Category Archives: Lord’s Supper/Eucharist

The Dwindling (Active) Church Member

EmptyPewHouston has a problem.  So does Phoenix, Seattle, Denver, St. Louis and other cities.

But it ain’t just in the big towns.  Small town and rural USAmerica are experiencing the crunch too.  It’s a problem so big that Thom Rainer, a notable church researcher rightly observed:

“About 20 years ago, a church member was considered active in the church if he or she attended three times a week.  Today, a church member is considered active in the church if he or she attends three times a month.”

In his apologetic, Rainer cites five reasons for this shift:

  1. The local church has been minimized.
  2. Americans idolize their activities.
  3. We take vacations from church.
  4. Members aren’t held to high expectations.
  5. Churches make infrequent attendees leaders.

While I appreciate Rainer’s astute analysis, I do think the real reasons are much deeper, even different.  Yes, times have changed.  There’s no question the local church has lost influence and pull.  For most of two millennia the church was the center of a local culture.  That’s why steeples and bells were needed.  Churches doubled as schools, community centers, voting places and other social spaces.  Many pop historians think the television did more to erode the influence of the local church than anything else.  Television became the new conduit for Faith thanks to guys like Billy Graham, Robert Schuller, Jimmy Swaggart and other televangelists.

And don’t forget a Millennial generation that dined on Veggie Tales.

Do USAmericans idolize their activities over church?  Take vacations from church?  No doubt.  But WHY do they find other social gatherings, events and pastimes more inviting?  Why do people avoid going to church when they’re on vacation?

I have lived both sides of the ecclesiastical fence.  I’ve been both a pastor and pew-warmer.

I grew up in a small church (attending easily 3 times a week) during the ’60s and ’70s.  I loved the community, security and the opportunity my home church provided.  Monthly fellowship dinners. Sunday and Wednesday night church. All night prayer vigils.  All day service projects.  Two-week revivals and VBS.  In my church we had but one paid position: the preacher. Everyone else were volunteers, including janitorial and secretarial. Every child learned ministry as soon as they could help. I washed communion cups as a preschooler, served offering and communion as a child, led worship for Sunday church as a junior higher, preached and took communion to shut ins as an older teen.

In my church we didn’t have a youth minister.  We made ministers of our youth.

But something happened during the 1980s and 1990s. Church went from being a place of mission to a Sunday morning “show.” Even worship pastors think it’s a concert, asking–sometimes forcing–people to “stand” to worship (as if that’s the most “spiritual” posture). Preachers have turned incredibly territorial. Back in my youth I remember elders preaching and lots of guest preachers (missionaries particularly). Today, church has become what one of my grad students labeled just a “Ted Talk and a concert.” In my Christian Church tribe, weekly communion has become a drive-by event.  Anybody remember the pastoral prayer?  In the church of my youth, I recall several minutes reserved to pray for the needs in the body.  I remember elders praying for communion, deacons praying for offerings and even moments of silent prayer.  Not anymore.  Some churches barely have a prayer…literally.

For many it’s practically not worth the time to get dressed for church anymore.  Unless church is on the way to some other Sunday activity, it’s just as easy to catch a few more winks and watch the live-stream service in pajamas.

I’ve been blessed to experience hundreds of different churches, from home-based to megachurch, from rural to urban, and nearly every denominational flavor you can imagine. I’ve enjoyed church in every state except New Mexico and Hawaii (with hopes to knock that latter one off in 2017) and on three continents from South Africa to Tanzania to Moldova to Mexico to Canada.  I’ve talked to countless people about why they no longer regularly attend church and the reasons generally fall into a few main themes related to community issues, pastoral leadership or church vision.

1. WE CAN BAIT’EM BUT WE CAN’T BAG’EM!  Most churches are great at “welcoming visitors” but have no clue for how to engage and assimilate guests into the mission and ministry of a local church. Visitors feel welcomed but many returning guests grow confused.  People don’t need another coffee mug, but they would love a friend.  When guests enjoy the “show” (worship and preaching) but feel no connection or community, they quickly convert to spectators.  And if you’re not feeling up for the “show,” you stay away.

2. THE WORSHIP IDOL!  Most people, even guys, will sing and worship if it’s real and moving, but let’s be honest:  the whole “show” thing is troubling and many Christians–including very devoted ones–refuse to partake. I attended a church for a couple years that purposely hired “worship artists” to lead their Sunday gatherings.  So it was no mistake that church turned into a concert with light shows, high-tech visuals and even fog machines.  Some churches now pass out earplugs for sensitive ears.  But look around and you’ll see very few are singing.

3. THINK “CHEERS!”  We all want to go where “everyone knows my name.”  That’s why bars are packed on Saturday nights and churches are emptier on Sunday morning.  When was the last time you went to church expecting to meet a new friend or improve a relationship?  Simply put, all churches need to create space and time in the worship experience for community. I’m not talking that “meat and greet” thing to waste a few minutes so the musicians can fix/tune/change instruments. I mean, REAL time (up to 10 minutes) where people can connect, reflect, share, pray and discover friendships.

4. BORE NO MORE!  Preachers need to realize in a YouTube, Ted Talk and Twitter culture that less is more and that’s why more are staying away. The 30 minute sermon was a very productive tool in yesterday’s church but today’s postmodern prefers preachers to set the table and let them TALK about it. “I don’t need some guy on a stage to tell me how to live,” one Millennial opined, “I only need that guy to help me understand God’s Word and let me talk it out with a friend.” Preachers could easily do that under 15 minutes and I show you how in my book Sermons Reimagined.

5. A TRUE RESTORATION MOVEMENT!  I’ll confess my choice of churches is limited (at least for regular attendance).  I can put up with a lot of ecclesiastical stuff–including some poor theology, occasional bad preaching, church cliques and other shenanigans–but I have one requirement of the church where I choose to attend regularly:  weekly Lord’s Supper.  It’s more than a tradition for me.  It’s where I connect with Christ in my life.  I look forward to the Lord’s Supper more than singing praises, more than the sermon, more than the coffee and day-old donuts in the lobby.  I love this ancient biblical tradition.  Another one is baptism.  What a beautiful picture of community, grace and new life!  So I’m calling all churches to re-emphasize the biblical sacraments of baptism and weekly communion.

Ultimately, the Church will reorientate, reimagine and, hopefully, restore itself.

It has too.

In today’s 21C culture, one of the few truly radical “alternative lifestyles” left is a conservative, Bible-believing, Scripture-quoting, amen-shouting, hymn-singing Christian.

 

A (Radical) Reimagination Movement

shaping-the-futureI’m a Christian.  I’m a follower of Jesus Christ.  I believe there is One Holy Universal (or catholic) Church.  You’re either part of it or you’re not.  There are no denominations in heaven.  Christ is not and cannot be divided by our creeds, our labels, our slogans, our buildings, our programs, our clergy, or any other human strategy.

Nevertheless, I fully recognize that we all grow up “divided.”  Every Christian grows up with a theological bias, born of our unique spiritual heritage and special cultural contexts.  We all learn the Scriptures from good men (and women) who have taught us “part” of the Whole.  Nobody has “Perfect” theology.  Nobody.  And when it comes to HOW we practice Christianity, there are countless (and good) flavors.

To be honest, I love them all.  I love the emotional fire I feel in a Pentecostal church.  I appreciate the commitment to social justice by the Methodists.  I value the emphasis upon holiness by my Nazarene friends.  I love the liturgy and commitment to Eucharist in a Catholic Mass.  I appreciate the deep commitment to intellectual Christianity by the Presbyterian and the biblical passion of the Baptist.  I have found solace in the spiritual disciplines of the Quaker, the Mennonite and the Amish.  I’ve experienced nearly every form and type of modern Christianity and find myself in all…and, paradoxically, in none of them.

Personally, I grew up in the network of churches that emerged out of a 19th century “Restoration Movement.”  These independent Christian churches and Churches of Christ have had a significant impact on the wider American church landscape.  In the mid-1800s and, most recently, in the 1990s, no church grew faster than Christian churches (except the Mormons).  And these non-denominational churches still enjoy attractional success.  In fact, per capita, there are more Christian church megachurches than any other denomination. I love the independent Christian church commitments to the historic Faith and the emphasis placed upon the sacraments of Communion (weekly) and Baptism (essential).  The movement’s greatest contribution is an oft-quoted proposal, erroneously  attributed to Augustine, that all Christians should unite around the essentials (“matters of faith”), allow diversity in non-essentials (“matters of opinion”) and show love (“in all things, charity”).

With that said, even the Restoration Movement–which again claims to be non-denominational–eventually carved an ad hoc division or denomination within modern Christianity.  All churches do.  Every denomination is a separation from the rest in creed or ecclesiastical practice.

What some in my Restoration Movement family forgot is that we are still an outgrowth of Protestant Christianity. Our forefathers–Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Walter Scott, Barton W. Stone, James O’Kelly–were Presbyterian and Methodist churchmen. Consequently, we carried a lot of “Protestant churchianity” forward into our “nondenominational denominationalism.”  In many ways, these independent Christian churches became part of the ecclesiastical machine.  It wasn’t the intent of the founders but, in time, it happened.  It always does.

In light of what’s happening in wider postmodern culture, I’ve come to the radical conclusion that it’s time for a RADICAL REIMAGINATION of the Church.  We must recapture and reinstitute the Original DNA and Purpose of ekklesia. We do not gather to sing (although we can), we do not gather to hear a sermon (although that’s a good thing), we don’t even gather to give offerings (although that’s to be encouraged).  We do not need a building or a facility in which to meet (although that’s acceptable).  True ekklesia happens anywhere at anytime with anyone. The Restoration Movement attempted to restore the “ancient faith and practice” and succeeded to a degree, but yet remained committed to the Catholic and Protestant wineskin of “church in a box” (a gathering more defined by where we meet [space] and when we meet [time]).  In this Constantinian wineskin of churchianity nickels and noses become the greatest barometer for success.

In contrast, Acts 2:42 gives the four reasons for a Christian ekklesia:

NOTE:  If a Sunday “service” doesn’t include these four elements, it no longer reflects the Original DNA.  For example, in most churches today the people don’t have a prayer.  Only the priests and pastors (and other important guys on stage) pray.  This is not what Jesus desired nor instituted.

The early Church operated “house to house” and was flexible and fluid to cultural change, even persecution. There’s nothing wrong with church buildings (again, a Constantinian 4th century innovation), but God does not live in buildings and neither should we center our ecclesiology around brick and mortar. The Body of Christ is PEOPLE not programs, it’s about FACES not facility, it’s about COMMUNITY and COMMUNION not a building, attendance mark, offering count, staff hire or service time.

The Church is alive and well on a postmodern planet earth.

But I believe it’s clearly time to radically restore Her to the Original DNA and reimagine Her within fresh paradigms that fill new cultural wineskins.  The old wineskins just aren’t working anymore.  Times have changed but Jesus has not.  So don’t be surprised when He works his greatest miracles using new wine and fresh wineskins.

That’s why everything still boils down to a simple proclamation:  I am a Christian.  I am a follower of Christ.  And I will die for this Faith before I let this faith die in me.  I will not let a creed or doctrine, denomination or religious personality, define me.  Jesus alone is my frame.  And His Mission to go, preach, teach and disciple is my mission.  I will pray like He taught me to pray.  I will sacrifice my time, talent and treasure for the Kingdom.  Jesus the Christ will be my First, my Last and my Always.

Here I stand, I can do nothing else.

Let the Reimagination Movement begin.

Church Traditions You Won’t Find in the Bible (Part 3): The Lord’s Snack

NOTE:  Every church is guided by traditions that guard the doctrinal nuances of a denomination, religious body or congregation. Most of these traditions are post-apostolic and culturally sensitive in origin and practice. Many are innocent and acceptable.  But occasionally some traditions emerge that contain no biblical or historical support. In fact, when deeply considered, these traditions, rituals and spiritual acts can actually detract, delay, detour or distort authentic Christianity. It doesn’t take a Bible major to understand these traditions aren’t Scriptural, but many Christians still trust their efficacy and practice them with little thought.  In this series of articles I’ll investigate several such traditions that have emerged in the past 150 years of Protestant evangelical Christianity.

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Whatever happened to the Lord’s Supper?  

I’ll be honest, communion is my favorite church ritual.  Growing up, my church family took the communion or the “Lord’s Supper” seriously…and weekly.  Prior to each experience, we’d sing a “Communion Hymn” (usually something related to crosses, blood or bread), then an elder taught about what the “supper” represented, why we took it and how to participate.  A prayer of blessing followed.  Nothing was taken for granted, especially with visitors in the house.

After all, the Lord’s Supper wasn’t for everyone.  You had to be baptized to participate…which meant no children…since adolescence was the time for such weighty decisions. In fact, I remember toweling off after my baptism only to be greeted by an elder holding a small tray with a glass cup and homemade unleavened bread, cut into tiny half inch squares.  It was my “first” Communion.

Every Christmas Eve my church held a candlelight service featuring “family” Communion.  We’d share several carols, hear a brief message on the meaning of Christmas, light our candles and sing “Silent Night.”  Then individual families approached the communion table.  On this night fathers served their families (at least the baptized ones) or, in rare cases, a mother might lead.  It was clear to my child’s mind the reason we gathered was to commune in this ancient Christian ritual.

But that was four decades ago.  Today’s communion service means anything goes…and usually does.

This past Christmas Eve I attended one of the largest churches in America.  I chose a church that, traditionally, practices weekly and Christmas Eve communion.  The service targeted the casual, the indifferent or the seeker and so I had no problem with the communion service happening afterwards in another room. As hundreds hustled for the doors to start their Christmas celebrations, I followed another line into an adjacent room where tables were set with trays of juice and bread.  Outside of a Bible verse (non-related to communion) projected on the wall, the atmosphere possessed all the spirituality of Whoville. The cups were plastic thimbles filled with grape juice.  The wafer was small bits of hard bread.  Nobody prayed.  Nobody guided the experience.  No hymn was sung and no instructions given.  People just filed and filtered through to briefly dine on the Lord’s Snack.  Given the night, maybe milk and cookies would’ve been a better choice (would anyone know the difference?).  Santa Claus does better than Jesus these days.

The devaluation and deconstruction of the “Lord’s Supper,” Communion or Eucharist (as some churches call it) has been happening for a half century.  For the most part, this ancient ritual is largely an after thought in evangelical and non-denominational churches today, including those who practice the ritual weekly…or should I say weakly?  Furthermore, in most evangelical churches, communion is served monthly or quarterly or, in a select few, once a year.

The question is why?  And how did we get here?

The genesis of this recent deconstruction is 500 years old.  That’s when the Protestant Reformation reimagined the flow and purpose of the worship gathering.  In the Catholic and Orthodox strains of Christianity, the Eucharist was (and still is) the centerpiece of the service or “mass.”  Every ritual, every prayer, every Scripture, the brief homily and hymnody point to the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.  The Eucharist is delivered as a Body of believers to each believer.  It’s a commUNION within sacred community.

But the Protestant Reformation reinvented the worship gathering to focus on the Scripture lecture or biblical sermon (sola Scriptura).  Communion was valued but relegated to side show attraction.  In the evangelical movement of a post-WW2 America, the Lord’s Supper lost weekly billing, then monthly billing.  It was more important for evangelicals to sing, give, announce, and dine on a sermon.  The megachurch movement recast the Lord’s Supper, particularly in those churches that participated weekly, into a “drive thru” experience.  One megachurch pastor boasted how they could execute the Lord’s Supper in five minutes to thousands of congregants.  Basically, pass the cuplet and chicklet.  Fast (spiritual) food.  In some churches prayers are no longer given or teaching provided before the Lord’s Supper is distributed.  Just grab and go.

Frankly, of all the liturgical abuses in modern churchianity, messing with the Lord’s Supper might be the most dangerous.  If practiced improperly or in vain, this tradition holds a punishment of “sinning against the body and blood” of Jesus (1 Corinthians 11:27).  You don’t see such penalties against other rituals or traditions (i.e., giving, worship, baptism).  The point is clear:  we need to get this one right.  The Didache (chapter 9), an ancient, late-1st century document on church practices, states forcefully: But let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist, unless they have been baptized into the name of the Lord; for concerning this also the Lord has said, “Give not that which is holy to the dogs.”

The first problem is this “supper” is hardly the “snack” that most Christians encounter today.  Originally, the Lord’s Supper was just that…a supper.  A full meal deal.  Communion happened in a fellowship meal moment to remember the sacrifice of Jesus through drinking “the fruit of the vine” and dining upon unleavened bread.  A meal within a meal.  This “communion” experience was instituted by Jesus within the Jewish Passover meal, a feast which featured four cups and several courses of food.  Today’s Jewish seder remains a model, although even it’s evolved in two millennia.  Of course, this full meal was open to abuses.  The Corinthians were soundly rebuked by Paul for using the experience for gluttony and drunkenness (I Corinthians 11:17-22).  The “Supper” within a supper is also found in Acts where the “breaking of bread” (or literally “breaking of the bread”) is used to denote the Lord’s Supper as part of their “fellowship” gathering, which included meals in homes (Acts 2:41-46).  Paul states this “supper” is more than a “snack” but a participation in the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ (I Corinthians 10:16) and something to enjoy as “often” or “whenever” possible (I Corinthians 11:26).

Historically, unleavened bread and grape juice was used.  The Passover feast in Jesus’ time forbade bread with leaven and, consequently, any fermented drink.  In fact, the biblical record shows the Israelites drank no “fermented drink” or ate any leavened bread during their 40-year Exodus (Deuteronomy 29:4-6), in which they would’ve celebrated 40 Passover meals.  Consequently, it’s safe to imply “wine” was not part of the historic Passover meal.  Even today’s Passover seder uses grape juice or “kosher wine.” Furthermore, three gospels describe this ancient meal and specifically state the cup is “fruit of the vine” or grape juice (Matthew 26:29; Mark 14:25; Luke 22:18).  This unique designation is connected only to the Passover and Eucharist meal, as these same writers use “wine” (fermenting/fermented grape juice) elsewhere (Matthew 9:17; Mark 15:23; Luke 1:15).  Consequently, grape juice and matzah bread are good contemporary examples.  Any alteration, small or great, to this sacred meal using soda, winewater or any leavened bread (which is common today) violates the original practice.

Finally, the Lord’s Supper was a weekly event.  Very shortly after Pentecost, the gathering (ekklesia or “church”) of believers happened in homes.  In Jerusalem, Christians initially met daily, but in time selected the first day or Sunday (The Lord’s Day, Revelation 1:10)  to hold their celebrations, which no doubt included Eucharist meals (Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:1-2).  In chapter 14 of the Didache, the following instruction is given: “But every Lord’s day gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. But let no one who is at odds with his fellow come together with you, until they be reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be profaned.”  Justin Martyr (AD 100-165) writes in one of Christianity’s earliest apologetics: But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead.

It’s clear from Paul’s instruction that we operate in perilous waters if we allow the uninitiated, the unbaptized and the uninformed to participate in this sacred rite.  Failure to practice as Jesus instituted this meal produces consequences.  Like baptism represents a “death, burial and resurrection,” our weekly participation in the Lord’s Supper is a sacred opportunity to reconnect, restore, relive and renew our baptism, week after week.

Is it any wonder the two most sacred rites of Christianity–baptism and Eucharist–are also the most perverted?  We need to recapture the Original DNA of the Church.  We need to fully restore the Lord’s Supper as a fellowship meal for the baptized alone.  Anything less is sacrilege.

I conclude with Paul’s warning to the Corinthians:  So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment.  Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world (1 Corinthians 11:27-32).

 

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