There is no greater signal that evangelicals have long forgotten their roots than the disrepair into which the sacraments have fallen in our day. By way of reminder, we should note that the Second Great Awakening began as a Communion retreat. Churches from all over gathered at Cane Ridge, Kentucky, in August 1801 to prepare themselves for and then partake in Communion. As I wrote in an article on this revival:
Communions (annual three-to-five-day meetings climaxed with the Lord’s Supper) gathered people in the dozens, maybe the hundreds. At this Cane Ridge Communion, though, sometimes 20,000 people swirled about the grounds—watching, praying, preaching, weeping, groaning, falling. Though some stood at the edges and mocked, most left marveling at the wondrous hand of God.
The Cane Ridge Communion quickly became one of the best-reported events in American history, and according to Vanderbilt historian Paul Conkin, “arguably ... the most important religious gathering in all of American history.” It ignited the explosion of evangelical religion, which soon reached into nearly every corner of American life. For decades the prayer of camp meetings and revivals across the land was “Lord, make it like Cane Ridge.”
As such Communions, people gathered on Friday and spent that evening and Saturday praying, reading Scripture, and listening to sermons as they prepared themselves for worship and Communion on Sunday. At Cane Ridge, Saturday was not so quiet:
The Saturday morning services had been quiet—the proverbial lull before a storm. But by afternoon, the preaching was continual, from both the meetinghouse and the tent. … Excitement mounted, and amid smoke and sweat, the camp erupted in noise: the cries and shouts of the penitent, the crying of babies, the shrieking of children, and the neighing of horses.
Then the tumultuous bodily “exercises” began. Along with the shouting and crying, some began falling. Some experienced only weakened knees or a light head (including Governor James Garrard). Others fell but remained conscious or talkative; a few fell into a deep coma, displaying the symptoms of a grand mal seizure or a type of hysteria. Though only a minority fell, some parts of the grounds were strewn like a battlefield.
Some were attended to where they fell; others were carried to a convenient place, where people would gather around them to pray and sing hymns. “If they [the fallen] speak,” one reported, “what they say is attended to, being very solemn and affecting—many are struck under such exhortations.”
Early Sunday morning, relative calm reigned, though some had been up most of the night. The central purpose of the gathering—the Communion—took place as scheduled in the meetinghouse. The minister of a nearby congregation preached the traditional sermon outside, and then those with Communion tokens went inside for the sacrament. The tables, set up in the shape of a cross in the aisles, could probably accommodate 100 at a time. Over the ensuing hours, hundreds were served. Lyle wrote that he had “clearer views of divine things than ... before” as he partook, and that he felt “uncommonly tender” as he spoke.
The point of rehearsing this history is not to suggest that we should try to create emotionally extravagant Communion services like this. Clearly, that was a unique moment in American church history. What impresses me is the reverence and seriousness with which these believers approached Communion.
Stumbling Over the Sacraments
Let clarify my use of the term sacrament. Some evangelical churches call the Lord’s Supper and baptism ordinances, to suggest they are actions Jesus commands us to participate in, and that they signal our faith in and obedience to Christ. The term sacrament includes these two ideas and another crucial one: that they are means of grace. By “means of grace” I’m not proposing any specific theology—whether trans- or consubstantiation, whether real or symbolic presence. But for all believers, Communion and baptism are practices in which one’s faith is deepened and strengthened, and that sort of thing only happens by God’s grace. This is what I mean by “means of grace” in this article, and why I will use the word sacrament to talk about them.
As I said, I believe these sacraments are in a profoundly low state in many areas of evangelical church life.
Take baptism. Even among churches that believe Matthew 28:19 is the church’s rallying cry—“Go make disciples of all nations, baptizing them ….”—the sacrament is no longer central to their mission. It would be difficult to come by statistics that suggest the problem, but one anecdote suggests it’s a serious one. I belong to an Anglican church in Wheaton, Illinois, which meets not far from Wheaton College. The charismatic singing and Bible-centered preaching attract many Wheaton College students to attend worship and to become members. However, to partake in Communion, as well as to become a member, one must have been baptized. The pastors are continually surprised at the number of Wheaton College students—no doubt some of the most earnest, devout, and intelligent young believers in the evangelical world—who have yet to be baptized. One would have thought that their churches would have attended to this matter long before they left home for college.
Another sign of the problem is the deep fear some evangelicals have of baptism. I attended an independent church in Dallas, Texas, on a Sunday on which they were having a mass baptism for some 400 people. This speaks well of the effectiveness of their outreach and their desire to obey the commands of their Lord. As part of the service, four or five people came on stage and were interviewed by the pastor to help them give their testimony. At the end of each testimony, the last question the pastor asked each was this: “But you don’t believe that baptism saves you, right?” It wasn’t just the question, but the leading way in which it was asked time and again that suggested to me that the pastor was deeply afraid of the power of the sacrament. And the fact that he also asked this right before each person was baptized went a long way into ensuring that the sacrament did not become a means by which God broke in and blessed the recipient but became all about the horizontal: an act of the person’s faith.
The state of the Lord’s Supper is in a worse state. I’ve lost track of the number of startup evangelical churches—again, who are sincerely seeking to reach the world for Christ—whose practice of Communion is frankly a sacrilege. One has to give them credit for, yes, seeking out the lost and taking down unnecessary cultural/religious barriers. And one has to also praise them for at least offering Communion. But in many churches, it is something that is presented during the offering, at a small table holding crackers and juice on the side aisles for those who feel so led to partake. Sometimes this is accompanied by the words of institution, but sometimes it is not.
The idea of Communion—of the body of Christ participating with one another in an ordinance of their Lord—is completely lost. Not to mention the loss of any concerted effort by worship leaders to highlight why the sacrament is a central feature of Christian life.
In contrast to the evangelical churches of the late 1700s/early 1800s, it almost goes without saying that few if any evangelical congregations today would dedicate a whole weekend to preparing and then participating in Communion. It would not only be perceived as a turnoff to unbelievers but a meaningless rite to members. And yet it was at Communions that thousands upon thousands came to know Christ intimately for the first time.
To be sure, today one can find evangelical churches, high church and low, Anglican and Baptist, who take the Lord’s Supper with utmost seriousness. They—no matter their theology of the sacrament—will say it remains a means by which they are drawn out of themselves to remember the One outside of themselves, who didn’t just come to give them affirming spiritual feelings but to die on a Cross for their sins and to rise again for the dead for their salvation.
We do well to recall the emphasis that our Baptist brothers and sisters insist on: that these are practices ordained by our Lord: “Go … baptizing in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” and “Do this in remembrance of me.” I do not believe evangelicalism will recover from its spiritual stupor, its fascination with the horizontal, until it once again practices regularly and respectfully, with earnestness and devotion, the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Until, that is, it obeys the clear commands of its Lord.
As for the way forward—well, a lot depends on a particular church’s theology of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. But let me hazard some suggestions.
First, I don’t think any sophisticated theology of Communion would make it an individualistic act as it has become in some churches. Simply refusing to offer Communion unless it is a part of the service in which every member or believer is invited—that’s a start.
Against all odds, a church might very well offer a weekend retreat in which the focus is Communion—with teaching and times of prayer to prepare oneself—and the climax being the receiving of the bread and cup.
As for baptism: Let’s insist that as soon as possible, as infants or after conversion (whatever your theology), that we obey the plain command of our Lord to baptize. And then when we do baptize, let’s not get in the way of the act by explaining it away, that is, saying what it is not. We might just say what we believe it is, and do so simply. There is a time and place to teach a church’s theology of baptism, but during the baptism, we should let the visual power of the sacrament, and a few well-chosen words, to the work. You can believe that baptism as such has no ultimate efficacy and still recognize that it is a powerful symbol, and as a powerful symbol, it speaks volumes.
In the context of this series, one reason I advocate the regular and reverential participation in the sacraments is because, as noted above, they require us to look at what is happening at the altar/Communion table or in the waters of baptism. We are required to look outside ourselves, to the physical means by which Christ blesses his people. Rather than encouraging us to ponder the feelings that are going on inside us, the sacraments require us, however briefly, to focus on God and what he has done for us in Jesus Christ.
Next week: How our preaching has gone awry.
Mark Galli is editor in chief of Christianity Today. If you want to be alerted to these essays as they appear, subscribe to The Galli Report.