March 16, 2016

Weekly Communion: Too Catholic?

Each week we come forward. Young and old. Spiritual veterans and rookies. Adolescents walking as if propelled by jet engines or ample caffeine. Seniors teetering on the arms of their married partner or friend of 50 years. It’s the end of our worship service, and time again for weekly communion.

Our worshipers come from a staggering array of spiritual backgrounds. We know some wandered in just that morning. Others have a theology that’s tangled with opinions gleaned from Oprah interviews or FOX news, or sprinkled liberally from the “theology” of a thousand movies and YouTube videos. We know some have a deep, abiding faith in Jesus. And others have a faith not yet an inch deep. Still we invite everyone with words inspired by the Heidelberg Catechism, “You don’t have to know everything about the faith. But (and here we summarize Lord’s Day 29) if you want to receive and experience the saving grace of Jesus’ work on the cross, if you want to have your faith strengthened and lead a new life, come forward.”

Journey Toward Weekly Communion

Twenty-five years ago, when we began our congregation, we celebrated communion once a month, during our mid week service. We considered our practice an act of hospitality. Like the Christians of the First Century, we wanted our friends to be fully welcomed at church. And like those early Christians, we didn’t think communion was appropriate for them. As the meal of God’s family, for Christian insiders, we didn’t want them to leave the service feeling excluded.

But midweek service communion has many drawbacks. Not least of which is that many Christians are unable to attend on Wednesdays. So we saw the wisdom of celebrating communion Sunday mornings. And, like much of Protestantism, we celebrated communion monthly. When a yearlong worship renewal grant taught us the power of daily living our baptismal identity, it wasn’t long before we wanted to renew and remember that identity in more frequent communion.

We tell newcomers, and remind those of us who have been around since the beginning, that our church is “about grace.” And what’s more grace-full than receiving it through what the church calls “the means of grace?” As a young, thoughtful church planting friend of mine repeats, “Each week in our worship we want folks to experience grace three times—in the time tested liturgy, in the sermon, and in the Eucharist.” The weakest link, he always says, is his own preaching. But the time-tested liturgy with confession and assurance and the sacrament of communion never fail.

Now, just over a year into our weekly communion celebrations, it is a highlight of weekly worship. I begin with the timeless invitation, “The Lord be with you.” And folks respond with joy, “And also with you.” So the litany goes, featuring the Sanctus: “Holy, Holy Lord (Psalm 118),” the Lord’s Prayer, and other timeless elements of communion.

Each week we file forward, leaving our seats for the front of our sanctuary, with open hearts and hands. We celebrate by intinction, an elder or deacon tears a piece of bread from the loaf, looks someone in the eye (sometimes calling them by name), and says, “the body of Christ for you.” Then participants dip the bread in a goblet and hear “the blood of Christ for you.” We encourage each other to “receive” communion as an act of spiritual dependence by saying, “Thanks be to God” as we receive both bread and wine.

Change is a challenge for any congregation. That’s even true for one with church planting, missional DNA. We worked to make this change with all the pastoral wisdom we could muster. Our midweek Eucharist services were poignant and treasured by many. Most often they would end with all present holding hands and passing the elements to each other. When we shifted to Sunday morning communion we got push back. What about our friends who aren’t following Jesus yet? We loved that question; it meant folks were thinking about community and mission.

When we changed the frequency, the sort of questions seemed to change. Some expressed, “There are a lot of us who don’t like this.” Others added, “I’m afraid this will become “too routine.” Comments came via email, welcome cards, and direct conversation. One couple left our church for another, “We can’t celebrate communion more than once a month.” Some wondered aloud, “Aren’t we becoming ‘too Catholic?’”

Baptismal Identity

But that yearlong study of baptism identity had worked its way into our soul. We wondered how we might, in a world where we are told and expected to build our own identity, learn to receive our identity from belonging to Christ. What might it mean to regularly think about and remember in the context of a worship service our baptismal dying and rising. And so we celebrate communion weekly.

When objections came, we tried to be graceful. As elders and staff we had prayed about this, and had considered possible questions and answers, “Most of the church on most continents in most languages have celebrated communion this way.” And “this is an act of solidarity with the worldwide church.” For people with spiritual heroes we said, “Augustine practiced communion this frequently, as did John Chrysostom and Francis of Assisi, and Martin Luther and John Wesley.” And John Calvin wanted to, arguing, “… the Lord's Table should have been spread at least once a week for the assembly of Christians, and the promises declared in it should feed us spiritually.” [Inst. IV. XVII. 46.)

Of course, most of our heartfelt conversations aren’t completely driven by logic or theology. And communion frequency is definitely a heartfelt conversation. But it’s one we encourage churches to have.

One year into our practice most of us can barely remember worship without weekly communion. Or imagine it. We’d miss the grace.

Kevin Adams is the author of Living Under Water: Baptism as a Way of Life150: Finding Your Story in the PsalmsThe Book That Understands You, and The Gospel in a Handshake: Framing Worship for Mission. In 1991 Kevin and his wife Gerry began Granite Springs Church, a congregation that has helped inspire a movement of church planting in the Sacramento area. He was Director of Formation at the Newbigin House of Studies in San Francisco, and has taught at Calvin SeminaryWestern Seminary, and William Jessup University. Besides serving as senior pastor, he is writing a book about living our baptism. Kevin is fascinated and intrigued by how worship forms and shapes individuals and contagious communities of faith. His special interests are in the missional depth and wisdom of the psalms, sacraments, and preaching.