What are we doing on Sundays? Why not just go to the mountains each weekend to experience God? Why spend all the time, the resources, the energy creating and maintaining the weekly gathering?
Sociologist Josh Packard’s upcoming work on “the Dechurched” points to a disconcerting trend. The church is losing folks—not people on the edges, but those who have been the most committed over the years. There is an exodus of believing, tithing, heavily engaged, self-identifying Christians. Apparently, they have been to church, have experienced the production, the culture, and are finding different targets for their time. In fact, many report leaving because they want to experience Jesus.
Research will show us why this is the case soon, but for now many of us need a reply—both for those we love and for ourselves—to the question: why Church? Why gather? Why spend countless dollars and hours creating spaces for Christians to come together? I imagine, most people believe there are more entertaining, more relaxing, less relationally taxing options for their weekend than a church service.
Though Luke says it was his custom, very seldom is Jesus recorded attending synagogue for song and teaching, but Jesus eats meals everywhere. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Jesus eats his way through the Gospels. Apparently, meals were significant spheres of divine action.
Of course Jesus’ meals communicated extraordinary truths about his Kingdom. Jesus used meals to break down ethnic boundaries and heal fractured relationships. Jesus’ meals had egalitarian power, elevating outcasts and bringing down the haughty. Through his meals, Jesus showed that purity rituals and exterior signs of holiness were now irrelevant. And of course Jesus used the food before him to unveil his identity and the way God is transforming the world.
Occasionally, those communing may get a plastic thimble of grape juice and a cracker, but when visiting and serving at evangelical churches, college ministries, Christian retreats and conferences, I have yet to experience the Eucharist held up with significance. Our leaders should adjust. When elevated—when given beauty and prominence— the Jesus Meal affects everything else. The meal puts potential idols of our gatherings in their place and asks them to serve. The meal unifies and cuts away our pride. Loving God and loving each other gains its fuel from the meal, reminding us both of the glorious gift of God and the faces, struggles, and status of our neighbors.
Perhaps the reason many churches look so racially, politically, viciously uniform is the common absence of the Eucharist. Without the meal, you’ve come to hear a word from a Bible scholar who agrees with you. You’ll enjoy free childcare and hear a few (helpful?) announcements. You’ve gathered for the stale cookies, awkward conversations and the musically-inspired emotional high. The meal infuses everything else with perspective and divine power; without it, we may as well go to the mountains.
We’ll explore the meal, its presentation, place and value in the weeks to come. As it stands, I’d love your thoughts. How does your church take communion? Where do you experience its power and influence most clearly?
Jeff Cook lectures on philosophy at the University of Northern Colorado and he is the author of Seven: The Deadly Sins and the Beatitudes(Zondervan 2008) and Everything New (Subversive 2012). He helps pastors Atlas Church in Greeley, Colorado. You can connect with him atwww.everythingnew.org and @jeffvcook