is a central part of liturgy and worship in many Christian traditions, as well as part of our fellowship.
The sharing of a meal is therefore rooted in something more than the simple provision of food to satisfy a need.
Eating together is an expression of who we are as a community.
The meals that I have shared with church communities have been as diverse as the congregations themselves and their parish contexts. In one case study, I heard how the loaf of bread brought to the communion table is different each Sunday, according to the nationality or background of the individual on the baking rota that week.
The same is often true of the meals eaten together as a community. The food we choose to share can express something about the diversity of a congregation. It is also an opportunity to bring something of ourselves and contribute to the community. In one case study, this looked like a member of the congregation – an asylum seeker who had just prayed for the congregation in his own language during the formal service – offering his contribution of a small bottle of hot sauce to spice up the food. The idea that we all bring something of ourselves in worship and have something to contribute is important for the church community and can be expressed as much around the dinner table as at the communion table.
About the Author: Hannah Rich is a Researcher working on the GR:ACE project, which is delivered in partnership between Church Urban Fund and Theos. Based at Theos, she is exploring the relationship between social action, discipleship and church growth.