How can a church make its Sunday meetings more participatory? I’ve been asking that question for decades. Why? Because according to the teaching I’ve received—and believe wholeheartedly—the Bible is to be our “only rule” not only for faith but also for practice. But over the years it seems the practices for Christian gatherings today have drifted far from those in the New Testament.
How far? The gap can’t be measured in miles or years. Maybe the best way to visualize it is to picture the difference between what takes place in a roomful of friends and in a theater. Or between the exchanges that take place in a family reunion versus those in a sports stadium. Positive things can and do happen in theaters and stadiums. But they are far from the same things that take place in a roomful of friends or a family reunion.
Our Church Plant
An opportunity to move a bit nearer to that family-reunion setting came several years ago when our pastor asked me to lead the team that would plant a church in the neighboring city. We met first on Easter in a hall rented just on Sundays. Right from the start, we observed Communion once a month, as many churches do. Tiny cubes of bread and micro-cups with, perhaps, a half-ounce of grape juice.
After our first communion celebration, a man I had met just a few weeks before came and fervently thanked me for providing empty cups in the serving trays. Seeing my puzzled look, he explained: “I’m an alcoholic. But I was able to participate by taking an unfilled cup.” Marveling at his openness, I clarified: “We use grape juice, not wine, in the cups. The reason for the empties is that, as a brand-new church, we have more cups than people.”
As the church grew and we occupied our own building, we filled more cups and even purchased additional trays. But the more I studied the practices of the early church, the less satisfied I became with our practice of Communion. We were, of course, observing it in the traditional way. Yes, we were remembering Christ’s death. In Paul’s classic passage on this (I Cor. 11:17-34), he calls it the Lord’s “Supper,” meaning the main meal of the day, usually in the evening. But no one would call what we were doing a “supper.” I couldn’t imagine inviting guests into our home for supper and serving them a crumb of bread and a sip of juice. As one writer put it, our traditions have taken supper out of the Supper.
Further, real meals include more than just food. They naturally stimulate discussions. But I saw that tradition had turned the Supper into a no-conversation ritual. It permitted none of the lively dialogue seen in the original Lord’s Supper, the Passover meal shared by Jesus and his disciples. For example, while visiting another church I saw such silence taken to an extreme: couples or singles soaked their break in grape juice, then headed off to stand against a wall, isolated from all others. There, they ate the moist bread in solitude—their backs to everyone else!
Why did Paul scold the Corinthians for the way they were celebrating the Lord’s Supper? Because they were flouting the Lord’s new command to love one another (Jn. 13:34-35). Each came to the meal thinking only of themselves. So Paul had to tell them to wait for “each other,” which translates the “one another” word Jesus used three times in his new command. Paul’s rebuke makes it clear that the Lord’s Supper is not only about remembering the Lord’s death until he comes. It is also about one-anothering in the here-and-now. But in our practice of Communion, that wasn’t happening.
Combining Communion and Meal
We had constructed our building with a multipurpose room as our main meeting space. So we introduced a new way of celebrating the Lord’s Supper. On the first Sunday of each month, we filled the room with rectangular folding tables. Between each string of tables and the next we placed two lines of chairs. During the first part of the meeting, which included singing and sermon, all the chairs faced forward. After that, half the chairs were spun around 180 degrees, so that people faced each other across tables during the meal (see diagram.) This made conversation both easy and natural. On each table we included a few suggested conversation-starters designed to spur mutual encouragement and spurring on.
By then the church had several cell groups, and each one took its turn at preparing the meal. We emphasized the need to keep the menu simple. Soup. Bread. Often a salad. The families making up the cell group provided the meal and did the serving. This included the children and young people—which allowed adults and youths to relate to one another across the generations.
Each month the message for Communion Sunday focused on some aspect of Jesus’s death and its significance. Then, during the meal, we paused to reflect on the meaning as we shared the bread and later the cup. By means of a brief meditation, someone qualified to do so helped us connect those symbols to the body and blood of Jesus. Conversations across the tables liberated us from any somber stiffness, yet the focus on the meaning of the bread and cup preserved the seriousness of what we were doing. We found that dining together created a sense of family and fostered one-anothering.
The transition included a learning curve. Since we were crossing over into what was for us uncharted territory, we had to learn from our successes and failures. Did everyone immediately buy into this non-traditional way of celebrating the Lord’s Supper? No. For example, one older couple, long-time church people, initially chose to skip those first-Sunday-of-the-month meetings. They had never experienced Communion this way before. But after a few months, hearing positive reports from others, they returned and eventually became staunch advocates of the “new” way of doing things.
Why did this couple hear positive reports? Because we had put communion and community back together. The two words, after all, share the same Latin root—which means participating in something common to all. How often have you experienced close community in a theater? Yet community happens easily across the table over food. Jesus called for one-anothering in his new command. He asked in prayer that his followers would come to complete unity.
Celebrating Communion as a real meal helped move us toward both of those outcomes.