Throughout my childhood, my favorite special event on our church’s calendar was the annual Thanksgiving service. My love for the event was not because of the pies—a groaning pot-luck table of apple, pumpkin, and chocolate cream with no one to count how many slices we children ate—or the merry fire blazing in the church fireplace. It wasn’t the chance to run unsupervised down the cold, dim, familiar back hallways with sugar-fueled friends. It wasn’t even the promise of a delayed school-night bedtime.
I loved it for that moment when we all pulled our avocado-green vinyl chairs into a ragged semi-circle around the piano, and my pastor-father said, “Who would like to start with a word of thanksgiving?” And, after a brief silence, someone would rise to her feet and say, “I am thankful for a new job this year that lets me pay the bills and gives me a chance to use my gifts.” Another would stand: “I’m thankful the Lord used this year’s chemo treatments to send my cancer into remission.” After that, people would rise—or, sometimes, speak falteringly from their seats—in rapid succession.
Even as a child, I treasured the privilege of hearing the stories of others’ lives. Every year, we would hear words of thanks for jobs and homes, for pastors and teachers, for physical healing and familial reconciliation, for power over sin and for the unmerited gift of salvation. There were always a few surprises from people who waited for this service to announce a pregnancy or a wedding engagement. There were always a few tears as we remembered faithful saints, gone this year to be with Jesus.
At the end of the evening, church members would replace the chairs and rake the fire’s embers into ash. We located our sticky and crumb-y pie plates. We plucked mittens from coat sleeves and tugged on stubborn boots. We hugged one another. We smiled. And we walked out into the cold, our hearts warmed with shared thankfulness.
Let Us Give Thanks
In recent years, thanksgiving has become a popular topic. Ann Voskamp’s book on cultivating a thankful heart has sold over a million copies. Many of my friends keep a private thanksgiving journal, a lifelong list of mercies both small and great. And a popular women’s magazine extolled the personal health benefits of gratitude. I am glad we are more aware of our need to give thanks, but I wonder if this individual focus on thankfulness neglects an important aspect of thanksgiving—something the Thanksgiving services of my childhood affirmed: thanksgiving is a communal event.
In Thanksgiving, author and theologian David W. Pao defines biblical thanksgiving this way: “To thank God is to remember and recount his mighty deeds. Thanksgiving therefore moves beyond the sphere of private sentiments to the public acknowledgement of the mighty and faithful God.” Thanksgiving is not simply a thank-you card, sealed in an envelope and intended only for the eyes of the divine addressee. Thanksgiving is an open, public declaration. Thanksgiving doesn’t just whisper. Thanksgiving shouts to everyone within earshot: “Come and see what God has done: he is awesome in his deeds toward the children of man” (Ps. 66:5).
This month, many of us will have opportunity to give public thanks—in church services, around feast-laden family tables, and in conversations with our neighbors. We will be asked to recount something for which we are thankful. We will ask others in return. And I hope we recognize that this shared thanksgiving is one of our great privileges as the people of God.
Give Thanks to the God of Gods
In a secular society, Thanksgiving is widely perceived as an interfaith or even faith-optional holiday. But the Christian knows that gratitude is not merely contented mindfulness. True gratitude is directed at our God, the giver of every good and perfect gift (James 1:17). In expressions of thankfulness, we exalt him, proclaim his faithfulness, and confess that we have nothing apart from him. It’s especially fitting, then, that we should do this together.
We see this demonstrated in Psalm 136:
“Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever. Give thanks to the God of gods, for his steadfast love endures forever. Give thanks to the Lord of Lords, for his steadfast love endures forever” (Ps. 136:1-3).
The psalm is a call to communal thanks, an invitation for all the redeemed to together glorify the One “who alone does great wonders” (v. 4) and whose “steadfast love endures forever.” Like the fans of a triumphant sports team or the supporters of a victorious political candidate, we together raise our voices in the praises of our singular God.
Hear and Be Glad
And when we allow others to hear and join in our expressions of thanks, we stir one another’s hearts to thankfulness. In another psalm, David writes:
“I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth. My soul makes its boast in the Lord; let the humble hear and be glad. Oh, magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together!” (Ps. 34:1-3).
Public thanksgiving allows other people to “hear and be glad” and encourages them to corporate praise. As we sit around the Thanksgiving table with family and hear their words of thanks to God, it reminds us that we, too, ought to be thankful for the same mercies. On our own, we are sometimes slow to gratitude, but public thanksgiving keeps us from drifting into the ways of the godless who do “not honor him as God or give thanks to him” (Rom. 1:21). In the company of others we remember just how much we have been given.
All Rejoice Together
Finally, giving thanks in community fosters Christian unity. I’m sure there were times at our church thanksgiving service that we could have been more spiritually-minded—less new jobs and more new appreciation for God himself—but even our minor blessings were an opportunity to express the unity of the body. “If one member suffers, all suffer together,” writes Paul, “if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor. 12:26). In a Christian community too often plagued by jealousy and envy, corporate thanksgiving is an opportunity to enter into the joys of others, to delight with them at the Lord’s kindness, and to affirm that blessing given to one member is, in fact, a blessing to the whole body.
Let us give thanks. Together.
Megan Hill is a PCA pastor’s wife and pastor’s daughter. She is the author of Praying Together: The Priority and Privilege of Prayer in Our Homes, Communities, and Churches (Crossway, 2016).