A Primer on Congregational Fasting
Fasting is a practice that some people incorporate into their spiritual lives on a regular basis—even weekly. Scot McKnight defines fasting as “a whole-body response to a grievous sacred moment” (Fasting: The Ancient Practices, Thomas Nelson, 2009). But why should we fast? McKnight’s definition helps us understand why: to respond to something that is spiritual enough, and grievous enough, to merit such an action.
We are spiritual beings and often respond to grievous occasions in a spiritual way (prayer, for example), but we are also physical, body-dwelling creatures, and we can and should respond with our bodies as well. The leadership of a church might recognize that the congregation is in the midst of a grievous sacred moment—as they face a time of transition, deal with a community-wide struggle, and so on. In such times, the leadership is wise to call for a time of congregational fasting and prayers for repentance and forgiveness, for one another and their body corporately, and for their humility and God’s glory.
In these situations, some may ask, “Should I participate?” The answer is yes—if you believe that you should. While some Christians maintain a regular practice of fasting, others seldom, if ever, fast. If you have never fasted—or if it has been a long time since you did so—you might try it, keeping an open mind. You may find that it is a practice you would like to continue.
Who Shouldn’t Fast
There are some people who should not fast because of health or medical reasons, so it is worthwhile to check with your doctor before you decide to fast. Some will find that fasting can become something they approach legalistically; these people should be careful about whether they should fast and what their motives are for fasting. Some will find that their circumstances may prevent them from being able to fast on a particular day (and may want to consider fasting on another day in solidarity with the congregation). No one should feel compelled to fast if they don’t feel led to, nor should they feel judged by others if they choose not to fast.
What Can I Eat?
Strictly speaking, a fast is giving up all food for a period of time. Some people practice a liquid fast which means that they do not eat solid foods, but they still allow themselves juices and other drinks. Another type of fast is called an absolute fast in which one gives up all food and drink for the duration of the fast. In most cases, a fast involves no solid foods and no drinks but water.
Sometimes people will speak of giving up certain foods for a time—during Lent, for example. This is not technically a fast but an abstention, as they are simply abstaining from certain foods. This can be a good exercise, too, in a similar way to fasting. Some who are not able to fast due to medical need (or for other reasons) might find that they can participate in a group or congregational fast by abstention.
How Long Should I Fast?
Some may occasionally fast from a single meal, while others will fast for entire days or even longer (remember Christ’s 40 days of fasting before he began his public earthly ministry). In a corporate fast, the church’s leadership should stipulate when fasting should occur—and they would be wise to gauge how familiar (or unfamiliar) their congregation is with the practice of fasting. If they are new to it, the stated fast might be shorter in length, while congregations more experienced in fasting can endure a longer time of fasting. Congregants may choose whether they would fast for the entire time, for a part of it (starting after lunch, perhaps), or for some other length of time.
When congregations fast together, they should also break their fast together. There is perhaps no better way to break a fast than with communion during Sunday worship! And perhaps that could be followed by a congregation-wide meal, like a potluck (though this can present its own set of stumbling-blocks for the members, as they prepare dishes to bring on an empty stomach).
What Should I Do During a Fast?
What you do during a fast, like fasting itself, is largely up to your conscience. However, here are some suggestions: you might spend the time you would normally take for meals in prayer, reading the Bible, singing hymns, or spend this time in service to others. You might also consider calculating what you would normally spend on those meals and snacks during the time of your fast, and give that amount of money to the deacons’ fund at your church or to a charitable cause.
In any event, because the leadership would normally call for both fasting AND prayer about a specific topic, you should spend some extra time in prayer. One “cue” that some have used is that whenever their stomach growls or they feel a hunger pang, they take that as a prompting to pray. You should pray in your own way as you feel led.
What Shouldn’t I Do When Fasting?
Jesus tells of how we should not spend our times of fasting: we should not flaunt it before the world. When we fast, he says, we should not do it like the hypocrites, making a big deal about it and drawing attention to ourselves (Matt. 6). Thus, if you choose to participate in a fast (and/or to fast at other times), you should be cautious that you don’t do so hypocritically or in a manner that draws attention to your fasting.
What Difference Does Fasting Make?
Sometimes we feel we must “get something out of” an exercise like fasting. And, truthfully, God does at times bless our fasting with a response—he will answer our prayers in the manner that we asked for, or will begin (or continue) a work in our midst that represents a blessing. But (like prayer and so many other spiritual activities) we must be careful not to approach fasting with wrong motives.
Fasting is a natural and proper response for the children of God. If we get anything from it—if fasting does anything in these moments—then the most important thing it does is to help us to draw closer to the God whom we call Father.
Many believers, individually and corporately, have found fasting to be a spiritual discipline that is both formative and beneficial. Perhaps you—and your congregation—might also explore this discipline anew. May the Lord be with you as you do.