Leadership is tough. That’s not a complaint. It’s a fact, like saying the sky is blue. Doug Wilson recently did a piece where he highlighted some of the unique issues surrounding leadership but there is one that I feel bears the time and effort of writing this. This is one that Wilson didn’t mention, but that is equally important, especially when making significant decisions. Later today, my fellow pastors and I will sit down to make some decisions about how we will lead the church that Christ has entrusted to our care over the coming days, weeks and potentially months, in light of the COVID-19 precautions that everyone is talking about (for more on this see Wilson’s article).
There are tough decisions to be made. They are particularly tough in this case because we don’t have all the variables nailed down with this virus. There are still a lot of unknowns and those unknowns make decisions more difficult. So, how do you make decisions when there are a host of unknown factors? I would submit that you make decisions based on what IS known. Therein lies the sticky topic that I am sure will rub some of you the wrong way but I feel needs to be said. As leaders, we are often (too often) reactionary and rushed. When we make decisions in reaction and rush mode, we tend to overlook unintended consequences. Newton’s third law of motion states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Allow me to take the spirit behind that law of motion and translate it into a law of leadership. Every decision we make has a host of consequences that in many cases, might not be fully understood until much later.
That means that every leadership decision we make, for example in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, does not just impact us here and now. It will impact us for years to come. It’s called precedent. It’s like tossing a pebble into a calm pool of water and watching the ripples drift out and back. The bigger the rock, the bigger the ripples. Sometimes those ripples turn into tidal waves. That brings me to the topic of this article. I am hearing many pastors (and keep in mind these are godly pastors who I respect, not charlatans) talking about how they will not be having church in person but instead, encouraging their people to “attend church online through the live stream”. Here is where I object. My objection is not a condemnation on deciding to suspend the worship service. That is a decision each congregation needs to make (and one of those tough decisions). My objection is this: that phrase “online church” is a contradiction of terms. And that decision to phrase it that way provides an excellent case study for how important it is for leaders to think through unintended consequences.
Unless you've been living under a rock for the past month, you have heard about the Coronavirus. It seems to be the latest trend to overreact to everything and this is no exception. My intention in this article is to give what I hope will be a shot of sanity to restart rationality and hopefully stave off your fear of impending doom propagated by the media who would like nothing more than for you to run around thinking your hair is on fire when alas, you are bald and there is no fire anywhere near you. Can you tell I don't trust the media much? So here we go.
We are trying something new. By that I mean new for us as a church. It's really not new at all and we are just returning to something old. Something tried and true. Something that is boringly orthodox. On April 5th, we are going to celebrate communion together as a church, not in the worship service, but around a table after sharing a meal that evening. But why are we doing this? Why does it matter? Why should you make it a priority to be there?
A Quick Thought On Change
Let me start by making a necessary qualification. Change for the sake of change is a waste of time. I am not a fan of doing things differently just because things have gotten stale or because the prevailing wisdom of the day argues that this will lead to a desired result. Let me give you an example. In our worship service, we essentially have 5 elements that are always present: 1) praying, 2) preaching, 3) singing, 4) scripture reading, 5) fellowship. It could be argued that those 5 recurring elements always being in the worship service can lead to a stale worship service. This line of argumentation might conclude that we need to change the worship service to correct that. This is known as pragmatism. Pragmatism is the idea that we do things in order to achieve a desired result. The ends justify the means. We do things the way we do in our worship service because we see these 5 elements in Scripture as the pattern that governs the gathering of God's people for worship and therefore, we want to mirror that pattern. We don't just ignore that pattern because we want to achieve a specific result or because we've done it this way for a while and we just want to change. So as we shepherd and lead, we are constantly looking to Scripture for patterns that will help us function as God, the one who designed the church, intended for us to function. In other words, we want each change we implement to bring us closer to the pattern we see in Scripture, not lead us further away from the pattern we see in Scripture.
Why Change The Way We Do Communion?
This is a good question. Over the last 2 years or so, we have taken a journey as a church in discovering (or re-discovering) the nature and purpose of communion. We have had a lot of new people begin attending who come from various denominational and religious backgrounds and who may not agree with or understand why we do communion and what it is. In addition, there were some who grew up in the church and maybe attended here for years and were never really taught on communion. As we have explored this topic, we have seen and been reminded of things that shape not only our understanding of communion, but our practice of communion. One of the things that has become clear is that communion was celebrated in the context of a meal together (1 Cor 11:25; Matt 26:26). Both at the first communion and regular communion in the local church after the ascension of Christ, communion was a part of a meal that the church ate together. Paul rebukes the church in Corinth for not eating the meal together. Some were going ahead of others and eating their fill and nothing was left for the day workers who showed up later (1 Cor 11:21, 33). It is hard to understand how someone could get full on some crumbs of a stale cracker or get drunk on an ounce of wine as is typically practiced in most American evangelical churches. Clearly, something more is going on.
Moreover, we have evidence that the early church also celebrated the Lord's Supper as a meal. In his book A Brief History of Sunday, Justo Gonzalez observes "We can also be quite certain that at the very heart of early Christian worship was a meal centered on the sharing of wine and bread that, following the pattern of the Gospels, was taken, blessed, broken, and given." He further observes "as the gulf between Jews and Christians expanded, Christian interpretation of Scripture conflicted with Jewish interpretations, and Christians were no longer accepted in the synagogues, these activities—prayer, singing, reading, and interpreting Scripture—took place at the beginning of the Christian gathering, before the actual meal or Lord’s Supper... The meal was a Christian celebration, one in which those who had been joined with Christ in baptism were now nourished by him. The Didache is very clear on this point: “Let no one eat or drink from your thanksgiving, except those who are baptized in the name of the Lord, for he said ‘Do not give to dogs what is holy’” (Didache 9.5)." Even the name "The Lord's Supper" indicates that communion is in the context of a meal.
To summarize, we have the first communion celebrated in the context of a meal, we see that in Paul's instructions to the church at Corinth, the celebration of communion is in the context of a meal, and we see that the early church historically celebrated communion as a part of a meal. There were actually two parts to the service. There was the public part where scripture was read and interpreted, songs were sung, and prayers were prayed. After this, all who had not been baptized and thus were not a part of the local body were dismissed and the church ate, fellowshipped, and celebrated communion together. This also makes a tremendous amount of sense given that God gave his people feasts in the Old Testament to remind them, teach them and minister to them. In the New Covenant, we have one feast, namely The Lord's Supper in which we celebrate and remember what Christ has done for us, spiritually are nourished as believers, and in a very real way, look forward to the marriage supper of the Lamb we will enjoy after Christ's return. I don't think that meal will consist of crackers and juice in little shot glasses.
Our Family Supper
I explain all of that to show two things. 1) celebrating Communion around a meal is not new. It's old. 2) this is not change for the sake of change. It's change to fall more in line with the pattern we see in Scripture and that is confirmed by the practice of the early church. We believe that greater blessing and joy comes from following God's patterns and design he has laid out in his word. That can be hard to see on the front end, but is easy to see looking back. I fully anticipate that this will become a watershed moment for our church. That we will receive great blessing as we seek to be more faithful to what we see in Scripture. I believe God will use this to knit our hearts together and to minister to us as his people more richly. I also believe we will look back on this in 5, 10, even 20 years and see how God has used this to grow our love for one another, our confidence in Christ and our joy in the gospel. We are foreshadowing the fellowship with will have with Christ around a table and a meal as the family of God by eating around the table together with him now as the family of God. This is a family meal that is served with Christ at the head of the table. Family meals have been all but lost in our culture today but are invaluable in the effects they have on the relationships within the family. We are going to recapture the family meal of God's family as we spiritually feed on Christ together in anticipation of that day when we will be joined by our brothers and sisters of every tribe, tongue and nation around the table with Christ physically present among us. For that reason, I hope you will make this a priority in your family to join the family of God at Arbor Drive in this important step in the life of our church.
Jon is husband to Carlee, Papa to Finleigh, Ainsley, and Olivia, a pastor at Arbor Drive Community Church in York, Ne, and co-host of The Pastor Discussions Podcast