Why the eucharist is useless (unless we put it into practice)

bread and wine

Every Sunday, in churches the world over, millions of Christians take part in the Lord’s Supper. This hands-on sacrament is rich with imagery and symbolism. Christ’s body, shared by his body (the church), sustaining our physical bodies. Emblems of death and of resurrection life. The message in a meal. Tangible and tactile. Earthy and everyday. Ordinary yet sacred. Succulent icons dripping with metaphor.

But have we missed the point of communion?

Jesus wasn’t calling us to a religious ritual or a theology lesson, but to an everyday, lived-out practice of eating with one another. He gave his command to remember him in the context of a real meal – and it wasn’t some fast-food, takeaway dinner. The Passover meal is the ultimate family storytelling session, discipleship done around the dinner table, story in edible form, where each piece of food and table decoration tells the history of God’s deliverance. Where elders share their knowledge, children are allowed to question, and families reflect on faith. “Whenever you do this“, Jesus said, “remember me.”

The early church took Jesus’ command to eat together seriously. They committed themselves to breaking bread, to eating in one another’s homes, to feeding the poor, and to celebrating the Lord’s Table as a shared meal. In “A Fellowship of Differents“, Scot McKnight points out that this scandalous act of eating with one another as equals, with no regard for race, gender, status or wealth, was a glorious glimpse of God’s kingdom breaking through on earth.

Somewhere along the way, the eucharist has become a ceremony within a ceremony, reduced to a ritual, trivialised into a cracker and a shot glass of juice. God’s people no longer gather around a table as equals, sharing their lives and stories and pieces of themselves as they journey through faith together. When communion was reduced to an object lesson, we lost something huge, a central component of our faith expression, a core practice that changed us from isolated individuals into a connected family.

The good news is, God’s people are rediscovering the centrality of the table in worship.

  • St Lydia’s Dinner Church in New York cook together, eat together and explore God’s story together at the table.
  • Sarah Harmeyer of Neighbor’s Table has started a love mission by inviting over 1500 of her neighbours to her own backyard table over the past few years, and encouraging others to follow her example.
  • IF:Gatherings empower women to go deep with one another at the table over real stories and Christ centred conversations.
  • More than 3000 congregations worldwide host some form of Messy Church, which invites adults and children to fellowship through fun and food, ending in a shared meal.
  • Based on the models taught by 3DM, Missional communities gather in one another’s homes over a meal to become a spiritual family on mission.
  • In Australia, where refugees have been marginalised, the Welcome Dinner Project and First Home Project give newcomers a heartfelt welcome as they eat together.
  • Fresh Start Community, the inspiration for this blog, is now meeting in four locations in my city. All of them begin or end their gathering over a meal.

These groups are putting dinner back on the Lord’s Table and gathering to share meals, share God’s story and share their lives. True community always happens around food and drink. We make memories in the slowing down, preparation, serving, eating, stories, laughter, mess and packing away together. Eating is a rhythm of life, a necessity which turns into an excuse for a party. It connects people and creates community. In “From Tablet to Table“, Leonard Sweet talks about life’s three tables; the table in the home, the table in the church, and the table in the world. He encourages us to take our table time seriously, whether it is the dinner table, the banquet table, the coffee table, the backyard barbecue or the picnic rug.

The eucharist is more than a symbol, it is a lifestyle. If communion remains just a crumb of cracker and thimbleful of juice, it is a dry and tasteless ritual, an unsatisfying obligation. If it calls us beyond ourselves and into a life of true communion and community, gathered around tables and storying with one another, it truly becomes the Lord’s Table, an invitation to fellowship with God, love his people and live alongside one another.

 

Embracing the glorious mess of church.

Childhood Girls floor painting

In churches, we tend to avoid mess. We run our Sunday morning worship services to a predictable schedule, we rehearse the music and performances in advance, we neatly package the gospel into a three-point sermon, and we send the children out to another area so the adults can listen in peace.

But does it have to be this way? Do adults actually learn best by listening quietly to a monologue lecture? Could all ages benefit from exploring their faith together in hands-on, tangible ways? In our attempt to keep church tidy and clutter-free, are we missing out on something vital and life-giving?

The all-age worship approach of “Messy Church” began just over 10 years ago in the UK, when Lucy Moore and her team wanted to create a space for families who didn’t normally come to church. They had a vision that church could be a place to be creative, to ask questions, to explore faith and to fellowship around the table together. Today, there are nearly 3000 congregations across 18 countries putting the Messy Church principles into place in their communities.

Lucy has written an easy-to-read, accessible book to help you start your Messy Church service. There are three main elements of each meeting;

FUN – everyone joins in an inclusive, participatory experience. It could be craft, or games, or gardening, or any creative activity that gets everyone involved.

FAITH – the group explore faith through a short worship service, or storytelling, or discussion, or facilitated learning experience.

FOOD – the gathering ends with fellowship and friendship through sharing a meal around tables, creating a space to connect and be human together.

I love the values of inclusion, participation and empowerment in this model. I especially love the name itself – Messy Church. We are all messy people. We live messy lives, have messy families and messy relationships with God. Church should be a place where we are welcomed and accepted as we are, without having to clean up or hide the messiness.

In his blog post, Martyn Payne describes Messy Church as “putting the communion back into the Eucharist; the conversation back into our worship; the community back into our conversion; the serving back into our services; and putting the shared experience of our friendship with Jesus and each other into true discipleship.” Let’s stop trying to make spirituality and community neat and tidy, orderly and contained, and embrace the glorious messiness of being the church together.

Love Feast – communion as a shared meal.

2013-JAN-Table-Firefly-Dinner-Table

My all-time favourite TV show would have to be Joss Whedon’s Firefly. Set in the future, it follows the lives and relationships of an odd assortment of characters as they travel the universe in an ageing spaceship.

At the heart of the ship, named “Serenity”, is a common eating area. As they eat together, the passengers and crew share more than food – they share laughter, and stories, and conflict, and special moments. At the table, Mal is no longer captain, Simon and River are no longer fugitives – they are all equals, comrades with a common unity. Bonds are formed and strengthened which enable them to keep each other’s backs as they go out into dangerous worlds. They cease to be individuals, and become family.

The act of sharing a meal is one of the most simple and effective ways to build up any community of people. Jesus spent a great part of his ministry eating with people. Many of his stories were about feasts and banquets. The early church celebrated communion by eating together. The modern simple church movement and missional communities often structure their gatherings around a meal. One inspirational movement that excites me is called “Neighbor’s Table” – a love movement begun by Sarah Harmeyer in 2012, which is spreading across communities and neighbourhoods.

Each week at Fresh Start Community, we end our meeting by eating lunch together – nothing flash, just sandwiches and salad. We call it the Love Feast – communion as a shared meal. I think it would be beautiful for God’s people to rediscover the relationship-building, one-anothering power of sharing food with one another.

Church in a cafe – getting out of our sacred buildings and religious routines.

Cup of Coffee

I hope you’ve been following my series “Are circles better than rows” over the past few weeks, where I’ve invited guest bloggers to share about fresh ways of doing church in the 21st Century. We’ve heard about “seminary in a circle“, from Miguel Labrador in the Andes Mountain Cloud Forest Region of Ecuador. We’ve journeyed deeper in Christ through a “seminar in a circle” with writer and teacher Ray Hollenbach. We’ve visited an “Epic Fail Conference” with J.R. Briggs, who realised pastors need the chance to circle up and confess their failures to one another. And we’ve experienced an intentional, intergenerational missional community who do “church in a nursing home” with my friend Katherine Lockwood.

Today’s post comes from one of my very favourite bloggers, Thom Schultz, who has written a number of books, including “Why nobody learns much of anything at church” and “Why nobody wants to go to church anymore” with his wife Joani. I highly recommend you follow Thom’s blog, Holy Soup, which is full of thought-provoking, stimulating articles on how to do church differently. Thom started up an innovative ministry across the U.S. called “Lifetree Cafe” – I asked him to share a little about this fantastic approach which allows believers and unbelievers to meet together in circles…

In an effort to rebuild connections between culture and the church, we began the journey of creating a highly relational intersection point where people could come together—build relationships with each other—and grow in a relationship with Jesus. The result of years of planning, preparing and praying was a fresh, new ministry concept we call Lifetree Café.

Lifetree Café is a time and place where people gather to hear inspiring stories and engage in conversation on a different topic every week. It’s the proven ministry that reaches the unreached with the love of Christ in a fresh, new way. Lifetree Café is an hour-long, interactive experience that features real people’s real stories on film, guided conversation, biblical insights, and time to build relationships.

Lifetree Café tackles the topics people struggle with in everyday life. Participants are encouraged to share their own stories and listen to others. As a result, people don’t just hear what the Bible says about their lives—they discover the relevance of God’s Word and a friendship with Jesus. And week after week, they acknowledge they experience God at Lifetree.

Lifetree Café is a place that reminds you of a cozy coffeehouse. It may be located at your church or elsewhere in the community, such as in a café, on a college campus, or in a community center. Lifetree is designed to work in a variety of venues.

We began planting Lifetree Cafés around the country over four years ago and we now have hundreds of Lifetrees planted in communities of all sizes. Every week we hear amazing stories of how people are coming together and growing in their faith. These relational circles of people are finding that they’re not alone in their struggles and they’re learning from other people’s life experiences. They’re finding Lifetree Café to be a safe place where their thoughts are welcome—and their doubts are welcome.

While Lifetree Café is seen as being a highly effective and proven outreach ministry—we’re seeing it as an amazing “in-reach” ministry as well.

More information on Lifetree Cafe can be found at Discover.LifetreeCafe.com

A Cup of Community

This article was recently published on the new House2House Magazine website, which was a huge honour for me. I highly recommend you check out the articles by fabulous writers such as Neil Cole, Frank Viola, Josh Lawson, Miguel Labrador, Felicity Dale, Ken Eastburn and many more

teapot & cup

I am a tea drinker.

There, I said it.

These days it’s ever so much cooler to be a coffee drinker. Maybe coffee drinkers have more fun. After all, they get all the fancy coffee houses and luxurious looking, froth-topped bowls with pretty chocolate sprinkles on top. When we tea-drinkers go to a café, we choke at being charged extortionate prices for a bag of leaves to be dunked a few times in hot water, with a squirt of milk. We just don’t get good value for our money. No handsome baristas lingering at the chrome-plated espresso machine, carefully teasing the bubbles into all the right places. No noticeable caffeine hit raising the alertness, speeding the heart-rate.  Just hot water, milk and a tea-bag. Not worth paying more than 50c for, in my opinion.

But in my mind, we tea-drinkers have the best deal. When I say tea-drinking, I’m not talking about the actual beverage in my cup – I am talking about the glorious ritual of sitting down with a cuppa and a friend, and drinking and talking and connecting deeply, my fingers clasped around a hot mug of relational happiness. I’m talking about eye-contact, lots of eye-contact. And cookies to help wash the tea down (or is it the other way around?). I’m talking about catching up on a year of news – sometimes more – with an old friend. I’m talking about laughing and sharing and reminiscing while the children run around the house and the washing goes undone. I’m talking about getting to know a newcomer to the area and finding out about her background, her culture, the family and connections she has left behind. I’m talking about softly weeping with a friend as she uncovers the deep struggles, the unhealed hurts of life, revealing the true face behind the mask.

There’s a line in the 1981 movie, “Chariots of Fire”, where Eric Liddell says; “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.” Can you see where I’m heading with this? You see, Liddell, who was often called the “Flying Scotsman” for his legendary speed, knew what it felt like to live out his design. He celebrated in the strength God had given him, embraced it, and lived it to the full – for God’s glory. In the same way, I know I’m good at what I do. I know that when I drink tea with other women, God (through me) touches their lives in powerful ways. I hope you’ll overlook my arrogance, but I’m willing to go all the way and say; “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me good at tea-drinking. And when I drink tea with friends, I feel His pleasure.”

With great power comes great responsibility. When you have mad skills like mine, you should put them to work. This year, I’m exercising my tea-drinking ability by starting up a weekly morning tea to welcome newcomers into community. There are women in my area who are hurting badly. Some have left family and friends overseas, and are finding it painful to break into a new neighbourhood, a new culture – even a new language. Others are just struggling because life is hard. You don’t have to look hard to find sorrow, loneliness and isolation all around you, no matter where you live – in cities, suburbs and towns everywhere. This is where the teacup (or even the coffee mug) becomes so very powerful. When you get a bunch of women together in a room and provide hot drinks, you don’t have to teach us what to do – we do it naturally. We speak, and listen, and get to know one another, and empathise, and connect. The ritual creates a space to slow down, share food and drink, share our stories, share our lives. We laugh together, learn together, and sometimes even cry together. We minister to one another. We create community.

The beauty of this group is the discipleship that’s quietly taking place. We have Buddhists, Hindus, atheists – and Christians – learning how to follow Jesus’ commands to “love your neighbour”. People are gaining confidence to connect with others from different backgrounds. Relationships are growing stronger. God is using conversations for his purposes. And all because we are intentionally gathering around an everyday, commonplace ritual.

Maybe you’re not a tea drinker like me. Maybe you’re an exclusive coffee drinker (luckily, I believe in cross-cultural friendships). Maybe your spiritual gift has nothing to do with drinking hot beverages. God has given you a super-power of your own, and when you use it, you will feel his pleasure. Look for it, find it, nurture it, celebrate it, and find a space to put it to work for his glory.

And don’t forget to pop the kettle on next time I’m in the area.

Tomorrow’s church – Part 5: Food and fellowship.

In the past few posts, I’ve been talking about empowering God’s people by making church more interactive, hands-on and participatory. I’ve talked about creating a connecting culture by changing the seating and sharing our stories. In this post, I’m going to talk about shifting the way we see food in our gatherings.

The great divide.

When I was a teenager, my parents took me to see the Grand Canyon. Wikipedia tells me the canyon is 277 miles (446 km) long, up to 18 miles (29 km) wide and over a mile deep in some places (6,000 feet / 1,800 metres). All I knew was that it was big, and I couldn’t imagine crossing it.

In church today, there seems to be a great divide between the “spiritual” and the “non-spiritual” elements of life, which seems nearly as difficult to cross as the Grand Canyon. For many people, just walking through the door of church is difficult, as it seems so disconnected from “real life”. The buildings and the rituals emphasise this division between the spiritual and the mundane. The emphasis on group singing as worship divides church from a culture which no longer sings together. There appears to be a great divide between the pastor and the rest of us, who are treated as if we are unable to handle God’s Word without a Bible College education. There is a great divide between Sundays and the rest of the week, where we are involved in the lives of our extended families, workmates and neighbours, but feel unable to engage them in spiritual conversation, because preaching is all we have ever been modelled. And there is a great divide between the church hall, where we sing spiritual songs and listen to spiritual sermons, and the morning tea area, where we eat scones and engage in social chatter.

When God gave his commandments to the Israelites, he said; “teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.” (Deuteronomy 11:19). Spiritual matters don’t have to have special rituals and ceremonies, and be spoken about only by the theologically trained. They shouldn’t be separated into different areas of our buildings and of our lives. They should be present and connected to us all the time, everywhere. God’s people should be empowered to talk about God’s story over morning tea, outside of church, and without a Bible College degree. I believe it is time to bridge the divide. One of the places we can do this is when we share food together.

Humankind has an ancient tradition of connecting through hospitality. The act of sharing food and drinks is extremely social. Every culture, every sub-culture, has its own rituals and ceremonies – the most universal is the shared space of a family meal. A latte with a friend at the local coffee house, drinks with colleagues on a Friday night, a neighborhood barbecue – these are the spaces where people engage, connect, share their dreams, catch up and get to know one another more deeply.

The act of sharing food draws us together. It relaxes us, and creates an intimate space to talk and interact. It “greases the wheels” of conversation and fellowship. In most churches today, we’ve drawn a dividing line between the “spiritual” (the chapel, where only the pastor is allowed to speak), and the “everyday” (the morning tea area, where the rest of us are invited to chat). We’ve divided “breaking bread” to two separate occasions in our meetings – a personal (and “spiritual”) act of eating a cracker and drinking a sip of grape juice, and a corporate (and “unspiritual”) act of socialising and chatting over morning tea and coffee in a separate area of the building. It feels like we may have missed the point.

Many Christians are choosing to celebrate the Lord’s Supper as a shared meal, rather than a individualistic ritual involving a piece of cracker and a shot glass of grape juice. In the past few weeks, I’ve read posts by Alan Knox, Jon’s Journey and Miguel Labrador questioning whether churches should move towards celebrating communion as a common meal. Frank Viola and John Howard Yoder suggest that the early church celebrated the eucharist as a community meal, and that churches today would benefit from doing likewise. David Fitch has also written a post today about sharing a common meal. When Fresh Start Community gather each week, we end our meeting time by eating lunch together. It’s a central part of our meeting. It flows naturally out of the time we have spent together. We continue the spiritual conversations we began earlier. We slow down, open up to each other and minister to one another. The informal times in our meeting are just as important as the formal times.

Sharing a meal is a highly relational, inclusive, community building event. Our God is a highly relational, inclusive, community-building God. Eating together has always been at the heart of community living. Let’s stop rushing through a performance at church and slow down and live life side-by-side as God’s people. Continue reading