March 16, 2015

A Letter Concerning Weekly Communion

I’m currently serving as Interim Director of Worship Arts at Horizon Community Church in Highlands Ranch Colorado. Our theme for these Lent season is “This Changes Everything!” and we are following the pattern suggested in an article titled, Metamorphosis, by Peter Schuurman in Reformed Worship 114 (non-subscribers can purchase a copy here). If you missed it for this year, we highly recommend it for an upcoming season!  Working together with the preaching pastor, children’s ministry leaders, musicians, and Elders, we are attempting to create a climate in which intentional Christian formation is seen as a necessity and desire of God’s people. 

Horizon church typically celebrates the Lord’s Supper once each month, but for this season, we will be participating in the sacrament each week. Our intention and hope is to introduce the sacrament as a means of grace that provides assurance of salvation, nurture for hungry souls, unity for the body of Christ and joyous hope for the feast of the Lamb that is to come. 

This change was readily accepted by the Elders and there’s been no rancor in the ranks about it yet…then again, we did have a snow day on our first Sunday of Lent! Honestly, I don’t expect an uproar from this thoughtful, rather gentle congregation. But many of them come from a generation when the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was guarded and preserved, shared only a few times each year. And when it was served, it included a heaping helping of somber music, heavy language and personal guilt.

To help the congregation understand the more frequent celebration, I wrote an article for the church newsletter. In it, I addressed one of the most common arguments for holding communion only a few times each year. You’ve probably heard it before: “If we have communion every week, it will lose its ‘specialness.’”

Many Reformed churches have been talking about the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper in recent years: frequency of celebration, is there room at the table for children, which forms to use, or how to write new forms, etc. You’ll find a treasure of resources if you click here or here. In true reformed tradition, these resources are Biblical, thoughtful, historical, well-researched and intelligent. So, I almost decided not to post this little article. After all, it’s all been said somewhere else. 

But I offer this to you as a different kind of resource. Not one that lays out a treatise to discuss with the Council or argue at district meetings, but one that is intended to create a conversation with the people who sit in your pews. I hope it will help those of you who are in the midst of this very discussion, and those of you who are hoping to begin the conversation, and those who enjoy a more frequent practice, but who may want encouragement to creatively demonstrate the inherent depth and delight in the sacrament by featuring various theological truths embedded in it.

The Letter

To Horizon Church, March, 2015:

At the boarding school I attended in West Africa, we had a nickname for the dessert served to us each and every evening. We called it “365” for the number of days each year we had it. Don’t get me wrong—it was good stuff! Slices of banana, pineapple, guava, papaya, and mango—all fresh from the trees. What I wouldn’t give for a taste of it right now! But having it served up every day, without variety, made us kids whine like the Israelites over their daily dose of fresh manna.

Some Christians fear that one of the dangers of serving the Lord’s Supper too frequently is that it will lose its delight. Perhaps that might happen, but it won’t be because the sacrament itself has lost anything, it will likely be because we have not understood or experienced its depth, variety and richness to help us grow as God’s people.

Consider these examples:

  • “If I brush my teeth more than once a week, it just looses its specialness.” 
  • “If I say, “thank you” too often, the words just lose their punch,
  • “If I eat healthy meals more regularly, I get too used to feeling great.”

When put that way, it’s easy to see that the problem isn’t with the actual tooth-brushing, thanksgiving or healthy eating. The problem is with the person who doesn’t understand the benefits or hasn’t experienced a lifestyle that includes regular healthy habits. 

How can we avoid the fear that the sacrament will lose its ‘specialness’ when we participate in it more frequently? First, we agree that the heart of the sacrament doesn’t change. Instead, we choose to change ourselves by learning more about what this gift of God means in our lives and by experiencing it in fresh ways.

In this season of Lent, we will explore a variety of lessons about God and ourselves as we experience the Lord’s Supper.  Perhaps the most common lesson is that Jesus died in our place for our sins. We learn this in the words of the liturgy, “Take, eat and drink, remember and believe that the body and blood of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, was given for the complete forgiveness of all of your sins.” 

Another lesson teaches us about God’s generous providence: God gives us more than we need. He feeds us and nourishes us for growing in Christian Character. It was this understanding that led John Calvin to encourage more frequent use of the supper. Withholding the meal to only a few occasions is like telling people to stay away from worship or stay away from reading the word of God, yet still try to live as God’s people. Starving people lack the energy to engage in transformation. We acknowledge our dependence on God with every bite and every sip.

A third lesson of the Lord’s Supper is the unity that God, through the Spirit, gives to his people. As the one loaf is made from the grain of many hills and the one cup is pressed from the grapes of many vines, so too Christ’s body, the Church, though we are many different people, are made one by the work of the Spirit.

A fourth lesson reminds us of the victory of Christ over the grave and the promise that we will one day dine with him at the banquet table of heaven. When we celebrate communion here in our worship services, we are developing an eternal habit!

As we explore these lessons in our worship services at Horizon, we will adjust the ways we celebrate in order to draw attention to the specific lesson of that week.

For instance, when we focus on the importance of Jesus’ death for personal, salvation, we will use a method called “intinction.” Each person will tear a small piece of bread, dip it into the juice and take the communion on their own. When we emphasize the unity and community, we will ask everyone to hold their bread and juice, waiting until all are served so that we can eat and drink together, perhaps even standing in a circle around our sanctuary. We will sit at tables and linger over larger pieces of bread and bigger cups of juice on the day we learn about God’s overwhelming goodness in providing more than we need.

These lessons are just a fraction of what we can learn about God and ourselves as His people through the precious gift of the Lord’s Supper. The sacrament will not lose its inherent ‘specialness.’ It’s up to us to explore and experience it thoroughly so that we don’t lose our understanding and appreciation of this precious gift.

Rev. Joy Engelsman is a multivocational pastor in the Christian Reformed Church. She preaches frequently in Denver-area congregations, provides ministry coaching throughout North America, and serves as a missionary with Youth for Christ/Africa developing staff and leaders.