To: The saints at Blacknall
From: The Session
Re: Our season of participating in weekly communion
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
We are writing to share with you our thoughts and decision regarding our practice of the Lord’s Table at Blacknall.
As we trust all of you know, over the last seven months Blacknall has undertaken an experiment of sorts. The purpose of that experiment was to enter into a season in which we would increase our frequency of the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, one of two sacraments that we observe, asking the Lord to guide us as we sought to discern whether we should make weekly communion the regular practice of the church. We originally set as a time frame the six months from July-December 2014. It became clear that the Christmas season would not allow us to focus on a decision, so we extended the time frame to February. Thank you all for your willingness to enter into such a process with grace and confidence; we recognized that this experiment might stretch us, since we are a congregation comprised of folks from diverse denominational backgrounds, convictions, practices, and experiences when it comes to the meaning and practice of Communion.
Many of you responded to an invitation to communicate with the Session about our weekly celebration. Excerpts of that correspondence have been shared with you through the website, newsletter, and occasional correspondence. We are grateful for each one who took the time to offer his or her thoughts and questions.
The large majority of folks across age groups and backgrounds wrote affirmatively about the experiment. We were particularly glad to hear from many of our younger members; you expressed almost unanimous gratitude for the opportunity to participate more frequently at the Lord’s Table. One of the primary reasons for that gratitude has to do with appreciating in a visible and tangible way the Christian community at worship and the connection you sensed as we participate together in this powerful expression of Christian unity. Young and old alike welcomed the opportunity to pray for others as they make their way forward to the Table. For those of us who grew up thinking primarily of the Lord’s Supper as a very personal and essentially private and individualistic moment of reflection, this emphasis on our body life together as a church has been something of a revelation, and a welcome one. (As an aside, both of these emphases grow out of differing interpretations of one of the important instructional texts on the Lord’s Supper in the Scripture, in 1 Corinthians 11. See especially 11.29).
Among those who expressed concern about increasing the frequency of Communion there seems to be one primary concern: that greater frequency might lead us to take for granted the gift of grace offered at the Table. One Blacknallite wrote: “Ordinance > ritual > habit > meaningless.” (Hopefully not all habits lead to meaninglessness!) Some elders voiced a similar concern at the outset of this initiative, and we were particularly interested in hearing from folk for whom this was a fear, wondering, over the course of several months, if this would continue to be a concern. For some it has been. Others who raised the same issue have come to a different conclusion. One person writes, “My initial reaction was to fold my arms over my chest and frown…. Having been in congregations that celebrated weekly, there is…that danger that people come to view Communion as an empty ritual…. There is no foolproof way to determine whether that has happened except…on the testimony of the congregation. Therein lies the preparation of the heart Paul speaks of. The Lord’s Supper is routinized only if I allow it to be so – only if I fail to seek the One who set the table.”
It will always be the principal challenge of Christian devotion to be appropriately mindful of the gravity and joy that are reflected as we gather for worship. After all, we are promised the very presence of the Spirit of God in our midst! His presence presents both cause for celebration and self-examination (think about Zacchaeus in Luke 19), regardless of the frequency of Communion. We are in full agreement with the concern expressed by those who are worried about the gift of Communion becoming too familiar, and we intend to do all we can to link our celebration of the Lord’s Table with the preached Word and our daily lives of discipleship.
And yet we think that having Communion less regularly is no safeguard in this respect. In spite of our best efforts, we will still find ourselves on certain mornings “going through the motions” as we sing, or hear the Word, or confess our sins. If anything, the very act of participating in the Lord’s Supper can be a reminder to us, a wake-up call, to attentiveness, reflection, repentance, and worship. And we may find, as we engage in the habits of Christian worship, that they make their way into our imaginations and hearts even when we are not so attentive.
We find no magical protection in ritual (see I Corinthians 10 in this regard). There are, no doubt, many “dead” churches that observe the Lord’s Supper weekly. In fact, the Table, as does worship more generally, acts more as a mirror if we have the courage to look. Are we worthy to come? Absolutely not. And yet, are we encouraged to come? Absolutely yes! And as we come, we are reminded of the great gift Jesus is to us and for us, and of our obligations to live the Christian life, taking pains to be reconciled to God and to one another, as the Scripture urges us to do. This is what a sacrament is: a gracious encounter with the God who has loved us supremely in Jesus Christ. We continue to believe that the key lies not in frequency, but in our mindful, heartfelt worship in response to the grace we have received in Jesus Christ through his atoning death on the cross, and to his ongoing presence through the Holy Spirit.
A secondary concern for a few folks was the length of service, especially now that we are enjoying both record attendance in Sunday School classes and an important time of fellowship over coffee just after the first service. (Thanks to all those who are making that possible!) This continues to be a matter of concern and we will continue to address this by separate means.
These are some of the thoughts that we have had as we have reflected on our celebration of the Lord’s Supper over these past months. In the Presbyterian Church, the responsibility for almost every decision lies with the elders, and at our meeting on February 9 the Session (a synonym for elders when they act as a body) voted unanimously to continue with the practice of weekly communion.
We believe we sense the direction of the Lord in this decision. Those of us who are older and more set in our ways might take great joy in the fact that a younger generation is eager to engage Christ and one another at the Table and in the larger congregation. Those of us who are concerned that the celebration of the Table will become routinized are right to be so concerned; all of us, whether at the Table or in other Christian practices are rightly encouraged to be mindful of what we do. And yet, even when we are not so mindful, or distracted, or dulled or overwhelmed by the pace and challenges of life, the Lord meets us graciously. Remember his encounter with those two followers on the Emmaus road (Luke 24.13ff.)? They were all of those things, and the Lord graciously revealed himself to them and made them hungry for much, much more. (Do you think he was smiling when he said, “What things?” in verse 19?)
We would not undertake this if we did not think that the Lord himself wants to meet us in the same way as he did those Emmaus pilgrims. And we believe all will agree that we need all the help we can get if we are to be faithful in these days.
Will you join us in praying for our life together as a body, that this decision will indeed be a vehicle for praise and growth, and that God would be glorified in the church?
In His grace,