Receiving the Lord’s Supper

Busyness has prevented me from posting for the previous several weeks.  I wanted to share with you one of the things that I’ve put together in the past week though, something I’ll be sharing as a service folder insert with my congregation here in Rochester.  Recently we’ve tried a distribution method for Communion different from what’s been done for a long time.  Some like it quite a bit. Some dislike it quite a bit.  It all leads to the bigger question of why we do what we do in worship, and my hope is that members either love or hate certain practices for the right reasons.  So….

The following is a consideration of the Continuous Flow method of Communion Distribution in worship (and hopefully a worthwhile template for the consideration of all things done in public worship).

For three Sundays spanning October to December we used the Continuous Flow method of Communion distribution on a trial basis at Resurrection.  We appreciated all the feedback from members and there were widely ranging opinions.  We wanted to use this opportunity to provide you with a more thorough analysis of the various considerations that go into distribution methodology.

Biblical – What did they do in the New Testament?

There are four biblical texts which directly speak to the Lord’s Supper (Matt 26:17-30; Mark 14:12-26; Luke 22:7-23; and 1 Cor 10-11).  We know from the accounts of Communion’s institution in the Gospels that Jesus gave us this sacrament in the midst of celebrating the Passover meal, while he and the disciples were reclined at the table.  In the 1 Corinthians text, the Apostle Paul informs us that the community meal of the early Christians (i.e. the “Agape Feast”) served as the backdrop for celebrating the Lord’s Supper, at least till around the end of the first century.[i]  Likewise, the end of Acts 2, which speaks of the fellowship of believers, as well as the Didache, the early Jewish Christian church manual, support the idea of the Lord’s Supper as closely connected with the more casual Christian community meal.

Consequently, while the Bible is very specific in detailing how a communicant should spiritually receive Communion (1 Cor 11:27-29), the Bible says virtually nothing regarding the physical procedure of how a communicant should receive Communion.  Contextually, it was originally received against the backdrop of a fellowship meal of believers.

Ecclesiastical History – What have they done in church history, particularly Lutheran history?

The early Christian church saw the liturgy as a malleable product that began in freedom and moved to form and ritual.  The standardization of liturgical rites and ceremonies did not come about until Roman control and influence several centuries after the formation of the Christian church.  The driving force behind the practices done in worship were twofold: theology and culture.  Church historian James White says that from early on in Christanity’s history “The theological content is constant….The liturgical form, on the other hand, has undergone and continues to undergo changes or modifications in the course of time because of prevailing theological and cultural factors.”[ii]  White is suggesting that what you believe certainly affects what you do in worship as a church.  Likewise, who you’re seeking to communicate gospel truth to (consideration of the recipient), also affects what you do in worship as a church.  Records of regional liturgical practices dating to the first centuries A.D. witnessed to the fact that there was an essential unity in the celebration of Communion despite the diverse languages, cultures, and liturgical rites of the believers around the Mediterranean world.  This concept of unity in Jesus transcending cultural diversity has been a hallmark of the Christian faith from the beginning.

Lutherans historically have regarded many liturgical rites and ceremonies as adiaphora (from the Greek adiaphoron, meaning “a thing that makes no difference”).  In the Formula of Concord, the historical Lutheran church confessed that “the community of God in every place and at every time has the right, authority, and power to change, to reduce, or to increase ceremonies according to its circumstances”.[iii]

A basic but obvious change that has been made to worship since the time of the Reformation has been the length of worship services.  In 16th century Leipzig and Dresden, worshippers received Communion each Sunday, and if there were many communicants that day, services could often last three to four hours.[iv]  (We’ll address this once again under practical issues.)

So, in the history of the Christian Church, much has been debated concerning what is truly being received in Communion, who may receive which elements, what is the proper frequency of Communion.  However, very little has ever been espoused concerning the manner in which a congregation receives Communion.  Historically, it’s simply been too small of an issue by comparison to get much time, energy, or press.

Theological – What truths are we seeking to get across in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper?

What we believe regarding the Lord’s Supper is most easily understood by listening to the words we speak.  The Words of Institution (spoken every time we celebrate Communion) indicate this is Christ’s true body and blood, received in faith principally for the forgiveness of sins.  Explained in more detail in his Large and Small Catechisms, Luther properly taught that in Communion we also receive a strengthening of our faith for Christian living as well as the assurance of eternal life.  To properly receive Communion – recognizing what exists inside me (i.e. sin) and what exists in the Lord’s Supper (i.e. Jesus’ body and blood, the very gospel that forgives and saves me) – we encourage communicants to read through pg. 156 in the front of our hymnal, Christian Worship.

To a lesser degree we confess what we believe about Communion through the distribution procedure in which we partake of it.  Confirmed and prepared members are asked to approach the altar under the direction or our elders.  In the past, they’ve come up in groups referred to as “tables” (since no literal table is present, the communication is perhaps a bit outdated and misleading).  The idea expressed in “tables” is the unity of believers expressing “table fellowship” – which was considered a sign of unity and friendship in the ancient world.  However, as a congregation of believers communes, they’re not chiefly expressing unity with the 10-12 people at their “table”, but with the full congregation of believers present.  Dividing the congregation into smaller segments, while it could be understood properly, technically (somewhat artificially and unnecessarily) segregates a congregation in a sacrament which unifies.

The continuous flow distribution, while it keeps people moving in a line, carries more of a symbol of exile – an image consistent throughout Scripture for God’s people while on earth.  Patriarchs in the Old Testament like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the children of Israel in the wilderness, John the Baptist in the countryside, the Apostle Paul traveling from church to church in his mission work, and even Jesus himself, who claimed the absence of a real home on earth (Matt 8:20), are all images that the Holy Spirit inspires in Scripture to remind readers that this home is not a permanent one, but that we walk, united, to our heavenly Promised Land.

Practical – What common good procedural issues are necessary to consider in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper?

As mentioned earlier in reference to the history of the Christian Church, there was a time and place when Christian worship was considered an all day, or at least multiple hour, occasion.  The roots of this naturally go back to the Old Testament Jewish ceremonial idea of a Sabbath Day.  While having the entire day dedicated to worship and rest is not at all a bad idea, it is not a practical reality for most in the 21st century.  While worship services never have advertised times of ending, whenever you have multiple services on a Sunday morning, and when you include Bible Study, time considerations are legitimate concerns.

At Resurrection, distribution under the method of table(s) requires approximately 15-20 minutes in an average worship service.  Distribution under the method of continuous flow requires approximately 7-10 minutes.  While we’d hope and pray that the worship hour on Sunday mornings is not the believers only contact with God’s Word throughout the week, the average Christian does consider the hour of public worship with their fellow believers to be a spiritual high point in the week.  As worship leaders, pastors have a responsibility to be good stewards of the 60 minutes of worship – making the most of that time for all of the worshippers present.  Under the table(s) method of distribution, the non-communing worshipper (children, visitors, those in instruction classes) experience about a quarter of the worship service in which they are non-participants.  In the early Christian Church, this was a non-issue as catechumens (non-members who were going through instruction) were generally excused before that portion of worship.  Again, worship in the 21st century is a little different and therefore has different procedural considerations.  We don’t structure our worship services merely or primarily for visitors, but repeatedly asking worship visitors to sit in non-participatory fashion for 15-20 minutes is perhaps asking a bit much of them as well as providing more “down time” for members before and after they’ve communed.

It’s also worth noting that continuous flow distribution is not a foreign concept in WELS circles.  It is regularly the distribution method at large WELS worship gatherings.  WELS pastor John Micheel points to it as a legitimate option for time considerations in his 2003 WELS Symposium paper “The Church Offers Holy Communion.”[v]  And, in fact, it is proposed as an option in the worship manual of our WELS hymnal.[vi]

Conclusion

Since the institution of the Lord’s Supper on the night before Christ was crucified, the elements, understanding, and benefits of Communion have remained.  The method of distribution has changed over time and across cultures to best fit the needs of God’s people in public worship.

While Old Testament worship for the Israelites was highly structured by God, the Lord has actually given us very little direction in terms of procedures and customs for public worship for today.  In fact, the passage that most clearly points us to what God desires in worship is the Apostle Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 14:11 “Everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.”  In other words, have intention, order, and purpose in what you do in worship, and make sure it’s all about our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  That is God’s direction for New Testament worship.

Our decisions for worship at Resurrection are made with the best interest of the body in mind, not as much according to the preferences of individuals.  While we are sensitive to all considerations and all communicants, as a church, we operate as a collective body with Jesus as our head, not as a group of independent-minded believers.  So, while many have varied opinions, “what I like/don’t like” is rarely the predominant consideration in Christian worship.  What glorifies God and benefits God’s people as a unit is the main consideration.


[i] Frank Senn.  Christian Liturgy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), p. 61.

[ii] James White, A Brief History of Christian Worship (Nashville: Abingdon, 1993), p. 43.

[iii] Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, X; Tappert, pp. 611-612.

[iv] Gunther Stiller, Johann Sebastian Bach and Liturgical Life in Leipzig (St. Louis: Concordia Press, 1984), p. 49.

[v] “The Church Offers Holy Communion.”  Rev. Jonathan Micheel.  (Prepared for the Symposium on Holy Communion Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary September 22-23, 2003), pp. 27-28

[vi] Christian Worship: Manual. p.178.

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11 thoughts on “Receiving the Lord’s Supper

  1. Well written, Pastor Hein (as is always the case with your very thoughtful and well-thought-out posts). Thank you for sharing this with us. God’s blessings on your continued service to him and his people, both in Rochester and wherever you are privileged to share God’s Word with people.

  2. As one of the members of Resurrection I have to say the first time communion was done this way it felt a bit weird (for lack of a better word). I have always spent my time at the communion table in deep prayer, not only confessing my sins, but thanking God for his continued forgiveness, so it was a bit of a shock for me to “do things differently.” The second time of participating I realized that I could spend my time while in line and back in my pew praying, it didn’t need to be up in front. Thank you for explaining this here…it seems we as Lutherans tend to have some trouble with change, but when the change is backed by the Bible, it makes it all right and good.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Kristen. I think your experience is probably representative of many and you’re speaking for a large segment of the congregation. I myself am a creature of habit. If nothing else, I think occasions like this give us fresh opportunities to wrestle with “what’s biblical” and “what’s preference,” which is a helpful thing.

  3. Dave Zemke says:

    Thanks for the insight and point of view. Personally I like the continuous flow process (I’m sure with tweeks as well). I think it should be noted for members of our 2 worship sites that the Life Lutheran worship site offers communion after the worship service for those that wish to participate for a number of reasons.

    My feeling is that as long as we are are properly prepared to recieve the Lord’s supper, how we do it is as you stated not that important. While I don’t know some of the objections, part of it might be my wife’s perspective that it’s “so catholic” (as she is of former catholic background)

    • Thanks for the thoughts, Dave. You’re right, proper preparation is key, and significantly more important than method of distribution. I’m hoping that truth comes across to all.

      Your wife’s take on it has probably been the most common comment we’ve received thus far and something we certainly want to be sensitive to. Now, just because that association exists obviously doesn’t make the method invalid, but it does cause us to pump the breaks to see if it is a legitimate obstacle being placed in front of many.

  4. Noah Bater says:

    James-
    I’m curious as to where you read this: “The continuous flow distribution, while it keeps people moving in a line, carries more of a symbol of exile – an image consistent throughout Scripture for God’s people while on earth.” Or is this simply just your own personal symbolic interpretation? While it’s an interesting take, I’m skeptical that continuous flow distribution has roots in anything aside from trying to save time.
    As an “outreach” pastor, I appreciate the concern you show for the Sunday visitor. And yet you properly maintain that “we don’t structure our worship services merely or primarily for visitors.” I guess my (very limited) experience has shown me something different. The distribution doesn’t provide 15-20 minutes of “down time,” but rather ample opportunity for the gospel to be proclaimed. The visitor repeatedly hears, “Take and eat; take and drink. This is the true body/blood, given/shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins.” I’ve found this encourages visitors even more to ask/inquire of the Sacrament and desire to receive it. I wonder if the speed of the continuous flow would down play (for the visitor) the seriousness of what’s actually going on. I just wonder.
    Finally, we recently started inviting our non-communing guests forward to receive a blessing at the communion rail. They simply express their desire to receive such by crossing their arms in front of them. We also explain that giving a blessing will be our practice if we (pastors) do not know the individual. It has gone over extremely well. And the majority of our visitors partake. That might solve your concern of visitors having too much “down time.”
    Just some thoughts. Thanks for all your posts. Many of my members subscribe and appreciate your wisdom.
    Noah

  5. Hi Noah,
    -While recognizing the theme of exile and restoration as recurrent in Scripture certainly isn’t an original thought, seeing continuous flow distribution as a symbol of that, is, as far as I know, my own personal interpretation….although it immediately came to mind the first time I was in a worship service with continuous flow, so I wouldn’t be surprised if others have thought of it too. Obviously, other symbols of recurring themes of Scripture are often found in worship. No other element of worship that depicts this theme comes to mind, which alone, in my mind, perhaps gives it some merit.

    -I would agree that there is some value in the non-members witnessing the mystery of the Sacrament of Communion just as I would say there is some value in non-members witnessing the Sacrament of Baptism, because the gospel is necessarily present and at work in a beautiful way. Nonetheless, obviously the Sacraments are primarily intended for the benefit of the participants. And if we’re going to lock into the 60ish-minute-service, 20 minutes still strikes me as a long time to ask non-communicants to sit. Personally, remembering the time before I was a communicant, it was a decent amount of sitting and watching people. Many a haircut and outfit got critiqued 🙂 – yep, shame on me. I know. I’m not suggesting everyone would have the same petty mind-wandering that I did, but I get the sense that many are sitting there watching for a good portion of the time, in between often feebly sung, intermittent, spaced-out hymn verses. There are certainly other solutions. I’m simply suggesting that I think continuous flow distribution is a legitimate one.

    -I’m interested in your practice of offering a blessing to non-communicants. I’ve seen it done with children before, but can see the benefit with all worshipers. Curious if you have a specific blessing you use?

    Thanks also for your thoughts and for reading!

  6. Noah Bater says:

    James-

    Thanks for the reply.

    The time thing is something all pastors struggle with, I’m sure. It’s a frustrating problem to have – figuring out a way to get people in and out of worship in an hour – as though it were a task to check off our weekly duties. I could go on but I’ll leave it at that.

    Yes, the maturation of speaking the blessing started with the children of our congregation. Then one of my BIC students (50’s male) asked if he could come up and receive the same. Why not? I speak the blessing over all the worshipers at the conclusion of the service, why not there as well? And it progressed from there.

    My general practice is to make the sign of cross over the baptized and say, “The Lord bless and keep you.” For the unbaptized, it’s simply a laying on of hands using the same words.

    We actually have an elderly gentleman (LDS background) with severe leg problems who’s been coming for the last month. He routinely comes up with his cane for the blessing. I noticed last week that he didn’t bring his cane to church but didn’t know him well enough yet to ask him about it. I got home and he called me to tell me that it was the first time in 15 years he’s been able to walk without it. He, of course, attributed it to the laying on of hands and wanted to know when we would be offering the blessing again.

    I’m not saying I’ve got healing powers but then again……..jk 🙂

    Thanks again for all the work you put into these posts. Blessings in Rochester!

    -Noah

  7. Bob Harmel says:

    Thank you for all your insight on this and other topics. I guess I am just a simple man. The important part for me is the receiving and my thankfulness for the forgiveness of a my sins. How it is distributed is not an issue.

  8. Ernest M. Raasch says:

    Hooray for the practice of Pastoral up-front blessings and laying on of hands for non-communicants. Three times within the past six months we have brought non-Lutheran (but baptized Christian) visitors to our communion services, and each time these visitors were left to sit alone and unheeded while we received communion. One attendee said, after the service, that he felt “empty and unsatisfied”. In a sense, our Synod may be at war with itself: welcoming newcomers on one hand and discouraging them from participating on the other. From that perspective, the concept of close communion in Lutheran churches probably excludes newcomers, except for a private pre-communion ‘approval’ conference with Pastors or Elders. In actuality this is not a policy designed to encourage newcomers to join in any portion of our Communion service. It is regarded by some outsiders as a barrier designed to exclude people from, not to include them in, any portion of the blessings available to believers: confession, absolution, forgiveness, promise of eternal life to communicant believers. In my layman’s view, there is more to Communion than receiving the bread and the wine; there are countless blessings to be received THROUGH the bread and wine. So if we do not allow a believing newcomer to partake of the bread and wine, it seems to me that in Christian love we might at least let them partake of the Pastoral blessings available, by calling them to the altar and having the Pastor express the love of Christ upon them. This may not be doctrinally correct, but it may serve the Great Commission more fully.

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