The high-point for Christian worship must surely be the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Alas, in many evangelical churches committed to the development of contemporary worship, there is what I can only call ‘the dumbing down’ of communion.
In some places communion has become a ‘self-service buffet’, where worshippers just help themselves to bread and wine – or, as in the case of one American church, Kool-Aid and cheese crackers. Ben Witherington tells of how at this American church, a visiting “seeker” went up to the senior minister after the service and said: “You know what I really liked about the service? “No”, the minister answered. “I liked it that, in the middle, we stopped and had snacks”. Reflecting on this encounter, the minister said later, “An unacceptable image arose in my mind during this conversation: “This is my snack, given for you”. The Lord’s Supper had been trivialised. Indeed, comments Witherington, “some would say that sacrilege happened that day in that church”.
Sadly this is not an extreme one-off case. In many places we now have the phenomenon of what Andrew Walker and Robin Parry call “fast food worship, welcome to MacEucharist”. In many churches there is no longer a formal corporate prayer of thanksgiving for God’s salvation symbolised in bread and wine. In some churches instead of one central communion table, there are a host of small tables to which people are invited to go and help themselves to bread and wine; in one church I worshipped at there was no table whatsoever, instead the bread and wine were put on the floor; while in another church the bread and wine were taken out of a drawer!
In some churches the Lord’s Supper has been squeezed into the main service before the sermon. Yet if we wish to pattern ourselves on the early church, then, the death of the Lord needs to be proclaimed before we eat bread and wine; the good news of Jesus needs to be preached from the Scriptures – otherwise there is a danger that the eating of bread and the drinking of wine becomes an empty rite. But even where the Lord’s Supper follows the sermon, there is no guarantee that it has meaning. Some years ago I was present at a service in a large Baptist church where immediately after the bread and wine had been served in a most cursory manner, the minister declared on draining his cup, ‘The service is over. You are all invited to have a cup of tea in the hall at the back of the church’. There was no pastoral prayer for the needs of the fellowship (as has been customary in Baptist churches), no final hymn of triumph, no benediction or sharing of the Grace together. We had just ‘done’ communion! We had eaten bread and wine but I doubt whether many of us that day had met with the Lord.
What can be done? In the first place, pastors need to preach and teach more about the Lord’s Supper. Over the years I have discovered that even among Christians of long-standing there is widespread ignorance of what they should be going through in their mind as they take part in the Lord’s Supper. New Christians in particular need instruction. Pastors need to help their people understand that it is the Lord’s Supper, that as the host Jesus invites us to come to his Table: As Andrew Walker and Robin Parry (Deep Rising Church, 152) say:
“He welcomes us to have fellowship or communion with him over this meal. Jesus calls us to eat with him and to do so not as individuals alone together like customers in McDonald’s but as a family at table. It really is a meal of ‘Holy Communion’”.
Members of the congregation need to realise that this is not just an ‘ordinance’ laid down by our Lord for us to observe, but a ‘sacrament’, a ‘means of grace’ by which the Lord Jesus blesses us with his very self. Pastors need to help their people to reflect on what it actually means to feed on Christ by faith (John 6.54). To quote Andrew Walker and Robin Parry yet again:
“When you eat or drink something it enters right into the depths of you – it brings you life – it becomes part of you…. Jesus speaks of drinking his blood and eating his flesh as a metaphor for taking his very life deep into our own spiritual lives by faith. We are united with him – his life becomes our life” (Deep Church Rising, 156).