Wednesday with Michael Spencer
Thoughts on Weekly Communion (2008)
In June of last year, I began taking the Lord’s Supper weekly. I’d like to write about what this has meant to me, and to the community of worshiping Christians that I lead.
My Southern Baptist tradition has been de-emphasizing the Lord’s Supper for a good deal of its recent history. This has not been so much intentional as it is the result of a weak ecclesiology (manifested in a loss of emphasis on church membership and church discipline), an over-emphasis on evangelism and church growth, and lack of theological foundations for the place of the Lord’s Supper in the life of the church and the Christian.
The result of this de-emphasis is sad: the supper is rarely served, it is rarely preached about, and most Baptists have no positive role in their own spirituality for the Lord’s Supper.
Part of the picture is the tendency of Baptists to define themselves by as many negatives as positives. This is especially true with baptism and the Lord’s Supper, where many pastors are far more comfortable with saying what they don’t believe than what they do believe.
This situation has been unacceptable to me for many years. In the last twenty years of my ministry experiences, I have given many opportunities to take the Lord’s Supper more frequently, and I have emphasized the place of the Lord’s Supper in worship and the Christian “walk.”
One of my motivations has been simple: the Lord’s Supper is a vivid and vital connection with Jesus. To come to the Lord’s table is to return to that night when Jesus gave the supper to his disciples. It is to be re-invited to believe, to be re-invited into the community of Jesus’ followers. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are literal moments from the ministry of Jesus, re-lived and re-joined with all the power of that moment.
Most Christians in my tradition are starved for these connection points. Contemporary evangelical spirituality offers emotional experience — “quiet time,” music, church programs and information in sermons as the individual’s “connecting points” with Jesus. The roles of the church, baptism, the Lord’s Supper and service to others are not completely neglected, but there are few churches where the life of the New Testament church resembles to language and emphases of the New Testament.
When soli deo [i.e. the house church Michael led for a time] began, I offered a summation of our values and vision. Several of those values revolve around frequent communion, and the shaping of worship around scripture, liturgy, creeds and the Lord’s Supper rather than around music and the sermon only.
This emphasis on weekly communion is an emphasis on a particular vision of the Christian life, one that enters into the Biblical story and especially into the particular story of Jesus, as the primary shaping force of the Christian life. This is in stark contrast to the starvation diet most evangelicals and most of my Baptist family endures in a constant dependence on music, consumerism and massive doses of preaching to form their identity. The results are paltry, shallow and frequently non-existent.
So, since June of ’06, I have been receiving communion weekly. In contrast to the 2-4 times a year communions that are normal in Southern Baptist life, I’ve been at the Lord’s table every Tuesday night. I’ve shared that community with a worshiping fellowship from many different denominations and backgrounds, some learning about this more ancient way of worship for the first time, while others are much further down the road of post-evangelicalism than I am.
In addition to the vital and vivid connection with Jesus, I’ve recovered a joy in communion that theological debates had taken away. For some time, my awareness of and participation in debates about the nature of the Lord’s Supper turned the Lord’s Supper into a source of division and anxiety. It reminded me of those theologians who, in their insistence on a particular version of the “real presence,” defend the supper with philosophical categories and language that are far from the actual, unifying, language of scripture. Such language may be apologetically useful, but it is devotionally vacuous.
One of our values in soli deo is to say little about communion, and to stay as close to the actual words of institution as possible. I will usually do a 2-3 minute communion meditation, then, using the actual words of I Corinthians 11, slightly expanded (usually with connections to the passover meal), we share the Lord’s Supper in bread and cup, received in silence.
I do this for the very practical reason of leading an inter-denominational fellowship that has chosen not to work through all the aspects of theology before worshiping together. As fellow missionaries and members of a missional community, we share some aspects of “church” fellowship, but do not share others. Minimizing the words associated with the Lord’s Supper to the words of institution keeps us at the point where our shared fellowship is not divided, but united, at the Lord’s table.
The aspect of weekly communion that has been the most significant for me is the constant reminder that inclusion in the community of Jesus comes with the reception of forgiveness. The community of Jesus is not formed by miracles or testimonies, but by Christ’s forgiveness of sinners. Rather than focusing on “walking the aisle,” weekly communion focuses on constant forgiveness from Christ himself. In communion, Christ is active, faith is receptive and I am passive.
In my Baptist upbringing, we were frequently told that weekly communion turned the supper into a meaningless, rote ritual. Roman Catholics and those in the Disciples of Christ churches were examples. Of course, this same standard didn’t seem to apply to preaching, the offering, choir specials, hymns and, of course, the offering. It is was always obvious to me that the kinds of demeaning language used in describing frequent communion was not rooted in the Bible, but is simple prejudice: we don’t want to be like the Catholics.
The difference has become clear. When communion is properly elevated in worship, the meaning of communion is elevated. I am not particularly fond of the idea of dividing the service into “two” liturgies. I prefer to keep communion in the area where Baptists typically think about the invitation, but instead of walking the aisle, we are offered Christ in the Lord’s Supper.
Some will no doubt be surprised to hear that a shortening of the sermon has happened as we re-emphasized the Lord’s Supper. This is not a necessity, but our worship contains a Psalm and three lessons. We have consciously tried to place the teaching of the Word in a servant posture to the reading of the lessons. In much Baptist tradition, the reading of the scripture is servant to the sermon, and I feel this is inappropriate.
In the Lord’s Supper, the Word is proclaimed, the Gospel is offered and Christ is present in power to save. The “memorial” view can be presented in a stripped down, barely significant view of taking a pledge, or it can be presented as remembering one who has promised to be with us, in power, and in fellowship with those who share, believingly, in the Lord’s Supper as living members of Christ’s body. I am convinced the “stripped down” view of the Lord’s Supper has needlessly removed the power of the Supper from the experience of many Christians, and made the reformed, Lutheran and Catholic views more attractive to many Baptist Christians.
I never feel I am participating in “just a symbol.” A “symbol” has the power to include me in the reality of the thing signified if I enter, with faith, into the story in which the symbol occurs. The language of “just a symbol” is, in fact, offensive, for it demeans all kinds of Biblical language and many aspects of the Biblical story. (Should we say that Passover is a “symbol with power” or “just a symbol?”) It is a measurement of our confusion regarding communion that we see nothing strange about taking all the power and influence that God has associated with the Supper and describing such as “just” a symbol.
I’ve become convinced that occasional communion tends to drain the event of its significance and emphasize the wrong aspects. If we believe that communion is a “pledge” on our part as well as an offering of the Gospel itself, then we want to keep both aspects together and not overemphasize either one at the expense of the other. It is extremely hard for me to see that communion 2 or 3 times a year can possibly emphasize the new covenant gospel that Jesus explicitly says is present in the Lord’s Supper. I believe Spurgeon understood this when he did what no megachurch pastor would dare do today: have the Lord’s Supper at every Sunday service.
Weekly communion is a constant reminder that we journey with Jesus; that we are vitally connected to him and to the movement he began; that Christ, in the new covenant, offers his people all that their salvation means through simple, empty-handed faith. It would be difficult for me to go back to worship without weekly communion. The place of Christ’s New Covenant meal in worship can’t be replaced with music or preaching. It is Christ’s meal of fellowship, Christ’s table of invitation, Christ’s body and blood proclaimed for us in bread and wine.
Virtually eliminating what Christ gave to us to be at the very center or worship is trading away our great inheritance for trinkets and decoration. Restoring the Lord’s Supper to a central place in worship is a crucial part of the renewal and reformation post-evangelicals should work toward.