For many Christians, participation in Holy Communion is one of the most vital elements of their weekly spiritual practices. Now that the pandemic has forced many churches to cancel worship services, church leaders are finding new ways to fulfill this vital spiritual practice like with an Agape Feast.
The “Agape Feast” (or “Love Feast”) is an ancient Christian practice to build community, harmony, and generosity among church members. Some Christian traditions (some Protestant and many Evangelical churches) see this as a less informal way to celebrate the sacrament of Holy Communion. Other Christian traditions (some Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox churches) do not view this as a sacramental experience, although elements of the Agape Feast often remind participants of the significance of official celebrations of Holy Communion.
The Agape Feast is an experience of fellowship somewhere in between a great church fellowship dinner and a profound experience of Holy Communion. This is because the fellowship of love celebrated in sharing food intentionally recognizes Christ in the midst of the feast.
As you prepare to organize multiple networks of 3 – 10 households participating in an Agape Feast, it may be helpful if everyone reads Luke 24: 13-32. This is the resurrection story of two disciples encountering the incognito Jesus on the Road to Emmaus. These travelers were eating their meal when they are joined by a then unrecognized stranger. During the meal, Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and shared it with the disciples. Suddenly their eyes were opened and they recognized him. Afterward, they realized how their hearts were burning within them while he was interpreting the scriptures to them. This story captures the simplicity, intimacy, and power of the Agape Feast.
Three Simple Rules
The Agape Feast can be customized in many ways that are meaningful to distinctly different cultures, but there are three rules.
- Let it be simple.
The Agape Feast does not require a great deal of preparation. It is not complicated to share together. And it does not require a great deal of leadership training. This means that participants can fully concentrate on the meaning of the experience rather than the method of the experience.
- Let it be personal.
The Agape Feast converts ordinary space into sacred space. It is aimed at the heart more than at the mind. It encourages mutual accountability more than institutional responsibility. This means that participants are encouraged to express their joy in the Lord, and share their love for one another, in ways that are more emotional and spontaneous.
- Let it be powerful.
The Agape Feast emphasizes lifestyle transformation and personal mission. It is very practical. It helps participants shake bad habits, and build healthy behavior patterns in daily living. It encourages them to align their personal ambitions and careers with God’s purpose for their lives.
The Agape Feast
The Agape Feast is readily adaptable to online participation using today’s video-conferencing technology (Zoom, Facetime, etc.) through which a single household (individuals or families) can connect with others using multiple screens on a single display. They just need to arrange a convenient time to meet.
- Each household gathers around its own dinner table;
- Each table is laid with whatever celebratory food is favored by that household;
- Each table centerpiece includes bread and wine, pitcher and cups;
At the agreed time, households connect with each other and follow the simple worship practice described below. The Agape Service (described below) occurs in the middle of the feast usually takes about 15-20 minutes.
The technology required is quite basic. Many households already have it, but it can be easily obtained and easily learned.
- Internet access;
- Smartphone, tablet, or computer (sometimes with an external monitor for better viewing);
- A speaker and microphone (sometimes with external components for enhanced hearing and speaking);
- A webcam position to include as many people at the table as possible;
Remember, only one person in the household needs to know how to use the technology. And this person is often the youngest person at the table.
*Note that households without this basic technology can still participate. Internet conferencing software also allows people to join by phone. A speakerphone can be placed in the middle of their table for audio participation.
Setting the Table
Think of how you set your dinner table on a holiday like “Mother’s Day” or “Thanksgiving Day”. There are extra places at the table. Food is abundant and includes the favorite dishes of your family and guests. There is a general air of excitement and anticipation in the air as participants look forward to dining with people they love.
In the Online Agape Feast, it is particularly important that each household customize their meal in their own way. The food should reflect their unique heritage and special tastes, and invoke happy memories of family life. This means that every table set by each participating household will be unique. The rule is not uniformity, but cultural diversity. It can be enjoyable for each household to share with the others what they are eating and why it is important to them.
Each household dinner table would include food and drink distinctively Hispanic or Asian; respect the dietary or allergy concerns; and reflect the ages, incomes, educational attainments, languages, marital status, and other lifestyle priorities of participants. If the church subscribes to www.MissionInsite.com (through ACST), then church leaders can anticipate different lifestyle expectations for hospitality using the MissionImpact Mosaic Application Guide.
The one common feature on every table is the centerpiece or focal point of the meal. Each table will have bread and wine, pitcher and cups. Each table might also include a card at each table setting with the printed words of Galatians 5:22-23 and/or Luke 24:13-32. (Sometimes these cards are laminated to protect them for future use). These will be used in the worship service uniformly shared by all online households.
The informality of the Agape Feast does not require any special certification or expertise by the leader. Often the leader is someone broadly respected for their regular spiritual practices and integrity.
- The leader initiates the conference call at the agreed time. (Note that some participants may be in different time zones!) If you are using Zoom, for example, the leader is the only one who needs to subscribe. The leader sends an invitation as a link to the call through ordinary email to every participating household.
- The leader welcomes everyone and asks each participant to wave and introduce themselves. This is important, because some individuals in a household may not be clearly visible due to the size of a phone, tablet, or computer screen. If any participating household connects by phone (audio only), participants can still introduce themselves via speakerphone.
- The leader reminds everyone that Christ is at each household table, and reads aloud Galatians 5:22-23: The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
- The leader shares a brief table grace, invites everyone to relax, eat, enjoy … and of course talk among participating households. Initially, there may be a sense of awkwardness using the technology, so the leader should be prepared to ask questions that invite deeper sharing (beyond chat about the weather, sports, etc.) Questions might be related to personal health, Christian mission, personal and shared faith, etc. Note: The leader should be prepared to intervene if the conversation strays toward politics, public policy debates, or controversial subjects that generate argument rather than harmony.
As the meal continues, and when the time seems right, the leader guides the group through the liturgy of the Agape Feast.
The Agape Service of Worship
A worship service is sometimes described as a “liturgy”, but this often suggests a process that is very formal or institutional, requiring an ordained priest or minister presiding. Instead, the Agape Service is informal, intimate, and can be led by a respected layperson of the church.
Experiencing God’s Presence
The service of worship may resemble that of Holy Communion but is simple, personal, and powerful. Think again of the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-32). The meal was ordinary fare, the heartfelt experience deeply personal, and the awakening to God’s presence at the table with them was powerful and transformational.
You may wish to email the service of worship to each household participating in the Agape Feast so that they can follow, or read aloud, together.
- Prayer of Approach: The leader offers a prayer that can also be read and shared aloud by participants. The exact words can vary. Since the online experience may be cross-cultural it can be shared in more than one language. The key elements of the prayer include the remembrance of a history of grace revealed in the Old and New Testaments; remembrance of Jesus’s words and actions in the Last Supper reported in the Gospels; and thankful anticipation of experiencing that same grace today in company with the risen Christ.
- Celebration of God’s Grace: Prior to formally breaking bread and drinking wine, the leader blesses the symbols of covenant and communion with formal words of thanksgiving. These, too, can be read and shared aloud by participants. I suggest words that echo the “Words of Institution” in your tradition of Holy Communion. For example: Remember the body/blood of Christ broken/shed for you. We share in this grateful celebration that Christ brings hope to the world. Each household member eats and drinks together … in company with every other household linked online wherever they might be.
- Intercessory Prayer: The leader invites anyone to pray aloud for others. These may be prayers for healing and recovery, guidance and enlightenment, comfort and hope, justice and reconciliation, or personal and social transformation. Sometimes it is helpful for the leader to focus on each subject, pause for people to respond spontaneously, and then focus on the next subject. Participants may also text messages to each other for greater confidentiality. As in all social media, communications should be brief and purposeful.
- Passing the Peace: The leader shares the words and models the actions to conclude the service. Words and actions may vary according to tradition or denominational practice. For example, the leader may bow to the person seated next to them, and visible online to every other table, saying May God’s peace go with you. The phrase is repeated or creatively expressed, by each participant, around each table linked online in the Agape Feast.
Discussion and Communication
The Agape Feast usually continues after the service of worship (e.g. dessert, aperitifs, etc.) The worship service, and especially the focus of intercessory prayer, will likely inspire further discussion at each table … and online between tables. Sometimes it is helpful for the leader to ask each table in the online Agape Feast to describe outreach ministries of the church that are high priorities for them.
Also, participants should be encouraged to send social media messages to other friends sharing images, ideas, or thanksgivings that each one takes away from the experience of the Agape Feast. In this way, the Good News can be shared more widely.
Each household can leave the internet conference call whenever they wish. Eventually, the leader will announce that the internet link is closing.
The Agape Feast is often celebrated in conjunction with major holidays (Christian or secular). For example, the Agape Feast might honor special occasions for Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Easter, Pentecost, Thanksgiving, All Saints Day or Halloween, Christmas, or Epiphany. The Agape Feast inspires and supports weekly and annual spiritual practices that include regular Sunday worship, bible study, small group fellowship, outreach volunteerism, and personal devotion.
Pastors, priests, and other church leaders may wish to keep a record of Agape Feast participation. Churches that subscribe to www.MissionInsite.com (through ACST) can complete a People Plot by uploading their membership and active adherent lists into the system. This allows leaders to understand which lifestyle segments are represented in each Agape Feast. They can then follow up with relevant personal and spiritual support, and help participants customize a spiritual practice that is adaptable to their lifestyles and personally fulfilling.
The Rev. Dr. Thomas G. Bandy
Guiding Christian Leaders for Ancient Mission in the Contemporary World
Tom Bandy is an internationally recognized author, consultant, and leadership coach for Christian organizations and faith-based non-profits. He is the director of Thriving Church Consulting, and has authored many planning tools that interface with the demographic research engine of www.MissionInsite.com.
He has published over 25 book and numerous articles that have been translated into Spanish, Korean, and Afrikaans. His most recent books address ministry applications for demographic trends and lifestyle segments: See, Know, and Serve and Worship Ways, Spiritual Leadership, and Strategic Thinking, and Sideline Church: Bridging the Chasms between Churches and Cultures. You can reach Tom through his website www.ThrivingChurch.com and his blog www.SpiritualLeadershipWaystation.com.