July 31, 2014

Thoughts on Weekly Communion

48830.jpgIn June of last year, I began taking the Lord’s Supper weekly. I’d like to write about what this has meant to me, and to the community of worshipping Christians that I lead.

My Southern Baptist tradition has been de-emphasizing the Lord’s Supper for a good deal of its recent history. This has not been so much intentional as it is the result of a weak ecclesiology (manifested in a loss of emphasis on church membership and church discipline), an over-emphasis on evangelism and church growth, and lack of theological foundations for the place of the Lord’s Supper in the life of the church and the Christian.

The result of this de-emphasis is sad: the supper is rarely served, it is rarely preached about, and most Baptists have no positive role in their own spirituality for the Lord’s Supper.

Part of the picture is the tendency of Baptists to define themselves by as many negatives as positives. This is especially true with baptism and the Lord’s Supper, where many pastors are far more comfortable with saying what they don’t believe than what they do believe.

This situation has been unacceptable to me for many years. In the last twenty years of my ministry experiences, I have given many opportunities to take the Lord’s Supper more frequently, and I have emphasized the place of the Lord’s Supper in worship and the Christian “walk.”

One of my motivations has been simple: the Lord’s Supper is a vivid and vital connection with Jesus. To come to the Lord’s table is to return to that night when Jesus gave the supper to his disciples. It is to be re-invited to believe, to be re-invited into the community of Jesus’ followers. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are literal moments from the ministry of Jesus, re-lived and re-joined with all the power of that moment.

Most Christians in my tradition are starved for these connection points. Contemporary evangelical spirituality offers emotional experience, “Quiet time,” music, church programs and information in sermons as the individual’s “connecting points” with Jesus. The roles of the church, baptism, the Lord’s Supper and service to others are not completely neglected, but there are few churches where the life of the New Testament church resembles to language and emphases of the New Testament.

When soli deo began, I offered a summation of our values and vision. Several of those values revolve around frequent communion, and the shaping of worship around scripture, liturgy, creeds and the Lord’s Supper rather than around music and the sermon only. This emphasis on weekly communion is an emphasis on a particular vision of the Christian life, one that enters into the Biblical story and especially into the particular story of Jesus, as the primary shaping force of the Christian life. This is in stark contrast to the starvation diet most evangelicals and most of my Baptist family endures in a constant dependence on music, consumerism and massive doses of preaching to form their identity. The results are paltry, shallow and frequently non-existent.

So, since June of ’06, I have been receiving communion weekly. In contrast to the 2-4 times a year communions that are normal in Southern Baptist life, I’ve been at the Lord’s table every Tuesday night. I’ve shared that community with a worshipping fellowship from many different denominations and backgrounds, some learning about this more ancient way of worship for the first time, while others are much further down the road of post-evangelicalism than I am.

In addition to the vital and vivid connection with Jesus, I’ve recovered a joy in communion that theological debates had taken away. For some time, my awareness of and participation in debates about the nature of the Lord’s Supper turned the Lord’s Supper into a source of division and anxiety. It reminded me of those theologians who, in their insistence on a particular version of the “real presence,” defend the supper with philosophical categories and language that are far from the actual, unifying, language of scripture. Such language may be apologeticially useful, but it is devotionally vacuous.

One of our values in soli deo is to say little about communion, and to stay as close to the actual words of institution as possible. I will usually do a 2-3 minute communion meditation, then, using the actual words of I Corinthians 11 slightly expanded (usually with connections to the passover meal), we share the Lord’s Supper in bread and cup, received in silence.

I do this for the very practical reason of leading an inter-denominational fellowship that has chosen not to work through all the aspects of theology before worshipping together. As fellow missionaries and members of a missional community, we share some aspects of “church” fellowship, but do not share others. Minimizing the words associated with the Lord’s Supper to the words of institution keeps us at the point where our shared fellowship is not divided, but united, at the Lord’s table.

The aspect of weekly communion that has been the most significant for me is the constant reminder that inclusion in the community of Jesus comes with the reception of forgiveness. The community of Jesus is not formed by miracles or testimonies, but by Christ’s forgiveness of sinners. Rather than focusing on “walking the aisle,” weekly communion focuses on constant forgiveness from Christ himself. In communion, Christ is active, faith is receptive and I am passive.

In my Baptist upbringing, we were frequently told that weekly communion turned the supper into a meaningless, rote ritual. Roman Catholics and those in the Disciples of Christ churches were examples. Of course, this same standard didn’t seem to apply to preaching, the offering, choir specials, hymns and, of course, the offering. It is was always obvious to me that the kinds of demeaning language used in describing frequent communion was not rooted in the Bible, but is simple prejudice: we don’t want to be like the Catholics.

The difference has become clear. When communion is properly elevated in worship, the meaning of communion is elevated. I am not particularly fond of the idea of dividing the service into “two” liturgies. I prefer to keep communion in the area where Baptists typically think about the invitation, but instead of walking the aisle, we are offered Christ in the Lord’s Supper.

Some will no doubt be surprised to hear that a shortening of the sermon has happened as we re-emphasized the Lord’s Supper. This is not a necessity, but our worship contains a Psalm and three lessons. We have consciously tried to place the teaching of the Word in a servant posture to the reading of the lessons. In much Baptist tradition, the reading of the scripture is servant to the sermon, and I feel this is inappropriate.

In the Lord’s Supper, the Word is proclaimed, the Gospel is offered and Christ is present in power to save. The “memorial” view can be presented in a stripped down, barely significant view of taking a pledge, or it can be presented as remembering one who has promised to be with us, in power, and in fellowship with those who share, believingly, in the Lord’s Supper as living members of Christ’s body. I am convinced the “stripped down” view of the Lord’s Supper has needlessly removed the power of the Supper from the experience of many Christians, and made the reformed, Lutheran and Catholic views more attractive to many Baptist Christians.

I never feel I am participating in “just a symbol.” A “symbol” has the power to include me in the reality of the thing signified if I enter, with faith, into the story in which the symbol occurs. The language of “just a symbol” is, in fact, offensive, for it demeans all kinds of Biblical language and many aspects of the Biblical story. (Should we say that Passover is a “symbol with power” or “just a symbol?”) It is a measurement of our confusion regarding communion that we see nothing strange about taking all the power and influence that God has associated with the Supper and describing such as “just” a symbol.

I’ve become convinced that occasional communion tends to drain the event of its significance and emphasize the wrong aspects. If we believe that communion is a “pledge” on our part as well as an offering of the Gospel itself, then we want to keep both aspects together and not overemphasize either one at the expense of the other. It is extremely hard for me to see that communion 2 or 3 times a year can possibly emphasize the new covenant gospel that Jesus explicitly says is present in the Lord’s Supper. I believe Spurgeon understood this when he did what no megachurch pastor would dare do today: have the Lord’s Supper at every Sunday service.

Weekly communion is a constant reminder that we journey with Jesus; that we are vitally connected to him and to the movement he began; that Christ, in the new covenant, offers his people all that their salvation means through simple, empty-handed faith. It would be difficult for me to go back to worship without weekly communion. The place of Christ’s New Covenant meal in worship can’t be replaced with music or preaching. It is Christ’s meal of fellowship, Christ’s table of invitation, Christ’s body and blood proclaimed for us in bread and wine.

Virtually eliminating what Christ gave to us to be at the very center or worship is trading away our great inheritance for trinkets and decoration. Restoring the Lord’s Supper to a central place in worship is a crucial part of the renewal and reformation post-evangelicals should work toward.

Comments

  1. Phil Walker says:

    Yeah, I never did understand the “weekly communion turns it into an empty ritual/superstition” argument. It always seems to me like that’d be a fine argument for getting rid of the sermon. Still, anything to get us to the after-church coffee quicker, right?

    Your arguments are spot-on; how can we ignore the ordained means for us to commune with the Lord, as if we don’t really need him?

    I never realised Spurgeon had communion weekly. That’ll be one to run by my Baptist friends next time we go over this territory. :D

  2. >>re-lived and re-joined with all the power of that moment.

  3. i went to mass today w/ a catholic friend of mine for ash wednesday (i received ashes, but abstained from the eucharist out of respect since i’m not catholic and protestants are technically not supposed to), but afterwards we were talking about catholic mass compared to the churches i grew up in and currently attend. i felt kind of embarassed because when we were talking about the Lord’s supper i had to admit that my southern baptist church back home partakes only once every 3 months and the presbyterian church i attend here while away at college is once a month. she asked “well isn’t the eucharist something Jesus said to do?” and all i could say was “well, protestants tend to put more emphasis on the sermon instead of the communion.” i like the fact that the PCA church i attend at least does it the first sunday at every month, but i must admit that in recent years i’ve longed to do it more often (ideally once a week as you stated) and have it part of our regular worship.

  4. Great Post, I am pastor at a Presbyterian church. We celebrate the Lord’s Supper weekly. And our motivation is a theological one. The theological underpinnings of Calvin’s view of the Supper and the Spiritual Presence of Christ motivate to celebrate every week. When we celebrate the feast together, Christ meets with us, he spiritually nourishes us and strengths us. Of course not all Presbyterian Churches apply their theology to the application of weekly celebration. But we feel compelled to do it and it has been encouraging to hear the feedback, especially from visitors, on how much they appreciate that we do. In order to keep it fresh though, we celebrate it in various ways. Sometimes we pass the trays and elements while people are seated, and then we take all together. Sometimes we have elders at stations throughout the sanctuary, and people walk us, take the elements and the elders pray for them. Sometimes when we do stations, we do intinction, where people take the bread and dip it into the wine (we offer juice as well for those who may prefer it). We have done table communion, where families join the elder and receive the elements while seated at a table. So in other words, AMEN to your post, and although there is freedom in Christ for Churches to celebrate at whatever frequency they feel led, I think that they sort change themselves of a powerful means of God’s grace every Sunday.

    Bill
    http://www.provocativechurch.blogspot.com

  5. These are great thoughts on communion. I appreciate your background as a Baptist. I’m also a Baptist. I know there are many Baptists who are investigating communion. We do not take communion weekly, but we do take it monthly. As we’ve studied the scriptural examples of communion, we’ve determined that it is always (in Scripture) associated with a full meal. So, we have attempted to do just that. Our times of communion include the bread and cup, as well as a meal, prayer, singing, Scripture reading, words of encouragement, and simple table fellowship. These times usually last four, five, sometimes six hours or more. No, taking communion more often does not make it less meaningful… in fact, I’ve found just the opposite to be true. As we commune with one another and remember our communion with the Lord, we begin to understand more about who we are as the people of God sent into the world.

    -Alan

  6. I must say amen to your post. I grew up in the once-a-month cracker-and-grape-juice style of communion and it was almost devoid of meaning to me. Then I worked for an Episcopal church where they poured the leftover wine (tokay … blecch) into a piscina, a special sink that disposes of it into the ground, not the sewer.
    To this day it disturbs me when I walk out of a communion service at my church and see an usher scraping the “symbolic” crackers into an actual trash can. It’s disrespectful and shows that we don’t think much of what Christ told us to do. It is a great mystery what occurs in the Eucharist, and we would be wise to treat it, and the elements, with respect.
    Old Glory is “just a symbol” for America, but few would tolerate the red-and-white-striped scrap of fabric being trampled on. Why should we have more respect for the symbol of an abstract concept (a nation), than for the “symbol” of the body and blood of our Lord?

  7. You wrote, “The place of Christ’s New Covenant meal in worship can’t be replaced with music or preaching.”

    100 gigs of “right on!” I was one of those who insisted that every-week communion was a sign of being spiritully stunted. After walking with the Lord for 40-some odd years, I have made a 180 degree shift on this issue as I shuffle wide-eyed along the post-evangelical path. Being an ex-worship leader and former assistant pastor in an very contemporary church, I was totally sold out to “profound preaching” and music that moved the soul. These were the icons we kissed. Now, experiencing worship through liturgy based on the Lord’s Supper has reshaped my spiritual vision. Our old evangelical friends as well as some family think we’ve totally lost our grip!

    Needless to say, I connect strongly with many of your posts.

    Tim

  8. Yes, yes, a thousand times, yes! I go on and on and on, and my Baptist and Campbellite friends think I’m nuts, but this is why – a full-on understanding of anamnesis will get us to the point of saying just this –

    “To come to the Lord’s table is to return to that night when Jesus gave the supper to his disciples. It is to be reinvited to believe, to be reinvited into the community of Jesus’ followers. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are literal moments from the ministry of Jesus, re-lived and re-joined with all the power of that moment.”

    We can talk about this kind of making present, this kind of really making the story real before we even get into a sacramental economy of grace!

    Gathering at the table and telling that story over and over again – please God let the story become rote memory – is a key way that we re-orient our lives to the Gospel. It enables us to understand our own lives as Eucharistic that we might see ourselves as a body broken and life poured out for the good of God’s world. When we tell the story of the table, it becomes the basis by which we re-tell and understand anew our own personal stories. Let us be a people who only make sense in the context of the service of Word and Table!

    And I was quite surprised to learn that your soli deo liturgy is so very similar to that of VBCC…

  9. We Campbellites have celebrated the LS on Sundays throughout our history. Here is an excerpt from an essay on The Christian Assembly, written by one of my college classmates. It is not the common view within Churches of Christ (which follows traditional view of communion with Christ) but one I have preached for many years. The author and I differ on the frequency: I believe that the LS must be a part of ANY assembly, regardless of day of week.

    Dan

    The Lord’s Supper

    The Lord’s Supper, unlike other Christian activities, is restricted, by its very nature and meaning, to those occasions when the “body” is together. It is a group function. According to the New Testament, it was an important part of the purpose for which Christians assembled on the first day of the week (cf. Acts 20:7; in 1 Cor. 11:20 Paul’s criticism, “when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper,” implies that it should be).

    It may well be the Lord’s Supper that gives special meaning to Sunday as a day of meeting. Although the evidence is not conclusive, Oscar Cullman has made a case for viewing the Sunday meals which Christ shared with his disciples after the resurrection as a necessary background for understanding the joyous Agape-Lord’s Supper celebrations of the early Christians (Early Christian Worship, pp. 14ff.). The apparent reference to Sunday as “the Lord’s day” in Revelation 1:9 may indicate a connection with the Lord’s Supper, since these are the only two phrases in which the word kuriakos (“Lord’s”) is used.

    What is the meaning and purpose of the Lord’s Supper, according to the New Testament? Although Protestants have generally rejected the traditional Catholic view of the Lord’s Supper as a sacrifice, the sacramental concept of “Holy Communion” has certainly influenced the thinking of the whole Christian world. An attitude toward “the elements” as holy or consecrated is not uncommon. The table, in many instances today, has been elevated to a kind of altar. The whole “Communion Service” as a special act of worship has taken on the character of sacred ceremony. This is not how the Lord’s Supper is characterized in the New Testament.

    The Lord’s Supper is rightly accompanied by prayers of thanksgiving (1 Cor. 10:16; 11:24) and certainly evokes a response of praise. However, its purposes, as they are presented in the New Testament, are not basically God-directed, but are rather aimed toward the edification of the body. Both Luke and Paul present the remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice as a basic aim of the Supper (Lk. 22:19,20; 1 Cor. 11:24). As a weekly “reminder” (anamnesis) of the central truth of the “new covenant” — that Jesus died as the payment for our sins — it serves to strengthen our faith and renew our hope. Contrary to the view implied by the traditional treatment of the Lord’s Supper as an offering or a sacrifice, it is we who need to be reminded, not God.

    Secondly, Paul says that the Lord’s Supper is a proclamation (1 Cor. 11:26). Sharing in this visual proclamation of the gospel serves as an open confession of our faith in the Lord’s death and in its meaning for us. It is an expression of faith that is mutually edifying to all who are present.
    Thirdly, we can recognize the idea of anticipation in the words “until he comes” (1 Cor. 10:26). The Lord’s Supper should intensify our expectation and hope of Christ’s second coming.

    “Recognizing the Body”

    Finally, Paul sees the Lord’s Supper as communion (koinonia, fellowship), not only with Christ (1 Cor. 10:16), but also with his body, the church. Paul writes, “Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread” (10:17). The Lord’s Supper should manifest the unity of those who share the cup and bread, which represent the blood and body of Christ. But this was precisely the problem at Corinth! There were “divisions” among the members of the body there (1 Cor. 11:18; cf. 1:10ff.; 3:3ff.; 12:25), and this is the problem to which Paul addresses himself. Paul’s criticism is not so much directed at the way in which they were actually partaking of the Lord’s Supper as at the way in which they were completely disregarding each other in the meal preceding it (vv. 21, 22). By thus “despising the church of God” (v. 22) they were failing to “discern” or “recognize” it as “the body” of Christ (v. 29; for the meaning of “body” here, compare 10:17; 12:12ff., 27). Their actual attitude toward “the body” (the church) made the Lord’s Supper as “communion” impossible (v. 20). Their hypocrisy destroyed its meaning. Paul admonished each one to “examine” his own attitude toward “the body” before he took part in the Lord’s Supper, so that he might do it in a way “worthy” of its intended meaning (vv. 27-29). Paul insisted that the Corinthians change their attitude and demonstrate this change by eliminating their practice of discriminating against certain people at their common meals (vv. 33, 34). Otherwise, their coming together would result in “judgment” (v. 34; cf. v. 29).

    In summary, the Lord’s Supper, in its Biblical meaning, epitomizes the very character and purpose of the Christian assembly. As “communion” it portrays the spirit of mutual love and fellowship that should characterize Christian assemblies, and all of its purposes coincide with the primary aim of these meetings, which we have seen to be the “building up” of the body of Christ. The end result of such edification is that God is glorified in the lives of his people.

  10. Either I can’t seem to leave a full comment, or part of what I said was edited out… but the explanation behind my paste of “re-lived and rejoined with all the power of that moment” was supposed to be how very “Catholic” your understanding of the Eucharist seems to be.

    Jesus didn’t “suggest” that we remember Him in the Eucharist- He commanded it. “Do this” is strong language.

    Kudos to you, and peace. Perhaps I’d be less jaded about other brands of Christianity had the Baptists who operated my elementary school growing up were more like you and those with whom you fellowship.

    To borrow from the Anglican liturgy: Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the Feast, Alleluia.

  11. I grew up in the Church of Christ and we did take the Lord’s supper each Sunday – but mostly because it was the pattern that God established and so that He didn’t zap us.

    Anyway… the church I am in now has just recently started doing communion twice a month – which is a good sight better than the 3-4 times a year we were doing it before. The reason we are doing it more often is because some people in the congregation expressed an interest in it. Not a bad reason in itself but what has happened – IMHO – is that it has just become an add-on. There was no stepping back to examine the purpose of communion in a gathered setting and how it should relate to everything else that is happening. It just comes across as the next thing to mark off before we get to the preaching.

    So let me ask. How do you start to emphasize communion against singing and preaching in a decidedly non-liturgical church? And I hate to say it because it sounds so bad, but the next question that pops in my head is how do we emphasize Jesus more. Like that should be a problem for any church, but really, I think it is.

  12. bookdragon says:

    I grew up in a denom that rarely practiced communion and then it was crackers-and-grape juice.

    Part of what drew me to the Episcopal church was the weekly celebration of communion and most esp. that the Eucharist rather than the sermon was the focus of the service. That places Christ at the center – not the preacher – and that was a very welcome change for me.

    Since then my theology of the Eucharist has also changed from ‘just a symbol’ to consubstantiation, but that’s a longer post.

  13. I don’t normally prevent a comment from appearing, but I just deleted one.

    If you want to debate the nature of the Lord’s Supper, this isn’t your opportunity. I’ve settled what I believe, and it’s obvious from what I wrote. If you need to convert someone, I am not a candidate for conversion.

  14. When I joined an Anglican church for a few years while attending college, I was drawn towards helping serve the weekly communion. The church encouraged all the members to be part of the altar guild. I just held the wine and juice cups for intinction or dunking, if you will. Saying, “The Blood of Christ shed for you,” or a similar rendition several score makes that fact sink deeply into your soul. I would often cry while serving and, being unable to wipe my nose, hoped no snot would mix with the juice/wine. Wine, though, would probably kill the germs…

  15. Thanks for the thoughts Michael. I would like to see our local body move toward a more frequent practice (currently 1x/month) but first need to do some more teaching and also improve what we do. I know I need to put more time into what that part of the liturgy looks like.

    Question on something you said in the post – you said,
    “We have consciously tried to place the teaching of the Word in a servant posture to the reading of the lessons. In much Baptist tradition, the reading of the scripture is servant to the sermon, and I feel this is inappropriate.”

    Would you explain what you mean by the “teaching of the Word being in a servant position to the reasing of the lessons”. I think I know what you mean, but am curious what you mean and what that looks like in the context of the service.

    Blessings,
    Carl

  16. http://www.internetmonk.com/archive/post-evangelical-worship-the-soli-deo-liturgy

    soli uses a psalm and three lessons. Sometimes comments or context are made at the reading of the lessons. The teaching is taken from the lessons or a lesson. (Usually from all three, with the Gospel reading emphasized.)

    In most Baptist and evangelical circles, the sermon series or the pastors idea of what to preach is primary, and then texts are found to support. Going through books is an exception to this, but I am still rather unimpressed with the place of scripture in evangelical worship. Very little scripture, a whole lot of preacher.

  17. Here is a comment from Austria rather than North America, but Austrian evangelicalism is very much influenced by North American. I believe it illustrates what Michael means by the “servant role” of Scripture in evangelical services.

    A while back in a small Austrian Baptist church I tried to encourage the use of a lectionary and the actual reading of Scripture during the Sunday morning service. The standard practice there is (and was) that not even the sermon text was always read in full — it was basically up to the preacher whether he read his text or not. Beyond that, occasionally people would share individual verses or short passages during the prayer time — but no formal Scripture reading.

    My efforts were not crowned with success. The most succinct retort I remember was this: “What for? Everyone is reading the Bible in their quiet time anyway.” This was from a missionary to Eastern Europe who attends this church.