The Crux of Communion

Respected pastors from a variety of traditions answer questions and address misconceptions about the Lord's Supper.
The Crux of Communion
Image: Priscilla Du Preez / Unsplash
The decisions we make about Communion have no small influence on others.
—Craig Brian Larson

Communion has been a theological battleground for centuries. For today's working pastors, however, many of the issues surrounding Communion seem more practical than theological. They're often questions about how to make the service as meaningful as possible for those who should and should not partake. Questions include:

  • What spirit do we want to surround Communion? Celebration? Solemn reflection?
  • Who can take Communion? What about the person who "does not discern the body and blood of Christ"?
  • How do we train people in their understanding of Communion? How do we work with people who feel unworthy to come—though we think they should?

To get answers to these and other questions, I talked with respected pastors from a variety of theological traditions. Their varied answers provide a menu of choices to help better set the Lord's Table.

A Varied Focus

When I asked what spirit these pastors want to surround Communion, I found unanimous agreement on one thing: the need for variety.

"I don't find in the Bible a singular heart-set with which to approach Communion," says Bob Shank, pastor of South Coast Community Church in Newport Beach, California. "There are times when it's appropriate to take Communion contemplatively, with a deep sense of quiet reverence and awe. Other times it's appropriate for the family to be together around the table with a sense of release and joy, recognizing what Communion looks forward to and what it has done to paint our present differently. The one thing the Bible does say is we are never to do it frivolously."

Tim Keller, of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, sees the sacrament as an extension of the ministry of the Word. The spirit of Communion "depends upon the subject of the sermon," Keller says. "The sacrament is every bit as variegated in its hues and colors as the sermon would be. The sacrament can be administered as an evangelistic event, a repentance event, a fellowship event. The Lord's Supper means all those things. I don't think you can possibly do all those things every time you do the Lord's Supper, any more than you can do all those things every time you preach."

For that reason most pastors plan ahead to pursue a single emphasis for each Communion service. Gary Fenton, pastor of Dawson Memorial Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, says they focus most often on one of three things: joy over our forgiveness, reflection upon the great sacrifice of Christ, or a renewal of our salvation experience.

Although he pursues a single theme, Daniel Brown, a Foursquare pastor in Aptos, California, has a dual focus. "We want to focus on a dimension in Communion that is ageless and traditional. But we also seek a present dynamic. I point people to some aspect of how God wants to provide today."

When Christianity is Exclusive

The issue of who can take Communion invited diverse responses.

Dawson Memorial Baptist follows a simple approach that Communion is for those who have accepted Christ as their Savior and Lord, and they leave the question of who partakes up to the conscience of the individual.

The issue of who decides who is qualified is a sticking point for other churches, however.

"The Bible doesn't say how we are to ensure that people taking the Lord's Supper are eating and drinking worthily," says Tim Keller. "Presbyterians have decided a person shouldn't be self-accredited. Instead a person should have his or her testimony heard by a church, which will judge whether the profession of faith is credible. People have odd and often deluded understandings of what it means to be a Christian, so others need to check it out.

"In effect this means a person must be baptized or a member of some church, not necessarily ours, to take Communion with us. That's an inference from the Bible that I couldn't prove directly, but we are trying to safeguard the table by telling people they can't be self-appointed."

Since all churches require that those who take Communion meet certain conditions, some people present in the service will be excluded from participating. That idea doesn't always go over well in our tolerant, inclusive society. How do church leaders explain that without unnecessarily alienating seekers?

Daniel Brown stresses to the congregation, "It's the Lord's Table and not ours. He's the One who made the bread and cup possible. Anyone who has a relationship with Jesus Christ can partake of Communion. If you don't have a relationship with Christ, partaking of Communion would be at best a meaningless exercise, and at worst it could be a kind of mockery or sacrilege. If you don't yet have a relationship with the Lord, just be at ease and wait to partake until you do."

To unbelievers, Gary Fenton presents Communion as a learning time. "This service is an opportunity to observe and sense the reality behind the symbols."

Churches that emphasize ministry to seekers have a unique challenge. Bob Shank's church has no formal membership, and they expect and encourage the presence of not-yet-committed people in their ranks. Therefore they celebrate the Lord's Table in settings where they expect the family of God to be together, which primarily is their Wednesday night service.

Even so, seekers are present. Shank therefore explains to the congregation, "Communion is for those who are clear about their relationship with Christ. They have experienced on the inside something they are about to experience on the outside. While the church in most of its meetings is very inclusive, Communion by God's definition is exclusive."

Then Shank invites those who are not yet believers to do one of two things: "One, feel completely free not to participate without any sense of being uncomfortable. Or two, recognize that this is a moment when a personal expression of faith can happen for the first time."

Shank says that Communion can almost be seen as "walking the aisle." For that reason the church intentionally schedules several Communion services during the year in settings where they expect seekers to be in attendance, such as at Christmas services.

Redeemer Presbyterian gives people who are not taking the Lord's Supper spiritual exercises in the bulletin, skeletal prayers they can use during that time. "We invite everybody to do business with God," Keller says to the congregation. "We are not excluding anybody. You who are not yet believers should not partake, but we invite you to do business with God."

Keller says there are three groups of people in a Communion service: Christians who are communing, Christians who are not communing because they know they are holding on to certain sins, and non-Christians. All three groups need to be led spiritually about how to draw nearer to God during Communion.

Keeping Communion Holy

The Lord's Supper is a holy sacrament. I asked pastors what responsibility church leaders bear in keeping it so. The consensus was that pastors must articulate the standards. Beyond that only in the most extreme circumstances would a pastor be responsible to enforce them.

Bob Shank feels pastors are responsible to officiate at Communion or ensure that those who do officiate understand the full meaning of Christ's work on the cross. The Lord's Supper is the moment when the chief undershepherd in a local church is responsible before God and the congregation to make sure that Communion is understood theologically and personally.

Daniel Brown feels an additional obligation to ensure that Communion is meaningful to participants. "My responsibility is to make sure that Communion never becomes rote," he says, "just a repeated set of words or activities. For me that means showing people how Communion is relevant for their lives today, that Jesus died for them. At Communion I might talk about how Jesus can soothe our painful memories, forgive us for our bitterness, or heal us of the wounds others have given us. Every time we do Communion, I try to focus on some particular need. To me that keeps it holy and powerful."

Recognizing the need for keeping Communion holy, what do pastors do and say prior to Communion to keep people from being too casual?

At Dawson Memorial Baptist the table used for the Lord's Supper is only in the sanctuary on the Sundays when they have Communion. There are a single loaf and the chalice in the front. When the table and elements are in place, people know the service is special.

"At times I will explain that historically the Lord's Supper has been taken to extremes," says Fenton. "In the early church it became such a celebration that they lost its meaning. On the other hand, we can make it such a solemn occasion that we miss the joy. I tell people the Lord's Supper is to be an event in which there is joy with dignity. Although in other services I may attempt to find a common bond through humor, I deliberately avoid that on the days of the Lord's Supper."

At the Coastlands Church, Pastor Daniel Brown feels doing something different is one way they communicate the significance of Communion. They are an "electronic" church, with synthesizers and electronic drums and guitars, but during Communion their worship team moves to the acoustic piano. From the piano they lead worship without amplification. That changes the atmosphere and mood.

Who's In, Who's Out

The question of how someone partakes of Communion in an unworthy manner brought general agreement that the real issue is understanding and attitude.

"We take Communion in an unworthy manner," says Gary Fenton, "when we do not remember or understand the significance of the event. I don't think it has much to do with the character of the person, the recent acts of wrong behavior, as much as it does with not understanding Christ. If a person does not understand grace, he or she takes it in an unworthy manner because it is a grace event. It's a visual reminder that salvation is by God's gift of Jesus Christ, rather than through our own works. Salvation is through his blood and body."

Bob Shank believes that taking Communion in an unworthy manner means approaching the table in a frivolous manner, minimizing the cost of what is behind it and what it reflects.

But according to Tim Keller, there is a sense in which our current behavior is an issue. He tells the congregation, "If you know not only that you are sinning but that you are planning to sin—if you know, for example, that you're doing something illegal or immoral and you're not going to change—then you should not participate."

Some people are unworthy to partake of Communion. Others who should partake feel unworthy. A legalistic background can cause many to refuse the invitation to the Lord's Table.

All of our responding pastors agreed that when sincere believers feel unworthy, the problem is, they don't understand grace. For a believer in Christ to feel unworthy to take Communion is a contradiction in terms. If someone confesses their sin, he or she has forgiveness in Christ. The purpose of Communion is to remind us we stand in our relationship with God not on the basis of how worthy or perfect we are but on the worthiness of the Lamb.

"If you have sinned horribly, but you are repentant," Tim Keller tells the congregation, "then you need to come. Not to come because you feel unworthy is a denial of the gospel. What you're really saying is, Jesus Christ is not a sufficient offering to bring you into the presence of God. You feel you have to bring at least three good days with you, or a couple of weeks of decent behavior. That's a total denial of the gospel."

Table Training

With the diversity of church traditions surrounding Communion, we can assume there is a fair amount of confusion on the subject among the people in the pews. How can churches train people to rightly understand Communion?

Our pastors agree that preaching sermons on the subject is not the answer. Turnover in churches is simply too high. Membership classes offer a fitting opportunity to cover the subject, but they reach a limited population. So constant training is vital; each time the church receives Communion, pastors feel obligated to give a mini-teaching on the subject—in terms that even an uninitiated person can readily understand.

Tim Keller, who has preached a sermon on Communion only once in five years, says that soon on the days they serve the Lord's Supper, they will put an informative insert in the bulletin so the pastor doesn't have to cover all the ground verbally.

At Dawson Memorial Baptist, where they serve Communion approximately once a quarter, Gary Fenton presents a children's sermon each time on the Lord's Supper.

"That's the best means I've found of presenting it to adults as well as children," says Fenton. "We use three symbols to help the children (and indirectly the adults) understand the symbolic meaning of the bread and the cup: a wedding band, an American flag, and a hymnal. 'If I lose my wedding band,' I say, 'I'm still married; if a person does not take the Lord's Supper, it does not mean he or she is not a Christian. The flag is not America; it only makes us think of America. A hymnal has no music or sound in it; but when a trained person looks at the notes, she's able to produce the sound. In the same way, the bread and the cup we hold in our hands do not make us a Christian.'"

In most Communion services, there will be some present whom we might call seekers, or unchurched, some of whom might consider the rite odd. How can pastors explain Communion to them?

Bob Shank assumes that when seekers are present in a service in which Communion is being served (they normally serve Communion on Wednesday night), it is not that person's first encounter with their church. Seekers understand that things like baptism and Communion are germane to church life, and they aren't surprised by them. "I've never had a seeker come to me and say, 'I know nothing about Communion and it shocks me that you do it,'" says Shank.

He carefully explains the meaning behind the bread and cup, he says, in inclusive rather than exclusive language, never using a term like propitiation without explaining what it means.

Putting seekers at ease about what will happen during Communion, believes Daniel Brown, is vital. He assures them that it's his job to make sure they don't stand out or feel awkward, that he will always give them signals about what to do.

For example, he will say, "When everybody else in your row stands up to file up to the front, if you stay seated, people will trip over you coming and going. So the best thing for you to do is stand up with everybody else and file up front. If you don't take any bread when you file past me, I'm not going to say, 'Hey, buddy, you forgot to take the bread.'" Such comments help disarm seekers.

One hundred or more first-time visitors attend Redeemer Presbyterian every Sunday. At first Tim Keller thought that would present major obstacles to serving the Lord's Supper.

"I discovered an amazing thing, though," says Keller. "When the Lord's Supper comes around, the unbeliever is forced to ask, 'Where am I?' Communion is a specific and extremely visible way to see the difference between walking with Christ and living for yourself. The Lord's Supper confronts people with the questions: Are you right with God today? On which side of the line are you?"

One woman came up to Keller after a service and said, "I've been coming here for three months. I thought I was a Christian when I started coming, even though I hadn't gone to church since I was a little girl. I haven't come here every week, so somehow I missed other Communion services. When I got here today, I read the things about Communion in the bulletin and realized that I wasn't sure I was a Christian."

She decided she wanted to make sure. She gave her life to Christ as the bread and cup were being shared. She participated in Communion and told Keller that she felt her whole life changed.

"I don't think there's any more effective way to help a person do a spiritual inventory," says Keller. "Many seekers in the United States will realize they are non-Christians only during the Lord's Supper. At our church we may begin doing the Lord's Supper more often because we're realizing what a powerful evangelistic tool it is."

What's Right, What's Wrong

It seems that all churches take unique positions about the logistical issues surrounding Communion, such as who serves and how. Regarding such practical issues, there is no right or wrong; the deciding factors are personal preference and what values a church wants to emphasize.

At Dawson Memorial Baptist Church, the elements are kept in the back of the sanctuary, and servers always come from the back rather than stand up front. Only a single loaf and the chalice are at the front. Fenton feels this emphasizes the individual faith that each of us must have in Christ.

At South Coast Community Church, they don't fit Communion into a conventional service. Rather, in an evening in which there is no preaching, Communion is "the capstone of a service that celebrates our relationship with one another in common worship," says Shank. "We're hearing from God through the Word; we're hearing from our neighbors in our shared worship; we recognize our common creed with the appropriate celebration of the Communion."

Tim Keller likes passing trays through the auditorium instead of having people come forward. That way the person who serves you is the person on your right or left. It's a way for the people to minister to each other. One way they try to communicate that they are one body is they allow more than officers and leaders to pass the trays. They encourage all kinds of people to participate in the passing out of Communion.

"Theology is so rich," says Keller. "There's always some tension between expressing the unity of the church and the purity of the church. When you stress the one, it tends to narrow you on the other. We've decided to emphasize the unity of the church."

At the Coastlands, by contrast, people file to the front where Daniel Brown serves the people one by one. He holds a basket of broken matzo bread, and as people take the bread, he welcomes them, by name if possible, and speaks a blessing upon them.

This affords Brown a brief, personal touch. People in the congregation report they appreciate this approach for an additional reason. "Members sit and watch each person come," says Brown. "Many in the congregation find themselves thanking God for individuals as they go by. It gives us a family feeling."

A Visual Reminder

The decisions we make about Communion have no small influence on others.

"I grew up a preacher's kid," says Gary Fenton. "I despised the Lord's Supper. I found no joy in it. If I didn't take it because I felt unworthy, that brought pain. If I did participate, I always had questions about whether I was worthy, and I left feeling down. I always walked out of church feeling like a failure.

"Early in the ministry I found as a pastor I was dreading the Lord's Supper. I did it every so often because we were supposed to. But in the late 1970s, I began to understand the Lord's Supper as the visual reminder that salvation is by grace, not law. I made a commitment that the Lord's Supper would never be legalistic or boring.

"Since then, Communion has become one of the high moments of worship for me. It is one of my favorite services of the year. My adrenaline runs high. I love to prepare my Lord's Supper message!"

Communion—with appropriate preparation, it stands as one of the highlights of a church's life.

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