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]
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.