“If we have any regard for the plain command of Christ, if we desire the pardon of our sins, if we wish for strength to believe, to love and obey God, then we should neglect no opportunity of receiving the Lord’s Supper; then we must never turn our backs on the feast which our Lord has prepared for us.” – John Wesley
I have been an observer of the church for over 25 years. I have been observing church trends (both historical and contemporary) since I was a teenager, when I was asked to join a committee as a “youth voice” as our church considered various changes in order to keep our church on mission. What got the evangelical church trending back then was all the chatter regarding whether or not the local church should have “traditional” music or “contemporary” music or both. Thankfully the so-called worship wars are over. We have moved on, for the most part, in trending on the subject of instrumentation in our worship services, but now I see a new worship trend, one that has thrilled me as an observer and participant in the life of the local church: the trend towards weekly communion.
The church where I serve as the Discipleship Pastor made this change on the first Sunday of Advent in 2011. As we began to pay attention to the ancient practices of the church and allowed the historic church to inform us, we discovered we had been missing what had been the heart of Christian worship from the beginning—the celebration of the Eucharist. We made the change and haven’t looked back. It has been a momentous step forward in spiritual maturity and formation for our church to invite people week after week to meet Jesus at the table and our church is not alone. I have been overwhelmed to learn of the number of evangelical, non-denominational, and/or Pentecostal churches that have recovered the practice of weekly communion and made the Eucharist a centerpiece of their worship services. It seems like something is happening here and we don’t know what it is. It seems like God’s Spirit is at work in elevating communion in our worship gatherings.
In order to get a fuller picture of this sacred church trending topic, I sat down to discuss weekly communion with Chris Green, Assistant Professor of Theology at Pentecostal Theological Seminary and Teaching Pastor at Sanctuary Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He is the author of Toward a Pentecostal Theology of the Lord’s Supper: Foretasting the Kingdom based on his Ph.D. dissertation.
DV: Hey Chris! Thanks for taking the time to talk about this trending topic in the church. Tell me a little bit about your background.
CG: Thank you, Derek! I’m glad to be part of the conversation. I grew up in an independent Pentecostal church in rural Oklahoma, which was every bit as wild and crazy as you might imagine. We were rabidly “pentecostal”—always dancing and shouting, Jericho marching, speaking in tongues, falling out in the Spirit, etc.—but we were even more rabidly “holiness,” meaning we did an awful lot of preaching against smokin’, cussin’, and drinkin’, and even more about what women should and shouldn’t wear and the length and style of their hair. Although I am something of a strange Pentecostal, I have always attended and served in Pentecostal churches, and I did most of my academic work at Pentecostal schools, until completing my Ph.D. work through the Centre for Pentecostal Theology at Bangor University in Bangor, Wales (UK).
DV: It seems like you are a Pentecostal who cares for the life of the Spirit and the life of the mind. I understand your have focused your research as a scholar, in part, on the place of the sacraments, including the Eucharist, in Pentecostal spirituality. How does that translate into your work as a pastor? How would you describe the practice of communion to a person who is new to the Christian faith?
CG: Usually, I let those who are asking about communion set the direction for the conversation, and I try to answer their questions as best I can. I always encourage them to bear in mind that because the Eucharist is the mystery at the center of our faith, we can and should expect to go on discovering for the rest of our lives what it means for God, for us, and for all creation. I’m convinced that the depth of the Eucharist-event is the depth of God’s own trinitarian life, and that depth reveals itself only as we die Christ’s death with him. So, I agree with Herbert McCabe: “Any explanation that takes the scandal out of the Eucharist must be wrong.”
DV: The emphasis on mystery and centrality seems to be the trend I am seeing too. We continue to receive such great feedback from people at our church who are finding themselves being formed by weekly communion. In the church you serve, what reaction do you see from people as they practice the Eucharist on a regular basis?
CG: I’ve seen many different reactions, obviously, and judging by what I can see most of the time people are unmoved by it. But that doesn’t worry me. I don’t think we should come to the Table expecting “an experience.” We come to receive what God knows we need, not what we want or think we need. For those of us who’ve been formed in traditions that are tempted to fetishize experiences, the Eucharist is often what Jamie Smith calls a “sanctified letdown”—it tests our hearts just by frustrating our desires and disappointing our expectations. It works something like the New England Puritans’ practice of bundling: it brings us face-to-face with our beloved, but binds us so that we cannot fulfill our desires. Just in this way, the Eucharist, as St. Bonaventure says, inflames our desires for God.
DV: Very true. The beauty of the table is that we are not in control. It is not our table. It is the table of Jesus. We do not ask God to join us there; he invites us. We do not set the terms of the Eucharistic event; all we can do is receive. What do you think is motivating Evangelical, Pentecostal, and non-denominational churches to emphasize the Eucharist in their worship services?
CG: I like what you said — “We do not ask God to join us there; he invites us.” As you know, that’s a significant, and saving, change of perspective for those of us who’ve been nurtured in “praise and worship” culture that too often talks as if God remains absent and passive until we invoke the presence with our prayers and songs. As for what’s motivating the (re)turn to the Eucharist, I hesitate to say too much, because I’m sure there are many factors, and I suspect that some of our motivations are born of unfaithful impulses. Judging by the stories I hear, some are drawn to the Eucharist primarily for aesthetic reasons (or, worse, a perceived “cool factor”), while others come to it because they realize their preaching and teaching cannot, or at least should not, bear the weight our liturgies put on it. No doubt others have reasons they cannot articulate; they just find that they are somehow nourished by it. In any case, I hope that this movement, if we can talk of it like that, is at its roots the work of the Spirit. If it is, then we should expect that our reasons for re-centering our worship around the Eucharist are going to change as we mature together toward the image and likeness of Christ. We will find that God’s purposes are deeper than our reasons.
DV: I think it is a movement. I hope it isn’t a faddish trend to keep up with all the liturgical cool kids. I have no interest in that. I do think it takes the pressure off the sermon. As preachers and teachers we do not have to do it all in our weekly message. The table helps the sermon, or maybe I should say the sermon helps the table be that place of transformation in the lives of God’s people. How does weekly communion shape the mission of the church?
CG: I prefer to talk about how Christ and the Spirit shape us in and through communion. I want to guard against reducing the Supper to its usefulness. It’s easy for us Free Church folks to focus on the “practical benefits” of the Eucharist. But thinking along those lines never leads us to where God is working. However, I do believe the Spirit uses the practice of weekly Communion to discipline our imaginations and our affections, as well as our bodies, so that we begin to learn a wisdom not of our own making. Christ disciplines his Body at the Table.
DV: I couldn’t agree more. I do not see the trend towards weekly communion as a pragmatic move. If anything it is what Marva Dawn describes as a “royal waste of time.” If our mission is to make disciples who are transformed to reflect the image of Jesus, then it seems like weekly communion keeps us on mission. What is your view on an open table practice of communion?
CG: I’m conflicted. I agree with Rowan Williams—the “symbolic integrity” of the church’s Eucharist depends on the fact that all who share in it have given themselves without reserve to living Christ’s life. The Jesus who welcomes us to his Table is in fact our Lord, and he is deadly serious about re-ordering not only our lives but the whole of reality. So we come to communion in fear and trembling, as well as joy and hope. In other words, the Lord disciplines his Body at the Table. But of course it is the Lord’s Supper, not ours, and we must not use it as a way of maintaining the order we believe necessary. I suppose at the end of the day I would say that the Supper is open to all those who desire to have their lives dominated by the gospel. Are you familiar with the Iona communion liturgy? I love the opening lines: “This is the Table not of the church but of the Lord, so come you who love him and you who want to love him more …” In that sense, I think we can talk about Eucharist as a “converting ordinance” (as Wesley did).
DV: I love that invitation to the table. We used it in our church every Sunday. I wrestle with the practice of an open table, but at the end of the day we have settled on an evangelical Eucharist where we invite people to join Jesus at his table. I wholeheartedly agree that we should not restrict from the table those who want their lives to be dominated by the gospel and our Lord Jesus. I pray this church trend continues to shape how we conduct our worship services.
Follow Chris Green on Twitter at @cewgreen.
[Image by evan courtney, CC via Flickr]