Every congregation in some way, shape, or form has found itself trying to be faithful in worship, bible studies, and in ministry by leveraging the internet and social media. As is evident by the quick shift and move to digital, pastors and members of congregations care deeply about the community that is formed in the congregation and reaching those who may feel isolated during this time of crisis (and hopefully before and after the crisis concludes as well!).
In many ways, we are now finally catching up to the old adage to “go where the people are.” John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, resisted new advances like preaching in the fields but realized that by going to the people you can reach the people. As my colleague Wil Cantrell wrote in a recent post, your community is “looking for personal connection to someone who can help them navigate the new reality” of Christian life during a pandemic. This means going where people are and where people are is on the internet.
(click here to read Wil’s full post & sign up for a webinar)
We must continue to be the Church, offering help, hope, and healing, whether sheltered in place or gathering in digital communities.
It has been said many times, the methods change but the mission stays the same. We must continue to be the Church, offering help, hope, and healing, whether sheltered in place or gathering in digital communities. However, this poses an interesting problem for worshiping communities around the world. That problem is relative to how we can faithfully worship God.
The central act of Christian life is worship. The central act of Christian worship is Holy Communion. How can we faithfully celebrate the sacrament of Holy Communion when our gatherings are primarily, if not exclusively, digital? This becomes even more important when we consider that at the time this article is written, we will likely not be assembling in person for Maundy Thursday or Easter Sunday.
The central act of Christian life is worship.
The central act of Christian worship is Communion.
The question of online communion is not a new debate but the importance of the debate has been elevated drastically. What must be present for Eucharist to be celebrated faithfully? Who can lead it? Who can share it? Who can receive it? Can it be consecrated online? Must it be celebrated in a community of faith? How can we maintain the central aspect of Christian worship when we no longer gather?
As St. Augustine states, Holy Communion is a sacrament, “an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace.” It is a gift from God to the Church to nourish us for our spiritual journey in our Christian lives. It is the central act of Christian worship. Everything revolves around the Table, even though in much of American Protestantism we center around the Word. The Table has always been and always will be the central act of Christian worship.
The Table has always been and always will be the central act of Christian worship.
Because Holy Communion is a gift from God to the Church, then it should always be celebrated as part of communal worship. It is not a private practice like going into a prayer closet or studying the scriptures as part of one’s devotional life. This is a corporate act with the gathering of all the saints. The corporate nature of Holy Communion is one of the primary reasons online communion has been frowned upon.
But what about today? While we are shut in our homes and can no longer gather in person, should we make allowances for online communion? Should we allow for individuals to consecrate the elements within the confines of their own homes to prevent the spread of COVID-19?
I think not. Here’s why.
In a time of fear and anxiety, in a time of social distancing with the increased feeling of isolation and loneliness, we need the community of faith more than ever. We desperately need the grace provided and the connection offered through receiving the sacrament of Holy Communion. When shelves have been emptied of bread, the Church must continue to offer the Bread of Life. Rather than broadening the scope of who can celebrate the sacrament and/or making allowances for the words of a clergypersons to consecrate the elements through a computer screen, we should be creative in reaching out and connecting with persons who are stuck at home. We should look for how we can offer the blessed sacrament safely while being as connected as possible.**[This may change if “shelter in place” goes into effect – though I wonder if allowances from government could be made for clergy to continue practicing such an important part of faith?]
When shelves have been emptied of bread, the Church must continue to offer the Bread of Life.
Below are a few thoughts on how we can be faithful in celebration Holy Communion during the COVID-19 days.
1) Consecrating the Elements
Do not suspend celebrating the sacrament! Maintain it with the same regularity as you normally would, yes – even celebrating the sacrament during your online service. Utilize the liturgy, but consider adapting some of the words to make sense for those who are joining online. I would argue that all who are gathered online constitutes a quorum for the celebration of the sacrament. After all, we do believe that our celebration is with “the saints on earth and all the company of heaven.” We still gather albeit in a new method. That means Communion may take on a new method as well.
I would recommend keeping your tradition – with a full loaf of bread, wine, grape juice, liturgy, etc., during the service – but change the kind of elements you use for distribution.
2) Elements for Distribution
No, I do not mean move from bread and wine to pizza and coke! I mean change to the most sanitary form possible. Remember, the methods change but the mission does not. We must temporarily change the method to adapt to our current environment without suspending this central act of worship. In my congregation we typically use a full loaf of bread and a common cup for dipping (intinction) or small individual cups with table dismissals. Many concerns have been brought up about germs in the past relative to intinction (as a professor once said to me, “We Methodists don’t know what be we believe about the Holy Spirit, but we definitely believe in germs!”).
For the time being, move away from a full loaf and a common cup for distribution to pre-packaged, individual containers which are on the altar table during the consecration.
3) Distributing the Elements
During your online service, offer the elements to all who are present. Then remind people that this is God’s grace offered to ALL who desire to draw nearer to God through Jesus Christ. This is where the biggest change will need to be made. It is at minimum a bad idea and more likely illegal to gather a large crowd, so this is when we make use of our ability to distribute the elements from the Table beyond the walls of the Church. Congregations regularly practice this method when we offer Communion to homebound persons. This was one of the major roles of deacons historically. In fact, Bishops would consecrate the elements and deacons would take the consecrated host and drop it in cups of wine in the local assemblies so that the sacrament could be received!
a) Mark a specific time for drive-through communion. Tell your online church that they may drive by the church to be handed pre-packaged elements at a designated time when they can receive the sacrament while in their vehicles. Be sure to use the elements you consecrated at the Table during the service. Also wear gloves and use hand sanitizer. Hand the elements to the person(s) in the car – do not let them grab. If you need a theological reason, it’s because Communion is God’s gift GIVEN TO us not TAKEN BY us.
Communion is God’s gift GIVEN TO us not TAKEN BY us.
b) Deliver elements house to house. To maintain social distancing, you may want to ring the door bell and leave the pre-packaged elements on the doorstep. Do not leave until you know they have received the elements. Treat the elements with as much respect as you would on a Sunday morning.
c) A Hybrid Option. Choose a few volunteers to receive communion through drive through communion. After they have received, give them a list of members with addresses and the appropriate number of pre-packaged elements to distribute. Also, be sure to give them a small bottle of hand sanitizer and some gloves.
d) Nursing homes and assisted living facilities pose a major challenge because many of them have banned visitors who are ‘non-essential.’ I know, we believe that worship is essential – but they mean healthcare professionals. Maybe we can try contacting the directors and making the elements available to all whom you normally minister. You can deliver the elements to the person in charge outside the facility and allow them to distribute the elements on behalf of the church.
I am sure some of you are cringing as you read this post. Some of you think that I should just advocate for digital consecration. Well, sorry. That’s where I am. What are your thoughts? Should we suspend celebrating the sacrament? Should we make allowance for digital consecration? I would love to hear your thoughts!