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“Love feasts”: How Methodists are reviving a centuries old tradition online

Todd Jordan Strawbridge United lovefeast

KIMBERLY WINSTON reports for Religion Unplugged on the return of the Methodist ritual known as “love feasts”…

Religion Unplugged

Typically, when Rev Todd Jordan conducts the monthly communion service, he offers up bread and grape juice, symbols of the body and blood of Jesus.

But, as nothing is typical during the pandemic, a recent communion Sunday found Jordan with a buttered bagel and a mug of English Breakfast tea. And instead of sharing communion with hundreds of the faithful at Strawbridge United Methodist Church in Kingwood, Texas, Jordan sat alone in front of the altar and a video recorder.

“If you are worshipping by yourself with no one else around I want you to take this opportunity to share as if Jesus is there with you in the room,” Jordan says to the camera, a white-draped cross and a row of empty choir chairs behind him. “Because of course, Jesus is with us. We are having breakfast with Jesus.”

Todd Jordan Strawbridge United lovefeast

Rev Todd Jordan, of Strawbridge United Methodist Church in Kingwood, Texas, in an online “love feast” on 3rd May. PICTURE: Video screenshot.

Welcome to the “love feast,” a centuries-old Christian tradition with roots in the early church now enjoying a revival among United Methodists, the nation’s second largest Protestant denomination after Southern Baptists. While not a substitute for communion, the love feast is an alternative way of sharing the faith and forming community at a time when the coronavirus lockdown is testing both.

“For me, communion is something that is best practiced in community, with people brought together,” Jordan said later. “However, I still feel a need for strong ways of connecting in worship with my people and food and drink are powerful ways that we connect with one another. And so I did a little bit of research and was reminded about the love feast.” 

John Wesley NPG portrait

Founder of Methodism John Wesley (after George Romney oil on canvas, based on a work of circa 178) PICTURE: NPG 2366; © National Portrait Gallery, London/licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)



“For me, communion is something that is best practiced in community, with people brought together. However, I still feel a need for strong ways of connecting in worship with my people and food and drink are powerful ways that we connect with one another. And so I did a little bit of research and was reminded about the love feast.”

– Rev Todd Jordan, of Strawbridge United Methodist Church in Kingwood, Texas

In Methodism, the love feast – also known by the Greek word for brotherly love as an “agape” feast – stems from John Wesley, the founder of the denomination. In 1736, Wesley, then an Anglican minister, was on a mission trip from his native England to the Georgia colony when he fell in with a band of Moravian Christians.

“After evening prayers, we joined with the Germans in one of their love–feasts,” Wesley, then 33, wrote in his journal. “It was begun and ended with thanksgiving and prayer, and celebrated in so decent and solemn a manner as a Christian of the apostolic age would have allowed to be worthy of Christ.”

The love feast is essentially different from a communion meal in several ways. Methodists believe the Holy Spirit is present at the communion meal, which, with baptism, is one of only two of the denomination’s sacraments and must be performed by ordained clergy and in the physical presence of the community. The love feast is a ritual and can be held by anyone, anywhere – including a live-streamed and recorded video. 

The difference, says Jordan, comes down to “mystery.” 

“We believe there is a special and unique presence at work through the elements, the words and the community of communion,” he said. But with a love feast, “we can still have the worship, the food, and the fellowship without it being a sacrament”. 

For that reason, the love feast was regularly practiced by early American Methodists who were scattered across the frontier and had to wait for a quarterly visit from traveling ministers – known as “circuit riders” – to have communion.

Frontier America “was very fertile ground for the love feast, for several reasons” said Ellen Blue, a professor of Christian history and United Methodist studies at Phillips Seminary in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

“One, that the Methodism on this continent was more lay-driven than some denominations, and when they didn’t have a pastor to come, except maybe once every three months, it was important for them to be able to gather in the meantime.”

And because the love feast does not include a sermon but instead focuses on “testimony” – sharing personal stories of how the teller sees God working in their lives – allowed early Methodists “to gather on their own, do something significant and have an encounter with God,” Blue said. 

The love feast has never disappeared from the Methodist church, but has become more occasional than regular. Some congregations hold them during Lent; others are held at retreats and camp meetings. Many life-long Methodists and even some clergy – Jordan among them – have never taken part in one.

“I’ve known love feasts existed, and I’ve always intended to do one, but for whatever reason, I wasn’t compelled to actually do it,” he said.

But that changed in mid-March when coronavirus fears and isolation measures led to the shuttering of his church in suburban Houston. As more states went on lockdown, denominational leaders reminded clergy that the love feast is a ritual they could revive.

“It became a viable option for people to do online that would not violate what some folks consider to be out of the question – the celebration of the Eucharist,” said Dr Cynthia Wilson, executive director for worship resources and the director for liturgical resources at Discipleship Ministries, an agency of the United Methodist Church. “The love feast is an expression of how we emulate and embody the presence of Christ in our community.”

In March, as churches closed down across the nation, Wilson compiled a love feast service and posted it on the church’s website. The United Methodist Church does not keep track of how many of its 32,000 US congregations are hold love feasts, but Strawbridge United Methodist Church members who participated via their video screens are enthusiastic.

“It’s almost like the very early church, right?”

– Michael Pubentz, who participated in Strawbridge United’s “love feast” on 3rd May.

“It’s almost like the very early church, right?” said Michael Pubentz, who sat down with his wife, Rebecca, and their two teenage daughters with a plate of homemade pumpkin cinnamon rolls and various morning beverages for their first love feast. “After Jesus was here, people were meeting in their homes then. So we get to experience in that way a little bit, which is unique.”

Jordan said he will continue to schedule love feasts as long as the pandemic prevents the congregation from gathering in person – perhaps into the fall, he said.

“The first rule of Methodism is do no harm,” he said. “So we’re going to make sure that before we do anything inside the church building, it can be done without doing harm.”

Kimberly Winston is a freelance religion reporter whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, USA Today and more. She is the recipient of the Religion News Association’s 2018 award for best religion reporting at large news outlets.



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