Growing up Roman Catholic, I had come to a certain understanding that celebrating the Eucharist, or Holy Communion, was simply what we did when we went to church. For several years I went to Mass every day and received the Sacrament with great frequency. It was a bit of a shock, then, when I joined the United Methodist Church in 2006 and found out that celebrating Eucharist once a month was the norm.
I currently serve as the associate pastor of Franktown United Methodist Church on the Eastern Shore District of the Virginia Conference. My senior pastor, Alex Joyner, and I have begun doing something that other pastors have since told us they wish they could do, too, if only their people would go along with it: we celebrate Holy Communion every Sunday.
It started out as a discipline reserved for the special times. When Advent came around we would begin celebrating weekly Eucharist and after the Christmas season we would go back to once a month. Until Ash Wednesday, that is; then we’d be back to weekly Communion right up to Pentecost.
We continued this pattern until this past Christmas. Once the season was over we kept right on celebrating Communion. Call it a prompting of the Holy Spirit, but I began to feel a sense of profound sadness when I thought about going back to a once-monthly table service. I felt as if we were chopping off half the worship time. I felt like we were telling a good friend that we could now only see him every so often. It turns out my senior pastor was feeling this, too. We figured we’d have weekly Communion until people started to ask questions; it didn’t take long! The response we gave was this: “After Easter we’ll reevaluate.”
After announcing the intention of reevaluating the practice of weekly Communion after Easter, we preached a sermon series on the Eucharist, using This Holy Mystery, the 2004 United Methodist Church-sanctioned study (which actually recommends weekly Eucharist) as a resource. We’ve also conducted a survey to try to measure the congregation’s reaction. It was mostly positive. The survey form asked respondents to rate the extent to which weekly Communion has contributed to their spiritual growth. Almost 80% of those who returned completed forms circled a “4” or a “5,” indicating that their spiritual growth had been impacted “some” or “a great deal” by experiencing weekly Communion.
Comments were invited, also. Those who suggested that their spiritual growth had been “little” or “not much” remarked that they found weekly Communion took away some of the “specialness” of the Sacrament. “Familiarity breeds contempt” might be their motto. One person actually commented that they felt weekly Communion took time away from the sermon. Few pastors have ever heard a complaint about a shorter sermon, though, truth be told, there has not been much of a conscious effort to write shorter sermons on either my or Alex’s part.
In contrast to those statements, though, were the ones that came from the “a great deal” crowd. One person directly contradicted the “specialness” argument by saying they “realized that it didn’t become less special but more special.” Another parishioner wrote “it is an integral part of worship. It’s when I feel closest to God during the service.”
Because the vast majority of the responses from the congregation were highly positive and, more importantly, since it seems that God is inviting us to continue the practice, it is likely that our church will keep celebrating Holy Communion every week. For those who are looking to implement something similar in their churches, perhaps the route we took could serve as a model.
Education is a key component. Encourage Sunday school classes or small groups to begin a study of This Holy Mystery or another Communion-centered resource. Preach sermons about the origins and significance of Holy Communion. Begin introducing more frequent opportunities for your congregation to experience the Sacrament, either during certain times of the liturgical year or at other times outside of regular Sunday worship, such as at monthly healing services.
One byproduct of this experience has been that Alex and I have been praying and thinking about what the Eucharist means to us. I cannot speak for Alex, but he has expressed feeling challenged to evaluate his beliefs on the subject. Personally, I have felt like our congregation has become more firmly connected with the universal church and that perhaps weekly Communion could one day be an entry point to greater unity.
I was grateful for the opportunity to articulate my own answers to the arguments against more frequent Communion. The most often heard was the “specialness” argument described (and answered) by our parishioners in the survey. I preached a sermon addressing the issue. I began by explaining my background in the Catholic Church, which made any argument against weekly Eucharist a foreign language to me.
Yet, I admit, even for those who commune every Sunday and even daily, the Sacrament can start to feel like old hat. The answer, however, is not to decrease the frequency of Communion. The answer is self-examination. Our attitude toward the Eucharist can in no way add or decrease to its “specialness.” Christ is truly present and so specialness is not really an issue. What is an issue, though, is the preparations I make to receive Communion. If the Sunday service is the only time reserved for prayer all week or if Bible Study is something reserved for Sunday school, then I am hardly ready for all that God is going to offer me when I meet with my congregation. If, however, I am intentional about preparing my heart and mind to receive God’s grace, if Sunday is just the culmination of the time that I’ve spent with God all week, then I will be a more ready vessel when grace begins to flow.
It’s a lot like the relationship I have with my spouse. I make it a point every day to tell her I love her. This could easily be a rote practice, said with as much feeling as “Please pass the salt.” Yet, if I take the time to meaningfully engage my spouse in conversation and if I show my love through acts of service each day then when I tell her I love her, it will never get old or lack meaning.
I look forward to the Eucharistic revival that could come about if more churches took bold steps. The first step, and perhaps the boldest, is for pastors and church leaders to begin a process of self-reflection. What does the Eucharist mean to you? What happens when we celebrate the Sacrament? Is it really something that just ought to occur once a month? Is the Sunday service a celebration and culmination of the acts of devotion and service you perform all week or is it, in itself, a rote act that has lost its “specialness?” Answering these questions could be a springboard toward more frequent Communion, nothing less than a means of grace upon grace.