Sunday, 6 January 2008

Refreshing Communion

Communion is the Church's most solemn act of worship and should be its apex. This being the case, all participants, from the pastor to those in the pews, should apply themselves to realize the fullness of its meaning. Here are some considerations, theological and practical, which I've learned over my years of ministry and reflection which are often overlooked in many services. I'm hopeful my blog prompts others to share their suggestions with me as I aspire to grow further in my experience of Communion.

In the Church's more recent history, with the strong emphasis on Open Communion, we have not been restrictive enough on who is invited to participant. Too often, the minister issues an open invitation to participate to anyone who simply believes in Jesus and has accepted him as Lord, without further restriction. Let me suggest that the invitation should be less open: only baptized believers should participate. Baptism is the outer sign of entry and participation in the Covenant people; as such, it assumes priority over Communion. If certain believers have not yet professed their faith before many witnesses in the waters of baptism, they should not yet share in the privilege of Communion. I don’t think the congregation need dismiss unbaptised people form this act of worship as the early Christians did, but I think the minister can fairly indicate that Communion is for baptised believers, without too much ado. Ultimately, for those churches which (rightly) practice Open Communion, the individual, baptised or not, is the one to make the decision, but the pastor can do much to encourage baptism first.

Along these lines, I have been amazed at how politically correct the Church has become in its efforts to be all-inclusive. No minister wants to make unbelievers feel uncomfortable in excluding them from participation, and hence, much effort is made to tone down the inevitable exclusivity of this act of worship: "If you don't feel comfortable about participating, just allow the bread and wine pass you. It's no big deal." Quite the contrary! It is a big deal. In fact, I make a point of it. I say something to the effect, "If you aren't a believer, then, as you pass the bread and wine on, let it be a reminder that you are still in your sins and are excluded from Christ's salvation." Incredibly, a trend in overly seeker-friendly churches is to invite participation from people solely on the basis that they've been feeling warm fuzzies or are simply seeking spiritual renaissance, or some rot, thus robbing the Spirit of the opportunity to convict unbelievers as they observe Christians participate in this symbol of communion with their Lord.

One of the great missteps of the Church in our present age is the failure to prepare spiritually for Communion. Nearly any given Communion Sunday (for congregations which observe Communion monthly or quarterly, or even less), the members of the church arrive at worship without the first thought of Communion until they see the Communion table bedecked with the Communion elements. They have arrived without giving a moment's thought to repentance, spiritual renewal, or special Bible readings and meditations, let alone fasting. Such lack of preparation reduces significantly the participant's openness to the Spirit during the actual act of worship.

Several practical things can be done to counter this, primarily in regard to raising the congregation's awareness of the need to prepare. Simple things can be done such as prior bulletin notices and announcements to the congregations and at special meetings in the days preceding the Communion service. I made it a practice to send out mailings to all the members of the congregation simply urging them to come prepared for Communion. Such letters also encouraged attendance, especially in those churches which observed Communion quarterly, for if someone missed Communion Sunday, he would end up going six months without it—and for some, even longer, a neglect which the apostles could scarcely understand.

Communion is also a time to reach out to those church members who have been negligent in their church attendance. Contact through letter or in person can be made informing them of Communion and asking them to renew their commitment to Christ and his church during this special time.

One unfortunate problem with Communion observance is that too often it is tacked on to the end of the service, as if it were an epilogue, rather than the apex. In addition to these aforementioned practical suggestions, the service itself can be crafted to emphasize Communion from the beginning of the worship to the end, more or less obviously. In particular, the call to worship (in whatever form) can be designed to prepare for Communion. The announcements can help the congregation prepare by mentioning Communion particulars in advance, an explanation of Communion can be given to the children during the children's sermon, and, most importantly, the sermon itself can emphasize some aspect of Communion. If the service is crafted to point to Communion as its apex, then the congregation will perceive Communion as the service's apex.

Communion is multifaceted. A theologically and exegetically deep preacher can hardly exhaust its complexity. Too often, we get stuck on the one theme of Christ's sacrificial suffering on our behalf, and our unworthiness. While this theme is central to this act of worship, such themes as our community with our fellow believers, our future eschatological fellowship, our present fellowship with Christ, our Passover deliverance from Egypt (i.e., sin), our newness of life, and many other themes ought not be neglected. Preachers would be wise to think on these various themes as they prepare their regular sermons, so that they can draw these themes out in practical application.

To bring freshness to Communion observance, churches may consider varying the mode of distributing the elements from time to time. Each mode has its own theological significance. The practice of coming forward to receive the elements may signify the believer's coming to Jesus in worship. The practice of distributing the elements while the congregation is seated affords the opportunity to emphasize the unity of the saints, in that all may actually partake simultaneously. A more creative means of observance, space and time permitting, is to arrange tables for thirteen place settings, and serving Communion in groups; the thirteenth place remains empty to represent Christ's presence, and a church leader is appointed in advance to say the words of the institution, distribute the elements, and pray.

One of my pet peeves is that the Communion bread itself sometimes is cheap and distasteful. Sometimes, it gives a person the impression of Styrofoam. The joyful resolution to this is to ask a breadmaker in the congregation to make homemade bread for the Communion element. The serendipities of this practice are several, not the least of which being that the pastor normally gets a free loaf out of it! Likewise, since I typically have done ministry among grape juice churches, I buy the best tasting sparkling grape juice I can.

When the words of the institution are read, the minister may add to the congregation's appreciation of them by enacting them. Thus, as the reader says that Jesus took bread and broke it, the minister may lay hold of the bread and tear it apart in dramatic re-enactment. Likewise, the minister may pour the wine from the flask into the chalice as the reader reports Jesus' saying about the cup being his blood poured out for the forgiveness of sin.

To underscore Communion as a special experience in believers' lives, some churches recognize and celebrate a person's first communion. This can be done more or less elaborately, depending on congregational sensibilities, even including furnishing the communicants with their own keepsake special Communion chalice and plate. To some, such celebrations seem a bit outlandish, but personally, I regret not being able to recall my first Communion, and such recognition would remedy such loss.

Communion deserves afterglow. Instead of rushing through the end of service, I often invite the congregation to share something of their spiritual journey and walk with the Lord as the Communion service draws to a close. I announce this in advance so as to encourage an openness to the Spirit's leading. Or, sometimes the congregation would stand holding hands in a large circle, and individuals would express their own thankfulness in spontaneous final prayers. These afterglow moments were well received by many people in the congregation.

The ultimate in Communion afterglow, however, is feetwashing as an act of worship. I am told by one of my Baptist historian friends that the vast majority of Baptists in North America practiced feetwashing up to the beginning of the 20th century. To most people, however, it sounds like quite an oddity. The uninitiated may not ever appreciate feetwashing, but for those who practice it, feetwashing leads to such a self-humbling and Christian intimacy which is so much the essence of discipleship that its practice seems entirely befitting for Communion.

No matter how committed to Christ people may be, some will inevitably miss Communion Sunday. It is incumbent upon the church, then, to offer a make-up Communion service, with appropriate prior notice. Ministers should also see to it that homebound members receive Communion regularly. While some constraints are in order, even these private Communion services should be done with scripture readings, songs/hymns, and prayers. Communion is best observed between several people, and ministers would do well to involve several others at such opportunities.

2 comments:

Eric T said...

'Slip,

Great content and discussion. I was raised in an FWB church where Communion was observed annually. I feel that I have missed out on a lot all these years.

I am the one who started the Communion threads on FWB net, so your post directed me here. You have given me some excellent ideas, and I appreciate your approach to the subject.

BTW--I have read several of your other blog posts in the recent past. I appreciate your scholastic pursuits and engagement. I have found your input to be refreshing.

Eric J. Thompson

Rev. James M. Leonard said...

Thanks, Eric, for your kind comments.

I'm working on a similar article on baptism, and if I can work up enough ambition, perhaps I can put together a three-fold project on Baptism, Communion, and feet washing, dealing with practical issues, worship issues and theological issues.