Perhaps you have worshiped for most or all of your life in a church that has never celebrated a Love Feast. Somehow you have ended up at this blog and you are wanting to learn more. Or maybe you are a part of a congregation that does celebrate the Love Feast (or lovefeast if you are Moravian, or love-feast if you are Methodist), and you have experienced dwindling numbers during the celebration, causing you to wonder “what are we doing wrong?” Or perhaps you have experienced powerful Love Feasts for years and do not feel any need to change things up. But if you have found such a treasure, have you shared it with others? Regardless of which category you fit into (if you fit into one at all), a powerful question emerges: Why does the Love Feast matter to Christians today?
I believe that we are witnessing a revival of the Love Feast in the church today. These Love Feasts are taking various forms. Some Love Feasts are meals for the poor in the community. For 22 years, members of the Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Rome, GA have organized a Love Feast on Thanksgiving Day to feed the hungry in the community, a meal complete with turkey, dressing, In 2009, more than 2,900 people were fed, and in 2010, pizza was added to the menu, donated by a local Pizza Hut. Rev. Terrell Shields shares the story of how the Love Feast got started: “Twenty-two years ago, my youngest daughter was in day care and the teacher was trying to get her class to eat all their food by reminding them of the homeless. My daughter came home and asked me if there was anything I could do for the homeless. My oldest daughter said, ‘Sure, Dad is a preacher, he can do anything,’ so that is when I decided to start the Love Feast” (RN-T.com). This is one example of how the Love Feast is emerging in churches today.
There are other examples on the mission field abroad of how ministries are sharing the love of Jesus through celebrating the Love Feast. For example, in their missionary work, Georgian and Winnie Banov of Global Celebration have made it a practice to celebrate Love Feasts with the poor and the lepers in the city dumps of Managua, Nicaragua and Hyderabad, India. Their practice is to share chicken meals with hundreds of people and to sing songs of celebration. Leaving the question of whether this is the best form of evangelism for another occasion, what is clear from the YouTube videos is a pure joy and love that may be missing in celebrations of the Love Feast in the U.S. And there are examples of other celebrations in missionary work in Brazil, where a recent Love Feast provided the opportunity for 50 people to be fed, participate in worship, and receive prayer and healing.
In some places, celebrating the Love Feast is not a meal to benefit the poor, but rather a meal in the context of Holy Communion. For example, this year Cove Presbyterian Church in Weirton, WV, celebrated a Love Feast on Maundy Thursday. Their Love Feast included a “simple meal of soup and sandwiches as well as the sacrament of Holy Communion” (link). And in Peterborough, Ontario, and emerging church called The Third Space celebrates the Love Feast once a month during their worship service, providing a meal and Holy Communion to those who are present. These two examples stand out to me because they evidence the fact that celebrating the Love Feast with Communion is no longer simply a peculiar Brethren practice.
Some denominations, like the United Methodist Church and Free Methodist Church, have a history of celebrating the Love Feast, although they are clear that the celebration does not include the Eucharist. While the practice of celebrating the love-feast (as they spell it) has dwindled in many Methodist churches, their worship books still contain worship service outlines for a love feast (Free Methodist and United Methodist). And consider Zion United Methodist Church in Grand Forks, North Dakota. For some time, this congregation has hosted a monthly Love Feast and has invited other churches in the area to participate with them in sharing a free meal and stories of testimony (more info later… see church site).
We should not forget the Moravians and the Brethren. The Moravian Brethren celebrated their first lovefeast after Holy Communion on August 13, 1727, when the spirit of fellowship and worship remained so strong that their leader, Count Zinzendorf, arranged for food to be provided to the worshipers in the church building. Soon the lovefeast became a Moravian tradition, and it was the Moravians who shared their lovefeast with John Wesley in 1735, leading to its emergence in the Methodist movement. A Moravian lovefeast is primarily a service of song and prayer, often without a sermon. The service does not include the Eucharist; rather, coffee and sweetened buns are most often served to participants, and the meal is open to all people. Moravians today often celebrate a lovefeast on August 13, as well as on other important days in the Christian calendar. Since 1965, Wake Forest University has a tradition of celebrating a Moravian lovefeast every Christmas. If you want to catch a glimpse of a large Moravian lovefeast, check out this slide show from WFU.
Finally, those in the Brethren tradition can make a legitimate claim for having the most contemporary experience celebrating the Love Feast, dating back to their first celebration in Schwarzenau, Germany in the late summer of 1708. For over 300 years, the Brethren have celebrated a Love Feast that includes feetwashing, an agape (love) meal, and Communion. Two other actions, the holy kiss and the deacon’s visit, have also historically been related to the Love Feast, although many contemporary Brethren congregations have adapted or eliminated these actions. As a member of a Church of the Brethren congregation, this is the Love Feast tradition with which I am most familiar. More than a few Brethren in recent years have expressed concern that participation in the Love Feast is dwindling. It seems that this expression of worship and obedience is struggling to be “owned” by younger Brethren.
I hope that this brief overview of celebrations of the Love Feast has shown that the Love Feast, while perhaps experiencing challenges in those groups with the most experience celebrating it, is in reality experiencing renewed interest across the broader church. How might those of us with a rich heritage celebrating the Love Feast share our experiences with those who are passionate to embrace this celebration of the early church? What might those who are new to the celebration have to offer to us who may have become settled in our understanding of the Love Feast?
What seems clear in our current context is that it is futile to argue that there is only one legitimate way to celebrate the Love Feast. Just as in the early church, where celebrations of the Love Feast/Eucharist differed throughout the Mediterranean, so too will congregations and denominations today experience a diversity of Love Feast celebrations. While recognizing this diversity, are there any themes which might be central to most celebrations of the Love Feast?
I believe that we can find five central themes/disciplines at the heart of the Love Feast: submission, love, confession, reconciliation, and thanksgiving. I will only briefly explain these here; I have done so at greater length in my book Recovering the Love Feast. First, submission. When we celebrate the Love Feast we ought to be formed to submit to God and to one another. One powerful way to practice submission is through feetwashing. When Christians wash feet, they obey the command of Christ to wash feet in John 13:14 and they submit to one another in humble service. Second, love. Most everyone knows that Christians are supposed to love God, one another, to love strangers, and to even love our enemies. And obviously the Love Feast should be an opportunity to show this love to others. One of the ways that this love is expressed powerfully is through table fellowship, through sharing food together. Christian Love Feasts should be opportunities to eat a substantial meal together in a context of worship. Third, confession. By confession, I mean the broad biblical understanding of confession, which includes confessing our faith (confessing that Jesus is Lord), confessing praises to God, and confessing sin. Too often we focus on only confessing sin, and thus neglect the broader importance of confession for the people of God. Fourth, reconciliation. When we come together to celebrate the Love Feast, we bring our baggage with us. Celebrating the Love Feast ought to give us the opportunity to find reconciliation with our brothers and sisters. This was the underlying purpose of the holy kiss, or the passing of the peace. Shifting cultural mores that have eliminated the holy kiss should not also cause us to lose sight of the importance of reconciliation in the Love Feast. Fifth, thanksgiving. A Love Feast ought to be an occasion for giving thanks to God. In other words, a Love Feast should be a joyful celebration. I have been to several Love Feasts that seemed to be more of a somber historical reenactment of the Last Supper. One of the best ways to give thanks is to celebrate the Eucharist, which literally means thanksgiving. Celebrating the Eucharist/Communion in the context of a full meal helps to remind us that this is how Jesus instituted the practice. I seriously doubt that he intended the practice to later be substituted with a wafer and a sip of wine/juice. In addition, when Communion is a part of a service that includes a full meal, the meal can be opened to all people, regardless of religious conviction, while the Eucharist can be reserved for only those who have committed their lives to Christ and the church. I believe that this provides a nice solution to the challenge of being inclusive with Communion.
The Love Feast matters because people today are longing to know and experience the love of God. The Love Feast matters because people are looking for authentic ways to worship and love one another. Submission, Love, Confession, Reconciliation, and Thanksgiving. These should be at the heart of the Love Feast. Comments?