In a sermon preached at a Church Together gathering in California, Francis Chan discussed the significance both Scripture and the early church placed on communion. Chan argued the modern American church has replaced communion with the sermon as the center of our modern worship services.
“For 1500 years there was never one guy and his pulpit being the center of the church. It was the body and blood of Christ, and even the leaders just saw themselves as partakers.”
Chan said he had been ruminating on Acts 2:42: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” He said that while he can relate to devoting himself to the apostles’ teaching through Bible study and to devoting himself to prayer, he doesn’t feel as if he’s devoted himself to the breaking of bread and fellowship.
This point was illustrated to Chan when a fellow pastor from India commented on the American church’s response to good speakers and musicians. “You guys don’t show up unless there is a good speaker,” Chan recalled his friend saying. The Indian pastor explained that believers in India gather for communion. “That actually sounds right and biblical,” Chan commented.
There’s also a warning in Scripture concerning communion that we often don’t take seriously enough. In 1 Corinthians 11, Chan explains, there is a warning that if we take communion in an “unworthy manner,” Paul tells us we could bring judgment upon ourselves. In fact, he goes as far as to say there’s a chance we could fall ill or even die. Yet many of us don’t think about this warning when we partake in the Lord’s Supper. Later in the sermon, Chan says the answer is not to avoid communion, but to reconcile oneself to God.
Another point Chan focuses on is the centrality of the practice of communion in the early church. Additionally, Chan says, “for the first 1500 years of church history everyone saw it as the literal body and blood of Christ.” And it wasn’t until 500 years ago that someone “popularized the idea” that the communion elements are a symbol.
At that same time, around 500 hundred years ago, someone put a pulpit at the front of the gathering. This is when we shifted from communion as both the physical center and most important element of the service to “one guy and his pulpit.”
Now, our model for preparing for a service is one person goes in a room by themselves and studies for 20 hours to prepare for a sermon. “Right now we’ve got guys like me that go in a room, study…meanwhile other guys went in their rooms and studied, and then we started all giving different messages, so many contradicting each other.” Chan then borrows an example from 1 Corinthians 3:4 when Paul laments the disunity of the early church. “Pretty soon it’s ‘I follow Piper.’ ‘I follow Chan,’” he explained, giving a modern-day example of the point Paul was making.
“I believe there was something about taking communion as the center of the church and replacing it with a gifted speaker. Not that that gifted speaker is not a part of the body of Christ and a gift to the body of Christ, but the body itself needs to be back in the center of the church,” Chan argued.
Additionally, when we gather we should realize we are gathering with “the eternal body of Christ.” Chan says we often feel “complete in ourselves” because we’re Americans, we’re individuals. But we should think of ourselves as parts of the whole and not complete until we’re all together with the other parts of the body.
The church today is more divided than any time in history, Chan believes. In our modern times, we literally have thousands of denominations. Yet the Scripture tells us that God does not want any divisions in the church. Chan asked his listeners to think about the fact that for a thousand years, there was just one church. What would it look like in the American church if we honored unity in the body of Christ and put it in the center of our services?