Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Mission and Food: A Call for Reflection

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

Food is an elemental part of what it means to be human. Think about it: You have probably already seen, touched, smelled, tasted, and eaten food today. If not yet today, then certainly yesterday or the day before.

Food is intrinsic to the individual experience of being human. It’s intrinsic to the social experience of being human. So much of human activity is about food: producing food, distributing food, sharing food, feeding others, eating with others, etc. Food is one of the most common means by which humans connect with one another, in a variety of ways.

Food is not just ubiquitous; it is meaningful. Food is regularly used in a variety of rituals. Various types of food are used as symbols, similes, metaphors, and metonyms. From the apple of good and evil to cheeks red as apples to the apple of your eye to the Big Apple, food structures our language and our thought.

Yet for all of the significance, food is an undertheorized and undertheologized area in missiology. There is often a basic assumption that feeding people is good and hunger is bad, but too rarely are reflections about food taken to a deeper level. Yet not only is food basic to the human experience, food plays a critical role in several different forms of mission practice.

Food and feeding ministries are one of the most common ways that local congregations in the United States are engaged in mission. Congregations operate food pantries, soup kitchens, blessing boxes, and other feeding ministries in enormous numbers. Much of this congregational mission effort, however, is often done without engaging in larger questions about the meanings of food or the qualities of “good food,” whether defined nutritionally, socially, culturally, or otherwise.

Congregational food ministries include not only local feeding programs but also congregational participation in national and world-wide programs to alleviate international hunger such as the 30 Hour Famine and Rise Against Hunger meal packing. Some of these larger programs are very intentional in highlighting questions about food production, access, and consumption as part of educational materials delivered to congregations. The 30 Hour Famine is a good example. Yet other programs focus on mobilizing volunteers to assemble meal kits without much thought about how these meal kits fit within larger systems of food production, distribution, and consumption.

Beyond the local congregation, food is a key consideration in mission-led agricultural development. There is a long history of agricultural mission which continues today, especially outside the United States, mostly in developing countries. There is more attention paid within this realm of work (at least nowadays) to what culturally and agriculturally appropriate forms of food are, though perhaps not always to the theological significance of food.

In addition to its connection to questions of nutrition and poverty, food is also important for its social and theological significance in some forms of mission. Food is a key element of the hospitality that many Christians practice, both for its own sake and for the sake of evangelism.

Sometimes such food-centered hospitality can pay quite close attention to the food as symbol and to the production, distribution, and consumption of food (by, for instance, focusing on “local food” or organic food), though it is also possible to engage in food-related evangelism without much reflection on the nature of the food itself. Coffee church Fresh Expressions and beer hall hymn sings are evangelism at sites of food consumption, but the food present is often a side thought, if it is thought of at all.

In addition to each of these four forms of mission interacting with food—local feeding programs, international hunger programs, agricultural mission, and food in evangelistic hospitality—being at times undertheologized individually, they are rarely put into conversation with one another or with any of the other ways in which mission and food interact.

Yet connects are certainly possible: How can the connection between food, hospitality, and evangelism inform local feeding programs? What does agricultural development mean for evangelism? How can agricultural development work help us think about food systems and who ends up hungry and in need of feeding ministries?

To be fair, the theological intersections between food and mission have not completely escaped scholarly reflection. Ron Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger is a modern class. The eucharist can be seen as an intersection between mission and food, and there’s plenty of theologizing about the role of the eucharist in mission. There are dissertations (such as this one and this one) and books from smaller publishers (such as this one and this one) on relevant topics. Food has also been a significant theme examined in other areas of theological inquiry, including biblical studies and the history of medieval Christianity.

Still, there remains more to be said about food and mission, and I think more needs to be said on this topic. For that reason, UM & Global is going to be hosting a series of posts on mission and food over the next several months. If you would like to contribute to this series, contact blogmaster David Scott at dscott (at) umcmission (dot) org.

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