I am not interested in any church renewal that is not sacramental – which is to say – is not Christian in any kind of historically or liturgically identifiable sense. Anyone can draw a crowd, but happily God loves us too much to leave us with only marketing tricks and technocratic delights. Instead, God has called His Church to glorify him through prayer, service, song, witness, preaching, and celebrating the sacraments. Chief among the sacraments, the most potent of the means of grace, is the Eucharist, also known as Holy Communion or the Lord’s Supper. United Methodist pastor and professor Kenneth Loyer has just written a book on this sacred meal that explains not just its importance as a rite of the church, but the critical role it can play in the vitality of the local congregation.
Holy Communion: Celebrating God With Us is part of the new Belief Matters series by Abingdon, edited by retired UM Bishop and Duke Divinity School professor Will Willimon. Willimon wrote the first volume on the Incarnation, and my Western NC Conference colleague Jason Byassee has written the next entry on the Trinity (which I am told is excellent). This series “takes as its task the joyful celebration of the wonder of Christian believing.” (xi) It seeks to make doctrine accessible and interesting to both laity and clergy alike, a much needed task today.
Loyer organizes his book in terms of the Communion’s own structure and ethos. Thus, he begins with a discussion of thanksgiving, which is what what most of the Eucharistic liturgy actually is – an epic prayer normally called The Great Thanksgiving in Western practice. Much of this chapter is a kind of commentary on the whole of the liturgy itself, which is a highlight of the book. The next chapter focuses on the practice of active remembering; the liturgy re-members us (literally, puts us back together) as the Body of Christ remembers all that God has done in Jesus Christ to effect our salvation. Drawing on John Wesley’s own Eucharistic piety, Loyer reflects, “we neglect this gift of God’s grace at our own peril.” (44)
After thanksgiving and remembering, the author turns to celebration. Communion does not merely invite us to recall what God has done, but to celebrate the risen Christ’s continued, transforming presence with us now. The story in this chapter of Mandela receiving communion with one of his prison guards is worth the price of admission. In the final chapter, we explore the eschatological dimension of the Eucharist. At the Lord’s Supper, we not only remember what Jesus has done and celebrate his continued grace through the Holy Spirit now, we also look forward. Communion is thus a Kingdom meal that gives us a foretaste of the coming heavenly banquet that Isaiah foretold so well. “On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples,” a feast which we anticipate every time we gather around Christ’s table today. (Is. 25:6)
Interspersed throughout is Loyer’s own pastoral experience. Specifically, he connects the initiation of a mid-week Communion service to a revitalization in ministry for his congregation, Otterbein UMC in Pennsylvania. “God has used this feast of our faith,” Rev. Dr. Loyer notes, “to nourish us in Christ and to generate an increased desire for God that has spread throughout the life of the congregation.” (63) While the author does not emphasize this and I do not find it the most interesting claim he makes, it’s worth noting that under Loyer’s leadership his church has grown from 90 in attendance to 170. At a time when many of our small churches are stagnant or are in decline, this a feat worth attending. Of course, it should be no surprise that spiritual and missional renewal and the Eucharist are heavily linked. The Walk to Emmaus and similar communities have attested to this reality for decades.
To sum up: I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Holy Communion, spiritual renewal, or church vitality. Loyer’s offering is highly readable yet still substantive. Indeed, there is plenty of meat on the bones here even for those well-read in liturgical theology and worship or church growth more broadly. Moreover, each chapter contains a series of reflection questions and a prayer, making it ideal for small groups and Sunday School classes. I highly recommend this new resource for both, as well as church-wide study.
There is no renewal in the church worth having unless the sacramental life is at its center. Ken Loyer’s book both makes this case and helps us imagine what it might look like in practice.