It's not just about food

The first of our Christianity and Social Engagement Forums on 20 April 2016 brought together leading practitioners from churches and Christian organisations to explore the topic of food provision.

Professor Andrew Davies presenting at the Christianity and Social Engagement Forum

Speakers offered practice- and research-based insights into this form of social engagement, enabling those taking part to digest and discuss some of the key issues from a variety of different perspectives.

Sarah Greenwood, London Foodbank Network Manager for The Trussell Trust, spoke about the centrality of the Christian faith to the Trust’s aims and practices, explaining that many of their volunteers were motivated by their Christian faith. Describing how prayer was an important aspect of their activities, she explained that foodbanks are as much about meeting people, listening to them and giving them hope – even if just enough to get them through the next few days – as they are about food provision. Over the past year or so, The Trussell Trust has placed a strong emphasis on offering ‘More than food’, and Sarah spoke about examples of food banks which also ran a community farm, clothes banks, community cafes, legal surgeries, debt advice or welfare and benefits advice, for example. The Trussell Trust also engage in campaigning and lobbying government about the causes of food poverty, including problems with the administration of welfare reform. This was seen as an important aspect of their response to what could often feel like a tragic and hopeless situation, and the Christian faith was said to be intrinsic both to the hope that could be offered to clients, and to the sustenance of volunteers in responding to people in despair.

The second presentation focussed on the findings of the Megachurches and Social Engagement in London project, and Sarah Dunlop reported on food provision in two of the churches in this study, Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) and All Souls, Langham Place. Sarah expanded the notion of food provision beyond that offered to those who otherwise would struggle to afford their own: sharing a meal was a key component of most of the courses run by HTB, for example, including the Alpha Course and other courses about relationships or specific life issues. Even in ministries where food provision was targeted towards particularly vulnerable groups, the findings concurred with The Trussell Trust’s perspective, suggesting that feeding in a church context is about ‘more than food’. The priority given to developing meaningful relationships with people was exemplified by a service which had been intentionally reduced in scale to help build community amongst those who came to eat together. Other services were made available alongside food provision, such as haircuts or dentistry, which people who are marginalised in society may struggle to access. Sarah explained that those involved in providing these services saw them as opportunities for God to work in people’s lives, including to bring about restoration, healing and ‘wholeness’.

Finally, there was an opportunity to hear directly from someone involved in one of the megachurches in the study, as Sophie Bremner posed a series of questions to David Chick, New Wine Church’s Head of Outreach, Evangelism and Prison Ministry. David pastors New Wine’s ‘Saturday Church’: he explained how this had developed from an initiative that involved serving a full English breakfast on a Saturday to anyone who wanted to come in, and now included a Christian talk as well as food provision. He explained that they got a varying level of participation and interest in the spiritual aspect of this, saying: ‘When we first started it was very hard work. Now they all join in the prayer.’ He said that those involved in running the Saturday Church wanted to help the people attending to know that they are precious. Having table cloths on the table was an example of this, and David explained: ‘We want them to know that God loves them. We can tell them God loves them, but it’s better if we can show it by doing something for them.’

The presentations were followed by group discussions in which participants reflected further on some of the themes raised based on their own experiences and contexts.