Why We Don't Do Self-Serve Communion

a post by Sean Lanigan

The church I pastor, Holy Ground, just passed our 6-month anniversary.  (It snuck up on me, and I forgot to throw us a party – eeeeeeek!).  It’s really hard to believe that we’ve already been worshiping together for half-year, as we’re still so much in the midst of figuring ourselves out as a church community.  It sometimes feels like we’re going to be in this awkward pre-teen phase for quite awhile still, because the way we’re building Holy Ground is a little different than how a lot of church planting generally happens, at least among our plant-happy non-denominational cousins here in SoCal.

At least from my observations, most church plants are affinity based.  People who have a lot of things in common get together to build new churches.  And oftentimes, these people have known one another for years before they ever conceived of starting a church together.  Holy Ground, however, is a bit different.  Most of us were strangers before Holy Ground began.  And the one thing that most of us have in common (besides craving deep encounters with the Holy) is that many of our previous spiritual communities simply haven’t worked.  We’ve come together as a church because we haven’t yet given up hope that redemptive spiritual community is possible, but we’re still a little gun-shy from our past experiences.  Many of us have been rejected (either subtly or explicitly) in other places because of our impolite theological questions, or our suspicion of Biblical literalism, or because we have just a little too much emotional baggage, or because of who we love.  So we’ve got to work at trust.  And we’ve got to work even harder at vulnerability.  And we can still be a little timid and standoffish at times.

Now what does any of this have to do with Communion?  Well, at first I thought that people’s primary struggle with this new community would be theological.  We’d have too many differences in interpretation to really come together as a unified whole.  But theology hasn’t been our biggest challenge, as we’ve succeeded in building an environment that can truly embrace multiple interpretations, questions, doubt, and copious theological wrestling.  The place where we’ve faced a lot more challenges, however, is in the realm of what we do with our bodies.  Because to some extent, in order to avoid total chaos, we have to come to consensus about how we’re going to move and interact in space when we’re doing liturgy.  And this conundrum becomes most apparent and most vexing at Communion time.

Many people at Holy Ground come from non-denominational backgrounds, which generally means receiving Communion pretty infrequently – monthly at most, and usually much less often.  In these contexts, the most common way to receive Communion (at least from the reports I’ve received and from what I’ve witnessed) is at self-serve stations set-up around the periphery of the worship space.  You get up when the Spirit moves you and go to a corner for a private encounter with Jesus.

At Holy Ground, however, we have communion every week.  And to receive Communion, you’ve got to have a human interaction, because I put bread directly into people’s hands, and I say some words at the same time.  “The body of Christ; the bread of heaven.”  Likewise, another member of the community will offer you the cup, saying: “the blood of Christ; the cup of salvation.”  And all this interaction can be a little awkward.  It’s up-close and personal.  We touch one another.  We watch one another chew.  And saliva can even be involved, if you take the risk of drinking directly from the common cup, rather than intincting (the technical term for “dipping”).

When we started Holy Ground, we did all of this “assembly-line style.”  People would file out of their seats and up the aisle, where they received Communion more-or-less individually, albeit obligatorily interacting with the servers.  But after awhile, I decided that this way of doing communion still wasn’t quite enacting or embodying the theology that is at the very core of sharing this odd meal together.  Because here’s what communion is really about (among other things): in the act of sharing one loaf and one cup, Jesus actually makes us one body.  Jesus mystically transforms lone individuals into an interdependent community.  And not primarily a community of preference or affinity, but rather, a community bound simply by the fact that Jesus is making his dwelling place in and among us.  In sharing Communion, then, we become more than just ourselves, as the real presence of Christ expands and perforates our corporeal limits.  Something really happens when we share Communion.  And our flesh is the first part of us to understand that mystery.

So I’ve begun to gather us in a circle.  We see one another’s faces as we eat and drink.  I still offer the bread, but we’ve begun passing the cup around the circle, one-to-another.  Each person receives, and each person serves.  There’s usually some fumbling involved, and people forget what to say, and some people have told me that it’s all just far too uncomfortable.  And my people-pleasing mind, of course, then begins to consider all of the possible variations we could do to make things more comfortable.  And then, the voice of one community member speaks into the midst of my uncertainty: “maybe it’s supposed to feel uncomfortable.” 

And that seems absolutely real and true.  Because eating at Jesus’ tables would have been uncomfortable: all the wrong people, with all the wrong manners, and probably, totally inappropriate small talk.  But they were undoubtedly joyful tables, too.  Because bringing all the wrong people together is really hard, and really messy, and really stinkin' beautiful.  “Behold what you are; become what you receive,” says St. Augustine about the act of receiving Holy Communion. 

And outsiders usually get it more quickly than insiders.  Glory be to God!