Should Churches Celebrate Communion On-Line?

Q: Should churches celebrate communion on-line?

*This response was written after a fellow pastor invited me to wrestle with this issue along side him.

Thanks for the thoughtful and challenging article on abstaining from Communion. This is a question that many pastors, elders and churches are wrestling with. To me, the arguments in favor of abstaining have real weight behind them, but not enough for me to want to abstain. The main reason for abstaining is that this means of grace seems especially dependent on gathering together as a one church. I think of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians: “…when you come together as a church, I hear that divisions exist among you….therefore when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper…” (11:18-20 emphasis mine). The emphasis on coming together is weighty. You could ask the question this way: What is the one thing that the church cannot do without gathering as one group? Communion? Bingo!

But actually there’s a lot more. We can worship privately, yes, but not corporately. Might we not apply the “when you come together” argument for abstaining to our on-line worship and preaching as well? There’s something special about corporate worship. Years ago I remember worshiping in a Lutheran church next to an old saint. He couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, but that didn’t stop him from belting out A Mighty Fortress. He swerved in and out of his vocal lane. He put the “P” in pitchy, but his worship was so joyfully contagious that it incited praise. No chair on The Voice would have turned, but I believe that heaven smiled and joined along. That togetherness is also missing on-line. We can see the worship leader, but he can’t see you or hear you and we can’t hear each other. What about preaching? Preaching might seem like a monologue, but the act of preaching is more dialogical than it appears. In the act of preaching, the listeners are giving the speaker instant feedback with body-language and holy grunts. A preacher can also discern if he’s speaking to the heart or sedating listeners by the number of heads nodding off. That togetherness is also missing on-line. It is incredibly difficult to bring a message to a camera lens without seeing if people are responding. Maybe I’m mixing apples and oranges, but none of this is normal. Everything is simply better together. Singing is better together. Preaching is better together. Communion is better together.

As we moved into social-distancing and began meeting on-line, the burden that God put on my heart was that we needed to keep doing the ordinary work of ministry in extraordinary times. Like many pastors, a lot of us scrambled to get on-line without much thought to what means of grace would transfer digitally.  So, I appreciate the question and the theological thoughtfulness behind it. We must steward these precious means of grace well. We must avoid cheapening them and emptying them of their theological messaging. Recognizing that everything is better together, are there any good reasons for continuing to celebrate the bread and cup as an on-line church community? I see a few:

  • It helps us focus on Jesus and the Gospel together as a church (1 Cor. 11:26);
  • It helps us do something spiritual together as a church;
  • It upholds a long cherished tradition of serving communion to shut-in–only now we’re all shut-ins;
  • It promotes the priesthood of all believers–our celebration doesn’t require a priest to transform and serve the elements.

As I see it, the only call to abstain is if we are eating and drinking in an “unworthy manner” (11:27), which I take to mean eating and drinking without loving consideration of others (11:20-22). That is the true mockery of the meal.