Rethinking online Communion

December 9th, 2014

When I first heard about a church offering online Communion, perhaps a year ago, I thought How ridiculous! How we have lost our way! I was concerned that this would only enable others to stay away from church while simultaneously watering down the meaning and importance of Holy Communion.

Upon further reflection, I think those initial thoughts were wrong. Two things led me to rethink my position. One is an online support group I lead for men seeking sexual integrity. The community formed there is real, precious and life-changing. Second is the recovery ministry being launched out of my church which is introducing me to many people who are not ready to set foot inside a traditional church service. Many of them are today’s lepers, feeling estranged from God and society, yet desperate to know if someone cares and if there is hope for them. Each of these instances got me thinking.

My Wesleyan heritage

In November of 1739, John Wesley visited a Moravian Society meeting at Fetter Lane. There he was introduced to a woman whom he had known to be strong in faith but now was filled with doubt. Wesley records something in his journal which disturbed him about this woman and the teaching she had received. He writes, “one whom I had left strong in faith and zealous of good works… now told me, Mr. Molther had fully convinced her she never had any faith at all; and had advised her, till she received faith, to be still, ceasing from outward works; which she had accordingly done and did not doubt but in a short time she should find advantage of it.” 

Subsequent journal entries from Wesley reveal that nearly everyone in the Fetter Lane Society was experiencing a crisis of faith, doubting whether they had any. Mr. Molther’s instructions to those filled with doubt was to refrain from anything which could be construed as a form of works righteousness, which especially included participation in the Lord’s Supper, but to instead be still and wait upon the Lord to deliver the assurance of faith they desired.

This doctrine, called “stillness,” did not sit well at all with John Wesley. For many months Wesley went to great lengths arguing against this doctrine of stillness. Contrary to Mr. Molther’s insistence that God’s only command to us is to believe and until such time as we believe we cannot partake of any means of grace, Wesley argued that God only commands us to love him and others, and the means of grace (of which Holy Communion is a primary one) are the means through which God nourishes our faith. Whether we are a believer or an unbeliever, Wesley contends, God commands us to obey him, and one form of obedience is taking part in the Lord’s Supper, often.

In June of 1740 Wesley preached a sermon on Holy Communion. In it said this:

I preached on, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

In the ancient church, everyone who was baptized communicated daily. So in the Acts we read, they “all continued daily in the breaking of bread, and in prayer.”

But in latter times, many have affirmed, that the Lord’s Supper is not a converting, but a confirming ordinance. And among us it has been diligently taught, that none but those who are converted, who have received the Holy Ghost, who are believers in the full sense, ought to communicate.

But experience shows the gross falsehood of that assertion, that the Lord’s Supper is not a converting ordinance. Ye are the witnesses. For many now present know, the very beginning of your conversion to God (perhaps, in some, the first deep conviction) was wrought at the Lord’s Supper. Now, one single instance of this kind overthrows the whole assertion.

Converting ordinance

Wesley believed that Communion should not be limited to the converted, to those who already believed and had their lives properly sorted, including their doctrine. He believed all were welcome to partake, whether they had faith or not. The day after delivering the sermon quoted above, Wesley writes in his journal,

Saturday, June 27, 1740

I showed at large,

  1. That the Lord’s Supper was ordained by God, to be a means of conveying to men either preventing, or justifying, or sanctifying grace, according to their several necessities.
  2. That the persons for who it was ordained, are all those who know and feel that they want the grace of God, either to restrain them from sin, or to show their sins forgiven, or to renew their souls in the image of God.
  3. That inasmusch as we come to his table, not to give him anything, but to receive whatsoever he sees best for us, there is no previous preparation indispensably necessary, but a desire to receive whatsover he pleases to give. And,
  4. That no fitness is required at the time of communicating, but a sense of our state, of our utter sinfulness and helplessness; every one who knows he is fit for hell, being just fit to come to Christ, in this as well as all other ways of his appointment.

For Wesley, and Methodists ever since, Communion is a gift from God to us, a means to nourish each of us on our journey, reminding us of God’s great love towards us and abiding presence. It meets each of us where we are — sinner or saint, believer or doubter, mustard seed or mountains of faith — for the purpose of taking us where we need to go. It’s a holy mystery how this happens. Can this mystery not also extend to those participating online?

Communion as evangelism

My initial thoughts about online Communion strike me as similar to Mr. Molther’s doctrine of “stillness.” The Fetter Lane Society prevented those who were lacking in faith to participate in the Lord’s Supper. I wanted to prevent those who lacked the inclination or desire to come to church from participating in the same. As I reflect on my feelings then and now I fear I was more concerned with being a liturgical policeman than I was with being an evangelist who, like God, indiscriminately scatters seed throughout the world irrespective of whether it lands on good soil or not. How would God scatter seed today? I believe he would use all the tools at his disposal, including the growing online communities forming every day.

I run into people all the time, as I’m sure you do, who tell me they cannot see themselves setting foot into a church lest the roof cave in on us all. Misguided as that notion of God may be, it’s the notion they have. How wonderful it is to be able to present them with an option of participating in a worship service online, where they can taste and see that the Lord is good! And how wonderful it is to not be shackled by a closed table understanding of this holy mystery but instead be able to offer them, via an online connection, the means to participate in the means of grace. Who am I to say God cannot be working in their heart as we share in the Lord’s Supper separated by space yet connected by Spirit? If even one of these begins to understand that God loves even them and they then develop a hunger for even more, thus one day working up the courage to step foot inside your church, wouldn’t it be worth it? I am convinced it would. Let us not consign those who cannot or will not enter our church buildings to the doctrine of “stillness” but instead offer any means necessary to stir up in them faith.

What about baptism?

An objection to offering online Communion is to suggest it opens a slippery slope. What about baptism? Will we offer that online, too? No. We do not believe that baptism, like Communion, is a converting ordinance. Nor is it something to be done often, but only once. We do not believe one must be baptized in order to participate in Communion. So because of what we believe is and is not happening in the sacrament of baptism we can safely, and justifiably, rule out that slippery slope.

Consider how many unbaptized our online campuses could potentially reach. Consider how our meeting them where they are — through online worship and Communion — rather than demand they meet us where we are, could move someone from no faith at all to a place where they decide to be obedient to Christ and come to you, their pastor, to inquire about baptism. How awesome would that be?

What about individualism?

Are we not promoting isolation and individualism when we offer online Communion? I do not think that online Communion should be seen as an equal counterpart to real, flesh and blood encounters within a worshipping community. I think it would be wise to routinely offer the invitation to come and get plugged into a local church. At the same time I don’t want to discount the community — as different as it may be — that people experience online.

Think of your own interactions. Are not a great deal of them done online? Do you foresee this changing in the near future? If not, why not make these interactions more meaningful rather than less? The irony of the debates against online Communion is they are all happening online! I’ve talked more today about Communion online with friends from around the country than I ever have in a church setting face to face. I value those interactions, even if I may disagree with those I’m interacting with.

The “real presence” that Communion points to is not my presence as the pastor with the communicant, but God’s presence with each of us wherever we are, both spiritually and physically. Those who are not coming into your church today are not going to show up tomorrow because you tell them they need to grow up and stop being individualistic and come experience Communion in a brick and mortar church. They just won’t, and our insistence that they do, even with great theological and liturgical zeal, will not convince them. But experiencing it for themselves, where they are now, might awake them to possibilities they had not considered before. Paul said he became all things to all people that he might win someone to Christ. I believe online Communion could be a means of grace to many who otherwise would never know it.

Chad Holtz blogs at UMC Holiness.

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