Resisting the Temptation to Side-line the Lord’s Supper
by Michael J. Penfold
Church, in many parts of the world, has developed into a competitive, consumer-facing operation focussed on numbers and growth. As evangelical mega-churches have come of age, their growth methodology has been copied by thousands of smaller churches, hoping to replicate their success.
The current recipe for evangelical church success features 4 must-have elements:
- A fun-filled action-packed Sunday School that runs concurrently with the main Sunday morning worship service. This saves parents having to fight to get their children to church.
- A talented contemporary music group, delivering powerful and impactful feel-good worship performances.
- A speaker who explains the Bible in a positive, entertaining and non-judgmental way.
- A congregation containing enough socially similar people to enable everyone to become part of a comfortable peer group.
Now, let’s take a step back and slowly read over the New Testament’s understated description of a Sunday gathering of God’s people in the first century AD:
“And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them.” (Acts 20:7)
Taken in its most natural sense, this verse makes clear that “coming together to break bread” was 1. a weekly Sunday occurrence, and 2. the main reason for gathering, Paul’s sermon being the extra event that followed it. The simplicity of it all is jarring to today’s evangelical mindset. It also contrasts with what has pertained throughout much of church history. The scriptural simplicity of the first century did not last long. From the second century onwards, layer upon layer of ritual and ceremony piled up until the New Testament’s local church blueprint was all but obliterated. The Reformation cleared away many of the layers, but by no means all. Today, apostolic simplicity lies buried again, this time beneath marketing, music and multimedia. Evangelical church growth books and seminars dedicate no space to “the breaking of bread”. It’s not considered a crowd-puller.
If intentionally meeting to break bread on the first day of each week is the biblical pattern, why is it not universally practised? Because the evangelical church’s focus has shifted from “the Word” to the consumer. In today’s culture, the scriptural duty and privilege of breaking bread in remembrance of Christ is nowhere near the top of the list of what most people are looking for in a church. It’s simply not exciting enough nor appealing enough to be put at the front end of a church’s activities, so it is side-lined. It is done once a month, or once a quarter and, even then, it is just added on to the end of the worship service once the band has played and the pastor has given his talk. If you really want to do it each Sunday, you’ll be advised to do it in the evening, when only the really committed will show up, and you won’t put off new people who come to the main event in the morning.
All of this calls for a radical rethink, the first element of which is a reorientation of perspective. Church should not be a consumer focussed entity, taking its bearings from the culture around it. The local church exists for the glory of God, and His will and His Word come first. Our first consideration should not be “what would play best to get more members?” but “what does the Lord command?”.
A study of the determined effort made by Christians in the 19th century to get back to biblical simplicity is instructive. An early little-known pioneer in that move of the Holy Spirit was James Buchanan from Omagh, Northern Ireland, who, upon making the break with his ritual-laden denomination, recorded “…we came together on 21st Sept 1807 as a church of the living God at Comowen Green…We found in [the] Scriptures…that the disciples, in Acts 20, are spoken of as coming together on the first day of the week to bread bread…” Another fascinating case is that of John Gifford Bellett, the famed hymn writer, who left on record a transformative conversation he had with Anthony Norris Groves in 1825. “It appeared to him from Scripture that believers, meeting together as disciples of Christ, were free to break bread as their Lord had admonished them, and that in so far as the practice of the apostles could be a guide, every Lord’s Day should be set apart for thus remembering the Lord’s death and obeying his command.” The apostolic simplicity that Bellett and Groves rediscovered came as revelation to their minds. It stood in sharp contrast both to what they had grown up with, and to what they had expected to spend the rest of their life doing.
Reflecting on the issue of man-made additions to simple biblical church order and practice over the centuries, Andrew Stenhouse, a 20th century missionary to Chile, wrote: “Picture, if you will, a church building of pre-Reformation days [prior to 1,500AD]. Look in at the door, and what do you see? The congregation has its attention focussed on the elevated platform at the far end of the building, where a robed priest, with his back to the people, is occupied in genuflexions and recitations before an altar. That is priestcraft. Come down to later times, and again look in at the open door of a church building. Again you see the congregation looking in the same direction. Again their attention is focussed upon a robed clergyman, but this time his face is towards them, and he has the Word of God before him. That is a great improvement on the previous picture, but much is still lacking. Come now to a very simple edifice in more recent times, and look in upon the scene. In the centre of the room is a table, and on that table a loaf of bread and a cup of wine. The Christians are gathered around the table, and no man appears as presiding over that meeting. It is the Holy Spirit who presides there, and the thoughts and affections of the saints are concentrated on the person of the Lord Himself. This is the Christian assembly functioning normally with Christ as its centre.”
The Lord has left us His “dying request”; “this do in remembrance of me”. In response, as we have seen, the apostles met weekly on the Lord’s Day to carry it out, putting the breaking of bread front and centre in their worship and in their lives.
2,000 years later it remains our privilege to continue to do so “until He come”.