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 potluck 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 semicircle 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’m 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, crumb-strewn pie plates. We plucked mittens from coat sleeves and tugged on stubborn boots. We hugged one another. We smiled. And we walked out together into the cold, our hearts warmed with shared thankfulness.
Let Us Give Thanks
In recent years, thanksgiving has become a popular topic. It’s the subject of bestsellers and the object of pretty memes. Research extols gratitude for everything from improving mental health to enabling better sleep. In response, many of my friends keep a private thanksgiving journal, a lifelong list of mercies both small and great.
I’m glad we’re 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: gratitude is a communal event.
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).
Today, 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 greatest privileges as the people of God.
Give Thanks to Our God
In a secular society, Thanksgiving is widely perceived as an interfaith or even faith-optional holiday. But Christians know that gratitude isn’t just 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 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 (vv. 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 fans of a triumphant sports team or supporters of a victorious political candidate, we raise our collective 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. Elsewhere 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 others 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 often 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). The company of others helps us recall just how much we’ve received.
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 apartment 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,” Paul observes, “and if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor. 12:26).
In churches too often plagued by envy and conflict, 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.