|Alien to the Communion (Lord's Supper)
ALIEN TO THE COMMUNION
One formerly unchurched person recently told me about his first experience with the Lord's Supper. He thought it was a snack. So he grabbed a whole piece of bread and casually ate it, and then drank several cups of the grape juice while holding the tray (much to the shock and consternation of the server) all the while thinking how minimal the refreshment was. He was totally alien not only to the form of the Supper but to its meaning as well.
The form of the Supper is overlaid with tradition. Whether we are sitting down, standing, going in procession to the front, drinking out of one cup or many, breaking off pieces or having them broken for us, whether it is a silent mediation (individual prayer) or celebrative communion (congregational singing), these are all matters of tradition. These forms, no matter which forms, are confusing to the alien in our midst. The confusion around the forms should be minimized as much as possible through explanations, orders of worship, individual greeting and sharing, but some confusion will always remain for the alien. Forms are formed by a long history of traditions, religious culture and shared experiences. It is natural for the unchurched to feel alien even when we are sensitive to their plight.
What I am more concerned about is that an unchurched person who visits some assemblies would have no idea of what is going on during the communion--not merely in terms of its form (some confusion will always remain until the shared experience forms them), but in terms of its theological significance. That an unchurched person could misinterpret the communion bread and juice for a snack says more about the divorce of the Supper from the preached Word than it does about the naiveté of the unchurched. In fact, such a misunderstanding is a symptom of a deeper problem about how we approach worship itself.
When the Supper is abstracted as an independent act of worship (one of the five as a checklist), it loses its connectedness with the Word and the worship event. I am an advocate of the Reformed tradition where the Supper and the Word are bound together not only theologically but in practice. The Supper is a concrete proclamation of the Word, but it is exactly its concrete character (bread and wine) which must be explained and applied. The Supper needs to be joined with a preached Word from God so that not only the alien will appreciate its significance, but that the church will be reminded and will remember the work of God in Jesus Christ for them. The gospel should be proclaimed when the Supper is served.
The Lord's Supper is problematic for those who wish to conform the assembly to evangelistic designs or connect with the unchurched. It is a Supper for the community and until the alien shares the communal experience of redemption the Supper will remain alien. The church should not adjust the Supper to the alien (such as remove it from the Sunday service as in Willow Creek traditions, or rush its observance), but proclaim the gospel through the Supper and Word so that the alien learns the traditions of faith and redemption.
We cannot totally alleviate the discomfort of the alien. Nor do I think it is our task to do so, though we can be sensitive and love the alien as ourselves (Lev. 19:33-34). But the nature of communion is that it is communal--it is the shared experience of the redemptive presence of God in Christ. Aliens will always be distanced from communal remembrance as aliens. As they become part of the community, they will learn the forms and grow in the experience of the Supper's meaning (note the example of Israel, Num. 9:14; 15:14-16). But they can only do so as members of the community--not as aliens. That, of course, is the goal of God--to usher aliens into the community of God where they are no longer aliens and strangers.
First published as "Teach the Gospel as Part of the Lord's Supper," Christian Chronicle 53.6 (June 1996), 20.