Rethinking Online Communion

When I first heard about a church offering online communion, perhaps a year ago, I thought how ridiculous!  How we have lost our way!  I was concerned that this would only enable others to stay away from church while simultaneously watering down the meaning and importance of holy communion.

Upon further reflection, I think those initial thoughts were wrong.   Two things led me to rethink my position.  One is an online support group I lead for men seeking sexual integrity.  The community formed there is real, precious, and life-changing.  Second is the recovery ministry being launched out of my church which is introducing me to many people who are not ready to step foot inside a traditional church service.  Many of them are today’s lepers, feeling estranged from God and society, yet desperate to know if someone cares and if there is hope for them.   Each of these instances got me thinking.

My Wesleyan Heritage

In November of 1739, John Wesley visited a Moravian Society meeting at Fetter Lane.  There he was introduced to a woman whom he had known to be strong in faith but now was filled with doubt.  Wesley records something in his journal which disturbed him about this woman and the teaching she had received.  He writes, “one whom I had left strong in faith and zealous of good works… now told me, Mr. Molther had fully convinced her she never had any faith at all; and had advised her, till she received faith, to be still, ceasing from outward works; which she had accordingly done and did not doubt but in a short time she should find advantage of it.” (John Wesley, entries for November 1-7, 1739, in The Works of John Wesley, vol.19, ed. W. Reginald Ward and Richard P. Heitzenrater (Nashille: Abingdon, 1990)119-20.)

Subsequent journal entries from Wesley reveal that nearly everyone in the Fetter Lane Society was experiencing a crisis of faith, doubting whether they had any.   Mr. Molther’s instructions to those filled with doubt was to refrain from anything which could be construed as a form of works righteousness, which especially included participation in the Lord’s Supper, but to instead be still and wait upon the Lord to deliver the assurance of faith they desired.

This doctrine, called “stillness,” did not sit well at all with John Wesley.  For many months Wesley went to great lengths arguing against this doctrine of stillness.   Contrary to Mr. Molther’s insistence that God’s only command to us is to believe and until such time as we believe we cannot partake of any means of grace, Wesley argued that God only commands us are to love Him and others, and the means of grace (of which holy communion is a primary one) are the means through which God nourishes our faith.   Whether you are a believer or an unbeliever, Wesley contends, God commands us to obey Him, and one form of obedience is taking part in the Lord’s Supper, often.

In June of 1740 Wesley preached a sermon on Holy Communion.  In it said this:

I preached on, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

In the ancient Church, every one who was baptized communicated daily. So in the Acts we read, they “all continued daily in the breaking of bread, and in prayer.”

But in latter times, many have affirmed, that the Lord’s Supper is not a converting, but a confirming ordinance. And among us it has been diligently taught, that none but those who are converted, who have received the Holy Ghost, who are believers in the full sense, ought to communicate.

But experience shows the gross falsehood of that assertion, that the Lord’s Supper is not a converting ordinance. Ye are the witnesses. For many now present know, the very beginning of your conversion to God (perhaps, in some, the first deep conviction) was wrought at the Lord’s Supper. Now, one single instance of this kind overthrows the whole assertion.

Converting Ordinance

Wesley believed that communion should not be limited to the converted, to those who already believed and had their lives properly sorted, including their doctrine.   He believed all were welcome to partake, whether you had faith or none.   The day after delivering the sermon quoted above, Wesley writes in his journal,

Saturday, June 27, 1740

I showed at large,

  1. That the Lord’s Supper was ordained by God, to be a means of conveying to men either preventing, or justifying, or sanctifying grace, according to their several necessities.

  2. That the persons for who it was ordained, are all those who know and feel that they want the grace of God, either to restrain them from sin, or to show their sins forgiven, or to renew their souls in the image of God.

  3. That inasmusch as we come to his table, not to give him anything, but to receive whatsoever he sees best for us, there is no previous preparation indispensably necessary, but a desire to receive whatsover he pleases to give. And,

  4. That no fitness is required at the time of communicating, but a sense of our state, of our utter sinfulness and helplessness; every one who knows he is fit for hell, being just fit to come to Christ, in this as well as all other ways of his appointment.

For Wesley, and Methodists ever since, communion is a gift from God to us, a means to nourish each of us on our journey, reminding us of God’s great love towards us and abiding presence.  It meets each of us where we are – sinner or saint, believer or doubter, mustard seed or mountains of faith – for the purpose of taking us where we need to go.   It’s a holy mystery how this happens.  Can this mystery not also extend to those participating online?

Communion as Evangelism

My initial thoughts about online communion strike me as similar to Mr. Molther’s doctrine of “stillness.”   The Fetter Lane Society prevented those who were lacking in faith to participate in the Lord’s Supper.  I wanted to prevent those who lacked the inclination or desire to come to church from participating in the same.   As I reflect on my feelings then and now I fear I was more concerned with being a liturgical policeman than I was with being an evangelist who, like God, indiscriminately scatters seed throughout the world irrespective of whether it lands on good soil or not.   How would God scatter seed today?   I believe He would use all the tools at His disposal, including the growing online communities forming every day.

I run into people all the time, as I’m sure you do, who tell me they cannot see themselves stepping foot into a church lest the roof cave in on us all.   Misguided as that notion of God may be, it’s the notion they have.  How wonderful it is to be able to present them with an option of participating in a worship service online, where they can taste and see that the Lord is good!  And how wonderful it is to not be shackled by a closed table understanding of this holy mystery but instead be able to offer them, via an online connection, the means to participate in the means of grace.   Who am I to say God cannot be working in their heart as we share in the Lord’s Supper separated by space yet connected by Spirit?  If even one of these begins to understand that God loves even them and they then develop a hunger for even more, thus one day working up the courage to step foot inside your church, wouldn’t it be worth it?   I am convinced it would.   Let us not consign those who cannot or will not enter our church buildings to the doctrine of “stillness” but instead offer any means necessary to stir up in them faith. 

What about Baptism?

An objection to offering online communion is to suggest it opens a slippery slope.  What about baptism?  Will we offer that online, too?   No.   We do not believe that baptism, like communion, is a converting ordinance.  Nor is it something to be done often, but only once.   We do not believe one must be baptized in order to participate in communion.    So because of what we believe is and is not happening in the sacrament of baptism we can safely, and justifiably, put a stop to that slope from slipping.

Consider how many unbaptized our online campuses could potentially reach.  Consider how our meeting them where they are – through online worship and communion – rather than demand they meet us where we are, could move someone from no faith at all to a place where they decide to be obedient to Christ and come to you, their pastor, to inquire about baptism.   How awesome will that be!?

What about individualism?

Are we not promoting isolation and individualism when we offer online communion?  I do not think that online communion should be seen as an equal counterpart to real, flesh and blood encounters within a worshiping community.  I think it would be wise to routinely offer the invitation to come and get plugged into a local church.  At the same time I don’t want to discount the community – as different as it may be – people experience online.

Think of your own interactions.  Are not a great deal of them done online?   Do you foresee this changing in the near future?   If not, why not make these interactions more meaningful rather than less?   The irony of the debates against online communion is they are all happening online!  I’ve talked more today about communion online with friends from around the country than I ever have in a church setting face to face.  I value those interactions, even if I may disagree with those I’m interacting with.

The “real presence” that communion points to is not my presence as the pastor with the communicant, but God’s presence with each of us wherever we are, both spiritually and physically.   Those who are not coming into your church today are not going to show up tomorrow because you tell them they need to grow up and stop being individualistic and come experience communion in a brick and mortar church.   They just won’t, and our insistence that they do, even with great theological and liturgical zeal, will not convince them.   But experiencing it for themselves, where they presently are, might awake them to possibilities they had not considered before.   Paul said he became all things to all people that he might win someone to Christ.   I believe online communion could be a means of grace to many who otherwise would never know it.

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15 thoughts on “Rethinking Online Communion

  1. This is an interesting post, Chad.

    For me the key question is about the meaning of words such as “gather” and “community.”

    I embrace the idea that it is a converting sacrament, but as it was given to be taken together – so long as we gather – does online constitute a gathering?

    I don’t see that as a matter of liturgical policing but of attempting to be biblical.

    I do not know the answer to what constitutes gathering together in an Internet age, but that is the question I have.

  2. A view from the pew: I appreciate the reasoning behind what you are stating, but I believe the church is at a point in time that it needs to be promoting physical Christian community as a means of grace rather than encouraging individualistic Christianity. The church needs to be addressing the reason why attendance drops on communion Sundays/why people are hesitant to step foot in the door to receive communion. Wesley addressed the issue of unworthiness head on; the church may need to do the same from the perspective of better educating people what communion is about and that yes, this is for everybody, even you. I read somewhere that Wesley did such a good job of educating the early Methodists about communion, they would show up in huge numbers to receive it from the priests of the Church of England; sometimes there would be many more Methodists receiving communion than people who just regularly attended services at the local Church of England.

    Years ago, in an attempt to bolster attendance on communion Sunday, the local UMC I attend changed from dispensing the elements to people kneeling at the rail to what I have come to call “walk through communion”. For me, it does not have the same “feel” and whether or not it improved attendance, I have never heard. Lately, I find myself wondering if, in an attempt to be accommodating, the church has minimized something that actually needs to be carried out/taught in a deeper and more meaningful way.

    • I agree that communion is very important – even essential. I’m not trying to minimize it here or even promote individualism (just the opposite, actually). I’m simply suggesting we meet people where they are in their journey, and invite them to take the next step. For many, for whatever reason, they feel more comfortable worshiping online than in a church building – perhaps they gather with their spouse or friends and watch together in their living room – but in any event, that’s where they are. From an online pulpit, I can teach them why community is valuable. I can plant seeds which, Lord willing, will enable them to take the next step and to get plugged into a local church. If I really believe God works through the sacrament of communion, drawing us unto Himself (which I do with all my heart) than I can pray and believe that God is doing that in that moment with everyone participating – whether that be inside the church or via online.

    • A further view from the pew that helps illuminate where I am coming from; it took me a little bit to remember: A couple of years ago I helped compile a book that attempted to describe the local UMC. When it came to communion, we included, as to the reason we needed communion, the time worn statement that I had heard all my life: Communion is an outward and visible sign of an inward and grace. Last year I encountered the Heidelberg Catechism, and nothing has been the same since because it, along with three books about it, gave me an understanding of basic orthodox Christianity I thought impossible and nothing, including communion has not been the same since. What follows is Q & A 75:

      Q: How does the holy supper remind and assure you that you share in Christ’s one sacrifice on the cross and in all his benefits?

      A: In this way: Christ has commanded me and all believers to eat this broken bread and to drink this cup in remembrance of him. With this command come these promises: First, as surely as I see with my eyes the bread of the Lord broken for me and the cup shared with me, so surely his body was offered and broken for me and his blood poured out for me on the cross.
      Second, as surely as I receive from the hand of the one who serves, and taste with my mouth the bread and cup of the Lord, given me as sure signs of Christ’s body and blood, so surely he nourishes and refreshes my soul for eternal life with his crucified body and poured-out blood.

      I had not read that in a while–it is something else. But then, as with the rest of the Heidelberg, I am amazed at how much more understanding the rank and file Christian of the 1600’s was given than I ever was. Q & A 76 tell why it needs to be taken in community (despite the wording of the question, elsewhere the catechism makes it very plain that the bread and wine are only representative symbols of Christ’s body and blood):

      Q: What does it mean to eat the crucified body of Christ and drink his poured out blood?

      A: It means to accept with a believing heart the entire suffering and death of Christ and thereby to receive forgiveness of sins and eternal life. But it means more. Through the Holy Spirit, who lives both in Christ and in us, we are united more and more to Christ’s blessed body. And so, although he is in heaven and we are on earth, we are flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone. And we forever live on and are governed by one spirit, as the members of our body are by one soul.

  3. Chad,
    I recently wrote my PhD dissertation on this subject, entitled, “This Virtual Mystery: A Liturgical Theological Argument Against Celebrating Holy Communion on the Internet in the United Methodist Church.” In the paper I deal very carefully with the section of Wesley’s journal that you quote above as well as the issue of what Wesley meant by “converting or confirming ordinance.” There is much more at stake in this question than the few points that you mention above, including but not limited our ecumenical commitments, the role of Holy Communion as a mechanism for evangelism (something Wesley himself never encouraged), and our covenant with one another as ordained elders in full connection. I would invite you to read the full paper. It can be accessed through proquest.
    Dr. Dawn Chesser

    • Hi Dawn, thanks for your comment. I have no doubts there is much more to be discussed than the simple points I raise in this brief blog. And as I told Taylor on Facebook, this isn’t a hill I’m willing to die on. But what would convince me is not what Wesley thought of communion (I could take or leave the section I write about him above) but whether or not scripture forbids taking communion in such a manner and secondly, whether God is present in such a manner, imparting grace.

      IMO, a lot of the angst against online communion is wrapped up in tradition and liturgical milieu, not with whether or not this is a viable means of grace whether it be served in a church or online. Many of our churches today are multi campus sites where they simulcast the sermons. Would you argue that those receiving communion in the building where the message is simulcast are not properly participating? And if they are properly participating, as I believe they can be, then how is that different than a family participating in their home while being virtually connected to their church across town?

      • Chad,

        In your response to Dawn you wrote: “But what would convince me is not what Wesley thought of communion … but whether or not scripture forbids taking communion in such a manner and secondly, whether God is present in such a manner, imparting grace.”

        The results of my online communion experiment suggested to me that God was, indeed, present to and with people as they participated in those communion services through the internet. As I said in my paper for the consultation, while not all such receptions could be called “the eucharist,” in some cases I am pretty sure it was. And, aside from that, it is also quite possible that, even if we were to not understand online communions as being part of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, such experiences may nevertheless be means of grace in and of themselves. After all, in Holy Communion there are several means of grace functioning — prayer, hymnody, affirmations of faith — and, as such, when one participates in the liturgy one may, indeed, be participating in more than one means of grace even apart from the Eucharist itself.

        Taylor and others have made great hay out of THM and its assertions that communion is the work of the people localized in a specific place and at a specific time. I, too, am quite favorably enamored with THM, and have taught it countless times across the connection. While their point from THM is true, I think that there is nevertheless room within that understanding for far more, as well as for extraordinary exceptions to the rule. Indeed, I cannot help but also point out that while the Eucharist is celebrated in localized places and times, it’s isn’t limited to such confines. Table of the Lord is also timeless and universal, extending backward in time to the first Lord’s Supper and forward in time to the mystical Marriage Supper of the Lamb … and to every Communion Table on the planet today, regardless of denomination or theological understanding. Such mystical moments drive some of our fellow UM pastors nuts, but I cannot help it … every time I find us trying to squeeze the Holy Mysteries of God into nice, tidy cubby-holes, I find myself wanting to bust them open and point out the contrary arguments.

        Blessings,

        Greg

  4. I have not thought I would want to consider “online communion” or “drive-thru communion” either, for that matter. I have heard of that being offered. You have made me rethink my position. From a logistical standpoint, where do the communicants get the elements they will consume during the service? If we United Methodists insist on the elements being “blessed” by an Elder how is that accomplished?

    • Geary,

      Thanks for reading and for your open mind on the matter. You ask some good questions, ones that I don’t believe are deal breakers but would need to be thought through.

      In the comment I left in response to Dawn Chesser I wondered about services that are simulcasted to multiple campuses. I wonder if there is a good reason why a presider in one area can’t bless the elements that are to be used in another. For those partaking from home, there could be some teaching on how to do that. Or, perhaps there is bread and juice available at the church through the week which those who know they can’t physically be there could pick up and take home with them? Perhaps during the blessing the person at home simply gets a piece of bread and some wine/juice from his fridge and follows along on the screen?

      I don’t know….many possibilities I suppose. I all of them I would wish to hear and see a regular invite to be part of this local body of believers whenever possible.

      Maybe others have some good ideas for how to logistically do this?

  5. Chad and Greg,
    My goal in writing my dissertation was to present a strong, comprehensive liturgical, theological, denominational and scholarly argument against the practice. My hope is that someone will pick up the work and write a strong, comprehensive liturgical, theological, denominational and scholarly argument in favor of it. I could have made an argument either way but I no longer have the time to take on the work of writing the argument for the other side. Right now we have a number of shorter papers from some excellent thinkers and some scholars, but we really need someone who is currently working on a PhD to take up the other side! Especially since a task force is meeting and potentially making recommendations for GC 2016. Do any of you know of someone currently enrolled in a PhD program who is looking for a dissertation project?
    Blessings.
    Dawn

  6. Pingback: Online Communion = gnosticism - Unsettled Christianity

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