Tomorrow Americans celebrate Thanksgiving. The holiday has become known as a time to gather with one’s extended family and have a feast. I heard someone (Frank Viola in Reimagining Church I believe) say that the Thanksgiving holiday is probably the best representation we have of what communion ought to look like. Imagine communion as loving, accepting, welcoming family gathering in order to celebrate. I know this picture is a world away from what communion (or the Eucharist) has become, but hang with me for a moment.
There are a few terms used for what we think of as communion in the new testament: the Lord’s supper, the breaking of bread, and koinonia. The phrase “breaking of bread” referred to a meal, and is only assumed to refer to a remembrance of the last supper1. The term “the Lord’s supper” naturally also suggests a meal. The word koinonia, from which we get “communion”, is the same word which is most often translated as fellowship. It carries with it the ideas of intimate participation, community, and sharing2, as would be the case with a healthy family. Beyond this, the word that Jesus used for “remembrance” during the last supper carries with it the idea of not only remembering Christ, but also remembering who we are—members of his family and his body.3
I recently heard Viola state that the gospel is Christ. It’s not Jesus’s death and resurrection; it’s not merely his sacrifice so that we can be reconciled to God. These things are true, but are only pieces of the bigger picture. Jesus is the gospel. This is why the first four books of the new testament are called the gospels, because they reveal Christ4.
Semi-privately grieving my past sins and feeling somewhat guilty for them causing Christ to have to suffer horribly seems to miss the point of communion. What I discussed above has led me to believe that communion should involve community and celebration. My experience is catching up and supporting this idea as well. It’s taken me a while to come around to this, but I feel that sharing a meal with other followers of Christ whom we are in close community with—brothers and sisters—and remembering our fellowship with Christ is communion more than when we take a token crumb of bread and drop of grape juice. As Jesus taught in regards to the Law, the spirit behind the actions is more important than the technical details of a ritual.
I’ve talked a lot in this article about Christians being the family of God, but I want to address it more clearly here. The family is the most common metaphor used for the church (the community of fellow followers of Christ)5. Perhaps they referred to each other as brothers and sisters because that is how they actually felt about one another—that was how close their community was.
I’ve recently encountered a couple of concerns related to typical churches. The first has to do with the philosophy of youth ministry6, the second with singles feeling like there is not a place for them in the church7. In the case of the former, people are concerned how youth are segregated from their families and the rest of the congregation. The organization which brings up this concern believes the solution is to focus on the family. But what about youth who don’t have a healthy family, let alone one which doesn’t have parents who are following Christ and capable of training their children in this path? Additionally, singles often complain about feeling left out when the family becomes the focus.
At times it can seem that the point of church is merely to support families. What about those who don’t have their own families? What about the widows and orphans we are told to support8? Does this mean that we simply give them some money or donate some food or clothing? I believe that all these questions are answered by the church acting like a family.
Here’s a radical idea: what if church isn’t about supporting marriages and making you a better person? What if Christian marriages should be supporting the members of the church? Or in other words, what if we shouldn’t focus on the marriage first and the church second? What if being a member of Christ’s family, Jesus’s body, is more foundational and a more primary identity than being married to one’s spouse?
What I talking about is a shift from a consumer view of Christianity. A typical view of Christianity—even for fairly devout believers—is that Christianity is just a part of our lives, one which should support the other parts. However I believe that the picture of the church should be everyone going to support everyone else. We all give, we all receive. There is balance. There isn’t a focus on couples, families, singles, youth—everyone is included. The church is the primary family. In this way, no one is without a family. Does a teenager not have a healthy family and/or parents who are following Christ? The church is his or her family. Is the single person alone? No, they have a family in the church. Granted this doesn’t entirely take the place of being married for someone who desires that, nor for loving parents for those whom don’t have that. Yet these people shouldn’t have to go without love. There ought to be members of the church with which these people can have close, deep, loving, supportive relationships.
All this must be more than words, as in unfortunately too often the case. Community has become a popular term in evangelicalism over the past 10 – 20 years. However it often never becomes a reality. It can’t happen in too large of a group, probably somewhere around 100 at most, though my experiences have been much small than this. Merely meeting in a bible study group a couple of times a month—even weekly—doesn’t create community. Families share life together. Our spiritual practices our an important part of our lives but they are not the only part. Families and friends eat together, work together, celebrate together, mourn together, etc. Though some may feel that they are unspiritual, these things are an integral part of community, just as our physical bodies, our souls, and our spirits aren’t separate but are all integral to who we are.
I’m thankful to be a part of a church which feels a lot like family. It certainly isn’t perfect, as of course no family is. Yet there is a real sense of community. It is beginning to feel like what the church sounds like in the new testament. While if you would visit us on any one particular meeting, it would seem quite ordinary. Yet I believe nearly everyone involved would describe how much they’ve grown in Christ due to their participation in the church over the course of time.
So happy Thanksgiving. I hope you have or will find a true church family to be a part of and to be thankful for.
3Covenant and Kingdom, Mike Breen, p. 84.
6Youth Ministry: Helping or Harming?