Category: Communion

Top Ten Mistakes: Second Five

Here is the second half of my list of what I believe to be the top ten mistakes made by Evangelical churches in America. See the first five here.

Closing the Communion Table: Communion is the most effective evangelism tool ever invented, because it utilizes all five senses to communicate the Gospel. When we ban people who do not yet believe from the table, we are withholding a powerful, life giving message from them. In our church, we take time every Sunday to share a meaningful meal together, and we have seen several people who don’t yet believe grow in their understanding and acceptance of the gospel through participating in the table. Concerned that unbelievers might eating and drinking judgment to themselves? Read my very first post.

Blending Politics With Theology: While serving as a pastor in Arizona, the reddest of red states, I received a “voting guide” from a Christian organization. This “impartial” guide was meant to be distributed in our church, and claimed to give a non-partisan account on how various candidates voted on issues which were supposedly pertinent to Christians. Included in the guide was data on how each candidate voted on various right wing (but not necessarily biblical) interests such as gun control, school vouchers and tax codes. What was missing was Jesus’ interest of how each candidate acted to protect the poor, oppressed and helpless in our community. This unbalance causes Christians to seem as if we have an hidden alternate agenda, and that we do not really believe what we teach. Jesus is not a Republican. Nor is he a Democrat for that matter. We should want to create an environment where the lesbian pro-choice feminist who sits in the cubicle next to us will feel welcome in our gatherings; and perhaps even feel as if she can belong before she believes. Therefore, we need to consider removing obstacles such as mini anti-Obama rallies at the bagel table or proselytizing for Sean Hannity. We must create an environment where the only obstacle in our churches is the already offensive enough stumbling block of the cross.

Failure to Release People to Lead: Many churches function as what I like to call “benevolent dictatorships.” This model, borrowed from business, keeps power centralized among a few highly trained and competent (and many times very godly) individuals. In this model, people are trained to serve in the church using their gifts. Whether in the sound booth or greeting at the door, we excel at helping people find ways to use their gifts for ministry. However, in most cases, these servants are merely implementing the mission of the executives. Rarely do we truly let go and release people to take responsibility and lead. Some resist letting go out of a genuine concern for excellence, others from a less noble fear that if they allow another to lead, they will be usurped. However, the biblical model is that we must raise up leaders, then release them to lead—with real authority. Like Jesus, we must become examples of humble, servant leadership which seeks to empower and send people to fulfill all the dreams for which God has prepared them. The gospel is about God taking ordinary people and using them in extraordinary ways. We must therefore let go of the need to control every outcome, and allow room for the Holy Spirit to mold our communities through many gifted men and women whom we have unleashed. Then we will really have something to show to this culture which is far more accustomed to leadership which “lords down” upon them.

Using the “Talking Head” Model Exclusively: After I visited a church where I was the guest speaker, my wife and I stood in the empty worship center after all the people went home. I asked her: “Hon, if you were an alien from outer space, and came into this room, what would you guess the purpose of it was just by looking at the way it is set up?” Her answer: “I would say it is a place where a bunch of people come to hear the same information at the same time.” Unfortunately, my wife made a correct assessment of what many churches have become – merely seminars were nameless people receive a one way flow of pre-determined information, then go home. This is even true of many of our small groups, where we pop in a DVD and listen to a famous teacher. However, if we truly believed in the doctrine of “The Priesthood Of All Believers,” then we should be greatly motivated to create environments where the Spirit will work through us to be each other’s teachers. Nonbelievers value speaking with someone, not being “talked at.” If we truly demonstrate a desire to hear what someone besides ourselves has to say, perhaps that same someone might be more inclined to listen when there is a talking head. At our church, we have implemented an alternating Sunday morning format where on certain weeks the lesson is in a discussion format. We truly leave space in the lesson for people to teach each other. Yes, this is getting trickier as we grow, but it is worth it.

Confusing Numerical Church Growth With Church Health: Turn on your TV and watch a Christian channel for a few minutes. If that doesn’t convince you that numerical growth does not necessarily mean health, then nothing will! Some of the largest and fastest growing churches in America are unfortunately perpetuating many of the above dysfunctions to such a large degree, that a rapidly increasing number of Americans are viewing the church as completely irrelevant and worthless. Perhaps we should begin to measure success not by asses in the seats, but by asking ourselves if we see the effects of the gospel in our community: restored lives, healed marriages, reconciled relationships, sent leaders and transformed hearts. Otherwise, our numerical growth may lull us into a false sense of success, leaving many people outside unaffected by the gospel because our delusion has caused us to stop pursuing innovative ways to fulfill our mission. Disclaimer: I am not arguing against increasing attendance per se. I am arguing against programming our gatherings with the primary goal to increase numbers, and against measuring success by our attendance.

Sausage One: “Fencing” The Communion Table

My wife Caryn and I recently visited a large evangelical church in another city. As the worship leader transitioned into Communion, he gave a disclaimer which is so often heard in churches across the world: “This meal is for those who call Jesus Christ their Savior and Lord. If that is true of you, then you are invited to partake. Otherwise, please let the elements pass you by this morning.” Then, as the elements were being distributed, we sang these lyrics:

“Open wide the gates tonight…

Jesus come and flood my life with grace amazing”

This combination of lyric and practice seemed so discordant.

As I pondered the contradiction of “open wide” gates and a fence around the table, I wondered if “grace” which excludes people from our table can really be celebrated as “amazing?”

I believe that an honest Bible student will find that nowhere in Scripture are unbelievers commanded to be excluded from Communion. In fact, it is my assertion that excluding people from the Lord’s Table is actually a contradiction to the concept of grace the meal is intended to proclaim.

Now, I know that many would respond against my claim very passionately. Many understand The Bible to teach that the table is reserved for believers “with no unrepentant sin” only, and it is our responsibility to protect people from “eating damnation unto themselves.” These are certainly legitimate concerns. They come from a passage in First Corinthians, Chapter 11. So, let’s start with an honest examination of the biblical data. 1 Corinthians 11:27-29 says:

“So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves.”

The immediate passage context of this passage deals with the misuse of Communion. There seems to have been a problem in Corinth in that some people were getting drunk at the Communion table, while others were gluttonous, not waiting for their turn to eat. At the same time, the poor were excluded from the meal. (Incidentally, it is interesting to note that Paul rebukes the Corinthians for the exclusion of certain people, but never for the inclusion of anyone.)

In response to the rabblerousing at worship, Paul gave the warning against partaking in an “unworthy manner,” following his warning with the instruction that “everyone” should therefore “examine themselves.” Many people have the misconception that the self-examination is meant to be aimed inward – that Paul is instructing each to examine one’s own worthiness in order to receive the body of Christ. They then ascribe criteria foreign to the passage context such as being a “professing believer,” having no “unrepentant sin,” or even participating in “regular church attendance” as rules of examination. However,this is not at all what Paul is instructing. In this context, the subject of examination is not the worthiness of one’s soul, but the worthiness of one’s actions.

The Greek word translated in the NIV as “in an unworthy manner,” is an adverb meaning “unworthily.” As an adverb, this word must agree with a verb. Therefore, this adverb modifies the verbs “eats” and “drinks,” not “everyone,” since “everyone” is a noun, and adverbs do not modify nouns! This means that the warning pertains to unworthy eating and drinking, not unworthy people. Paul was commanding the Corinthians to examine the worthiness of their practice, not their person.

Paul wanted first for their eating to become worthy. Instead of excluding others, as they had been through their gluttony, they should have instead invited all to the table, just as Christ invites all to come and “eat of his flesh.” Then, he wanted their drinking to also become worthy, practicing moderation in their consumption of wine rather than getting drunk. Their gluttony and drunkenness were convoluting the very message that Communion was meant to proclaim, and that is why Paul gave the warning.

I would hope that if anyone examines the worthiness of his or her person to come to the table, they would find that they are indeed not worthy! Isn’t that what the gospel is all about, unworthy people invited to the table based on the worthiness of another? We come to the table in spite of our unworthiness, not because of our worthiness!

I believe that in our zeal to be biblical, we have inadvertently convoluted the very message of grace that Communion is meant to depict. I believe that we have allowed people to hear and see the gospel, but not have allowed them to taste or touch it. I believe that in our effort to elevate Communion, we have actually diminished it by excluding those who need it most.

In our little church, we eat the meal weekly. We have made the decision to open the table to the non-believers who frequently gather with us, many of whom are international students from India or China, and quite unfamiliar with the gospel. In order to help them to understand what the meal is meant to convey, we publish and refer to the following statement weekly:

“During the course of this gathering, we will participate together in a small meal called Communion. This meal, celebrated by Christians for thousands of years, consists of a piece of bread, and a cup of grape juice or wine. The bread symbolizes the body of Jesus Christ; and when we break the bread, it symbolizes the injury and death he endured as a sacrifice for our sins. The juice symbolizes his blood, which was spilled to cleanse us from the guilt of our sins. The purpose of this meal is to remember and celebrate this great act of love for us; to eagerly anticipate his return; and to communicate this good news in a tangible way. As our guest, you are invited to share this meal with us, for it is a symbol of the grace which is offered to all. Please also feel free to let it pass by if you prefer–we will not be offended, nor will you be judged in any way. Thank you for honoring us with your presence today.”

It is our prayer as our guests experience the gospel demonstrated in our community each week, whether through speaking, singing, praying, eating or drinking, that their hearts will be filled with understanding, and that they too will trust in the worthiness of he who gave his body and blood for our salvation.