Why I'm Open to Online Communion

November 16th, 2013

Last year I had the pleasure of having lunch with Andy Langford when he was visiting Nashville. Andy is a well-known United Methodist pastor who has been making a few waves in recent days with his plans to offer online Communion as part of his congregation’s Internet ministry. I wish online Communion had been on my radar then, because I would’ve enjoyed having a conversation with him about it. Andy isn’t the first to offer online communion, even in the United Methodist denomination, but his visibility within the UMC certainly seems to have contributed to the recent scrutiny of the practice.

My initial reaction to online Communion was negative. And I still have some questions and concerns about it, but the more I consider the arguments, both for and against it, the more I think we need be open to it. Here’s why:

  • Communion is a mystery, but it isn’t magical. Sometimes I think our understanding of sacraments comes as much from superstition as anything else. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting there’s nothing supernatural going on during the Lord’s Supper—far from it actually! But let’s not forget that there’s an omnipresent God who’s doing the work here, not us! The power in Communion isn’t bound by where we receive it (at the altar, in the aisle, in the pews/seats), or by modes of distribution (intinction, common cup, individual glasses, common loaf, wafers, etc.) So how can we honestly draw a line and say what constitutes a true gathering of believers? How close do the Communion elements have to be to be consecrated? Five inches, five feet, five miles? Such legalism and superstition have led to all kinds of interesting practices and “workarounds”. Some pastors “pre-consecrate” elements to send on retreats that they won’t be attending. Others arrange for a different pastor (one they may or may not know) to take care of it on location. (I get that we’re trying to be obedient, which is commendable, but deep down, do we think Communion won’t “take” if it’s not done a certain way?) Frankly I’ve seen too many purists who get more upset when someone gets Communion “wrong” than when they get the Gospel wrong.
  • We embrace the idea of offering other ministries online, why not Communion? Tithes and offerings are part of our worship, but I’ve not found a church yet that objects to the idea of someone mailing in a check (or giving electronically) when they can’t be there in person. Many preachers would prefer that people show up to hear their sermons in person, yet they still publish their sermons online. They do this because it gets their message out to a wider audience and it provides an opportunity for people to take a step toward actually coming through the front doors on Sunday morning. Would some people be more likely to moved by the sermon if they heard it in person? Perhaps. We don’t know exactly how God is going to work in every situation. It’s the same with prayer. Is a prayer more potent if I can lay hands on someone as I pray? Maybe sometimes. Maybe even most times. Who knows for sure? But does that mean I shouldn’t pray for people over the phone or on Skype? Don’t be ridiculous! Ministry should never be limited to just the optimal set of circumstances.
  • Our sacramental rigidity and legalism can cause us to miss the point. Consider two scenarios— first the traditional one where the pastor and/or a ministry team visits those who are sick and shut-in on a regular basis to serve them Communion. Now consider a church that offers online services with Communion, where those who aren’t able to come to church physically (for whatever reason) can still participate in the Lord’s Supper with the Body of Christ, not afterwards. It seems to me that this might create more opportunities for participation for those who (rightly or wrongly) feel as if they’re second-class citizens, or that they’re getting the Communion “leftovers.” Would this eliminate the need to visit shut-ins? Of course not. But what it would do is utilize technology to make church more accessible and help them be part of the Body. In what universe is that a bad thing?
  • Online community is here to stay. The genie isn’t going back in the bottle. The church can either embrace it and use it to spread the Gospel of Christ, or we can resist it, kicking and screaming, and miss a lot of ministry opportunities. When it comes to the Lord’s Supper, I’ve heard the word virtual used more and more, which is confusing for some because virtual has several definitions. It can mean something that’s simulated by a computer, but not existing in reality, or it can mean something that’s in effect but not conforming to the generally accepted definition of the term. If virtual church and virtual Communion were done with other Christians who were only software-generated characters, I’d understand all the objections and agree with them. But that’s not the case with Communion. The people are real, and the interaction is real. Being there in person might be better, but that doesn’t make being there virtually bad, and I don’t believe it justifies prohibiting it.

I hope I’m wrong about this, but I can’t help but think that some of the objections to online Communion aren’t really theological at all, but are rooted in some kind of irrational philosophy of ecclesial protectionism. Instead of viewing online ministry as an on-ramp for wider participation in the life of the church, some see it as more of an off-ramp. And that’s a threat to them. It would be interesting to see where the optimists and pessimists line up on this.

Some of you probably want to take away my Methodist card now. (What? You didn’t know about the Methodist card?) But understand that I’m very open to opposing arguments on this. And I don’t think this is limited to being just a denominational issue.

What’s your view of online Communion? Where do you think I’m going wrong here?

Shane Raynor is an editor at Ministry Matters and editor of the Converge Bible Studies series from Abingdon Press. Connect with Shane on Google+Twitter, and FacebookSign up to receive Shane's posts free via email.

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