In The Brethren Church, we hold a value of "Contextual Brethren Life." There is an understanding that we can embody our history, our traditions, and our commitment to scripture while still incorporating a posture that is sensitive to the needs and language of our context.
Paul spoke of this in his first letter to the church at Corinth:
"19I am not anyone's slave. But I have become a slave to everyone so that I can win as many people as possible. 20When I am with the Jews; I live like a Jew to win Jews. They are ruled by the Law of Moses, and I am not. But I live by the Law to win them. 21And when I am with people who are not ruled by the Law, I forget about the Law to win them. Of course, I never really forget about the law of God. In fact, I am ruled by the law of Christ. 22When I am with people whose faith is weak; I live as they do to win them. I do everything I can to win everyone I possibly can. 23I do all this for the good news because I want to share in its blessings."
Paul understood the value of embodying culture from within to draw people close to Jesus.
Many of our Brethren Churches have been wrestling in recent years with dwindling attendance numbers at Three-Fold Communion. Our commitment to three-fold communion (the love feast, the bread and cup, and foot washing) runs deep. Brethren have long been committed to emulating Jesus' actions in the New Testament as closely as possible.
But, as we so often do, we have allowed what was once practical logistic considerations to become as hallowed as the ordinances themselves. Many Brethren faithful cannot imagine three-fold communion without their pickles, or with anything fancier than broth and bread, or a certain kind of finger sandwich.
As if Jesus had a platter of finger sandwiches at the last supper.
In that vein, we want to share with you some of the ways that congregations are successfully re-contextualizing this ordinance with the "cloak of culture," living and doing as those around us so that we might better win them.
When St. James Brethren Church (Hagerstown, MD) decided to make significant shifts to their three-fold communion service, it had instant and exponential effects. Here's what they did.
Change The Time
Reality is, getting to church on Sunday morning is hard for young families. Coming back for a service in the evening is even harder. Arriving back at dinner time on a school night? Forget it.
So SJBC changed the time. They moved three-fold communion to follow immediately after their second morning service. The gathered meal would be at lunchtime, rather than dinner.
After a short break following the service to allow folks to enter/exit from the worship service to the Ministry Center or head home if they weren't staying, they get underway. Gathering in the Sanctuary for prayer, it's a way to keep folks together and not have to come back.
Change the Food
Let's be honest. We have elevated our love feast food choices to a level that borders ridiculous.
On a practical level, families were choosing between feeding their children a "second supper" after three-fold communion or fighting them during the meal even to eat what was in front of them.
SJBC decided to stop fighting. For the first few times after the change, the church catered in a full lunch. Was there a cost? Yep. Did it help remove barriers for members to participate? Yep.
Now, the church provides a full-meal prepared by the Deacon ministry at SJBC.
The congregation moves from the Sanctuary to the Family Life Center for the shared meal, and subsequent foot washing.
Change The Atmosphere
Leadership at SJBC realized that much of the ministry that was occurring during foot washing came from the conversations folks had before, during, and after washing each other's feet. Unfortunately, in the past, the rooms they used for foot washing were only big enough to accommodate a small number of people at a time. This meant many were relegated to washing the feet of whomever they sat near at the meal, and only had a chance to minister or be ministered to by those same folks.
SJBC moved the foot washing into the open, allowing all to approach the foot washing stations at the same time. And the impact was tangible. People connected more. There was more prayer. There was more fellowship. Was it noisier? Yep. Did people forge deeper connections over this holy moment? Yep.
Change How You Talk About It
This might be the most significant change of all. SJBC made a measurable change in how they promoted Three-Fold Communion. More and more people are attending and joining Brethren churches from other traditions and denominations. Many do not understand what Three-Fold Communion is.
By starting multiple weeks out, SJBC was able to take the time in services to explain what it is, why it is so important, and to de-stigmatize foot washing. This is part of being hospitable! When we welcome others into our church, we care enough about them to walk them through our family traditions and celebrations! SJBC even did a demonstration of foot washing one week in service to help people understand.
These changes paid dividends. The first three-fold communion that implemented these changes drew hundreds from the church — an exponential increase in attendance! And attendance has stayed up since.
So we want to hear from you! What is your church doing to contextualize this important Brethren practice?
We went to hand washing which I find deplorable
We went to hand washing which I find deplorable
I appreciate the sensitivity to those who have not participated before. It can seem really weird that we wash each others feet, but it sounds like this church took time to demonstrate, teach why it is important, and then eliminated major obstacles to the families in their church to actually participate. Well done Brethren!
As a traveling pastor I have had the pleasure of being involved with the a three fold communion in a number of churches. The most meaningful ones, at least from my vantage point, were churches where an ethnic sub group in the congregation prepared a simple meal from their native country for the whole congregation to share. It was a great way to draw closer together and for true family level fellowship to occur.
We at 1st Brethren of Elkhart, IN have been having our fall communion immediately following Sunday morning worship for long before we began ministering there. The deacons provide the meal (usually Lasagna) and families enjoy fellowship together. This past fall we saw an increase in young families staying and children asking questions. Several young children went with their parents to wash feet and participated. This resulted in one little girl asking her mom more about Jesus and she accepted Christ right there at communion!
We've heid 3 fold communion after morning worship for over 20 years and it hasn't helped attendance .
Foot washing is the big hang up. Even after preaching and other teaching about the Holy significance.
We incorporated hand washing stations for those that can no longer get down on their knees due to knee and hip surgeries. We have the foot washing as well and encourage that first, but we understand some limitations people have and wanted them to be able to still enjoy Communion. We also have changed the time to be included in our morning worship, we just changed the worship setting from the sanctuary to our fellowship center, so people don't have to worry about not being able to come back in the evening. The food is always different depending the deacons choice, always good, simple, but so fitting to the setting and time of year.
I applaud the changes stated. For many it seems the feet washing has been a negative but for me having been raised in the Brethren Church that is very important and meaningful. Teaching the meaning and importance has obviously made a difference in that congregation. God Bless their leadership.
It was mentioned about a "second supper". The communion Love Feast is not a pot-luck or buffet. Paul talked about the Lord's Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. 20 So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21 for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. 22 Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter! 27 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. 28 Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. 29 For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. 34 Anyone who is hungry should eat something at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment.
We haven't had a traditional Three-Fold Brethren Communion in a few years.
How is this “The Bible, the WHOLE Bible and NOTHING BUT the Bible?”
Harvey — how is it not?