How to Take Communion

How to Take Communion February 8, 2011
Communion Elements at Solomon's Porch - copyright Courtney Perry

My dissertation, like any, uses a lot of resources (390 footnotes, and counting) and tries to do a lot of things.  But it is primarily a proposal for a radically egalitarian ecclesiology, particularly reliant upon the theology of Jürgen Moltmann, and particularly possible in the still-young emerging church movement.

The practice of the Lord’s Supper is central to many emerging churches, as it is to many mainline, liturgical churches.  But, as with most traditional Christian practices, emerging church congregations have renegotiated both the meaning and the method of this sacrament.  My home church, Solomon’s Porch, may be at the forefront on this.  We practice a kind of pastiche version of communion, with the aspects of several different Christian traditions at play.

However, it is my contention that most emerging congregations have not gone nearly far enough in their renegotiation of the sacrament, and it is my hope that they will go much further toward making this rite, as Moltmann envisions it, a proclamation of eschatological hope.  Because, believe it or not, there won’t be any clergy in heaven.  So if at the Lord’s Table we are, “proclaiming the Lord’s death until he comes again,” then that Table should be administered by all and open to all.

In fact, Moltmann, in The Church in the Power of the Spirit, lists six characteristics of the Lord’s Supper that he considers imperative:

  1. Communion must be central to the Christian community, must be integrated into the heart of the worship service (not tacked on at the end), and must be celebrated with bread and wine.
  2. The table must be open to those of varying theological views.
  3. Baptism and confirmation must not be prerequisites for the fellowship of the table.
  4. Everyone who follows Christ is qualified to administer the sacrament, and everyone is called upon to offer and distribute the elements.
  5. Not only should the person performing the liturgy face the congregation, but the entire worship space should, if possible, be redesigned to a “‘common room’ in which the participants can see and talk to one another.’”
  6. Communion should always be followed by “a common meal, and the proclamation of the gospel by a common discussion of people’s real needs and the specific tasks of Christian mission.”[1]

Sounds a lot like communion at Solomon’s Porch.  But it sounds very unlike communion at just about any other church I’ve ever been to.

[1] Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 259-60.

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  • I really appreciate this. In fact, Little Flowers Community celebrates communion with those 6 point in place (though we do not use wine given the addiction challenges on several people who participate). Can you elaborate on what you mean by “must be celebrated with bread and wine”?

  • I’m with you, Tony.

  • Just for the sake of clarity, are you talking about communicating the unbaptized?

  • Jay

    Thumbs up!

  • Tony,
    thanks for this post. Although familiar with Moltmann I have not read ‘The Church in the Power of the Spirit’.
    I pastor a mainline American Baptist Church and we are trying engage in communion in some ways that we hope allow the practice to shape us as disciples (ways inspired by McClendon and Yoder)
    Our worship space isn’t open to rearranging, but quarterly we hold worship in the church hall. We start with music and prayers together and then share brunch. People are invited to discuss the scripture lesson for the day as they eat together. I invite folks to share their thoughts and reactions and we build the ‘sermon’ together from that, and close with the ‘formal’ communion.

    This lent we are focusing on communion in particular and plan to get entire families involved in making bread and in taking the communion to the saints of the church that no longer are able to get out to worship, as well as friends and family, (instead of leaving it for me to do).

    It has been a bit controversial, but I have encouraged families with young children to allow the little ones to take communion, feeling that communion will best shape them as disciples if they participate in it from an early age.

    thanks for the Moltmann suggestion, I’ll definitely find it (I know its in my office somewhere) and add it to the Yoder and McClendon.

  • This sounds very much like how we do communion in our emergent cohort in Columbus, OH. Usually, we pass the elements around the circle, so each person serves another and receives from another. And the meal that follows is always the best part of my week.
    I agree that this is drastically different from any “church service” in which I took communion. I don’t think we do it this way b/c it would be “different,” but just because it’s what seems to make sense. It’s natural. We sort of fell into it.

  • This makes sense. And I love that he/your paraphrase says “not tacked on at the end.” It also seems incredibly more biblical. Our church is coming closer to this. Not just the clergy, but also the elders (which includes women) take part in administering communion. I’ll be sure to soon ask why not a more “radically egalitarian ecclesiology.”

  • The communion practices of the church I pastor with follow many of these points. One of my favorite ways to do this in a “normal” worship gathering is to begin the time of communion myself and then to have those who come forward to take communion rotate into the various “priestly” positions as they have taken the bread and wine. It is a true embodiment of the priesthood of all believers!

  • Lon

    communion is central to every gathering at our community, and yes, everyone can administer it as well. I’m intrigued by the bit on “The table must be open to those of varying theological views.”

    We try to be as radically inclusive as possible – but what about folks who’d rather not be? Those (in our community or visiting) who are rather uncomfortable/offended when we allow anyone to minister communion, or those who flat out disagree with the table being open to all. Is the table really open if their views are merely tolerated and not embraced while we push forward?

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  • @Jamie- While he doesn’t say this explicitly, I think he’s criticizing the Catholic practice of only taking the bread.

    @Annie- Yes, that’s right.

    @Lon- Neither I nor Moltmann would say that persons who disagree should be forced to the Table.

  • Lon

    Hey Tony – we’re not forcing anyone to the table at all – it’s just the theological disdain when it happens… maybe that’s a separate community health issue to deal with altogether.

  • Travis Greene

    Amen. It also sounds a lot like communion at Emmaus Way here in Durham, NC.


    Tony, any plans to publish your dissertation, or otherwise make it available? I agree with Hauerwas and others that the way the church organizes itself is inseparable from the gospel it proclaims.

  • @Travis- My plan right now is to publish the dissertation, as-is, as an ebook and then write a popular ecclesiology as a follow-up. My advisors would like me to revise the dissertation and publish it as a monograph with an academic publishing house, which is the more traditional route.

  • As usual an excellent post. I do hope you post your Thesis. What you and Moltmann describe pretty much describes life at The Fountain–located in Nampa, Idaho. We have the communion elements in the back. Our elements are Gluten free crackers and white grape juice(to help protect the hotel meeting room carpet). We vary in what we call it (Communion/Lords Supper/Eucharist) and we have someone in the congregation that is going to research out the various terms and history and bring a message about it one Sunday.

    We share our prayers and praises with each other just before and then I will say a few words about it, with an open invitation to anyone else who would like to do this part. We then use the time to reflect ion what was said and what we shared with each other. We play music or a video for about a 3-5 minute time of reflection for this. People can submit ideas of audio or video that is especially meaningful for them. We encourage people to serve each other, or just themselves if that is where they are at.

    Glad to see others taking the same approach. I love the organic way it has developed. And I appreciate churches who are serving others in the community, sharing love and celebrating this part of their service in a very formal way, even if it is not my way of doing it. I have not read that particular book by Moltmann, though I now look forward to it. On a side note Crucified God and Theology of Hope are essential reading! He finds his way into a few of our messages as well. So thank you Tony for organizing the Moltmann conversation and posting the audio.

    Oh, we also try to have many meals together as possible, in fact this may be what we do best 🙂

  • Anna

    We practice radically open communion at my progressive Christian church, open to all regardless of belief or baptism or church membership or anything at all, but run up against that openness when it comes to presiding over communion. Like Lon’s experience, some congregants are uncomfortable with the idea that anyone can preside. But for me, from an adult learning perspective (that’s what I’m working on in grad school) I wonder what theology we teach when we say only certain people can lead the common meal to which Jesus called his disciples. I believe that enacting hierarchical ritual theology teaches hierarchical ideas about God’s communication with and interaction with God’s people (i.e. is a mediator necessary?). Even as our progressive Christian faith in my congregation says God is ever present to and with us all without regards to status, hierarchy or mediation. So we sort of don’t mention it and just have at least one licensed or ordained minister up there each week along with lay people, but the question keeps haunting me…when we do this to remember Jesus, what are we teaching about God?

  • While I like and agree with the idea of integrating communion into the worship, my understanding of those who ‘tack it on the end’ are doing it that way because the whole service is supposed to be preparation for the communion and it is the culminating moment of the service. Do you disagree with that? Why?

    Also Tony have you seen this site, ? All about creative ways of exploring communion; came across it via Johnny Baker.

  • Quick practical question. Number 1. says in part, “and must be celebrated with bread and wine”. How do you handle people who struggle with alcoholism?

  • Travis Greene


    At Emmaus Way we offer both wine and juice. That seems to me a simple solution.

  • Darin, I love this quote from you:

    It has been a bit controversial, but I have encouraged families with young children to allow the little ones to take communion, feeling that communion will best shape them as disciples if they participate in it from an early age.

    Practice shapes our discipleship way more than teaching and broadcasting (preaching) will ever be able to.

    Tony, love this whole post and I can not wait to read your dissertation. (The ebook track sounds great to me).

  • There was a time in my life I could only receive the Bread because prescribed drugs messed up my stomach. It was literally painful to take even a sip of the Wine. I do not feel like I missed something when taking communion this way.

    No one must take both elements of communion. It has been long established by the Tradition of the Church that if you receive Christ just as fully if you only take the Bread as if you take only the Wine or both elements. (When delivering communion to the sick, I could see a situation where placing a drop of the Wine on a person’s lips would be the only way to administer it.)

    While making accommodations is very much a part of hospitality, there comes a point when you start to lose sight of the forest for the trees.

    What to do about the non-baptized? The Orthodox tradition of distributing the antidoron is a way to handle this. Personally, I know that distribution of this blessed bread shows hospitality to others.

  • Not very “emergent,” necessarily, but did you come across John Mark Hicks’ work Come to the Table in your research? Strangely echoes ALOT of the points you are proposing. He comes from the tradition of the acappella Churches of Christ, who have always had a high view of communion. He addresses just about all six of the points you mention here. The conclusion of the book seems fitting here:

    “Just as the parable of the prodigal son ended, so does this book. It ends with a question mark. Will the elder brother ‘celebrate and rejoice’ at the table with his lost, but now found, brother? Will the church of God ‘celebrate and rejoice’ at the table in the living presence of Christ, as his cruciform disciples? Will we eat and drink in faith, hope and love as we wait for the return of the Son of Man?” p. 195.

    Seriously, this book really seems to echo much of what you are moving towards, in probably an unexpected place. Maybe 391 footnotes?

  • Now here is something we do agree on, Tony: an open table. Resonate with both your and Moltmann’s comments of the table. Thanks for the Moltmann reference…

  • First off, I totally agree that communion is at the heart of ecclesiology. I think emerging churches haven’t emphasized it, probably because for so many communion is just not a practice people reflect on. But how we practice it radically shapes how we view others in the church and in the world, often more revealing than what we might say about involvement and people.

    Moltmann’s suggestion is, I think, a more open version of the classic “Love Feast,” which is reflected in Tertullian’s Apology ch. 39 (a chapter so entirely “emerging” that I’m surprised it isn’t used more). Wesley also promoted an open table, saying (IIRC) that people should be able to come to the meal that testifies to the grace they need.

    There is also, I think, in traditional interpretations of Communion almost an entire lack of Jewish influence. A meal which was based on Passover, given Messianic meaning, does seem to suggest maybe there should be an understanding of how Judaism views and celebrates Passover.

    Back in my M.Div days, ten years ago, I proposed a “Communitarian View of the Lord’s Supper” based on Moltmann’s and Pannenberg’s work (among others). A key bit for me was the exegesis of 1 Corinthians 11, in which the popular interpretation of “discerning the body” is to understand the bread correctly and meaningfully. But, I suggest, that Paul was talking about the body of Christ–the gathered people. We have to discern the people around us correctly, in order for our communion to have meaning. Gathered in Christ, we are given meaning by Christ, empowered by the Spirit for Christ, and we have to recognize this in others. That’s why Paul got so mad. The Corinthian church was alienating the poor.

    “I think he’s criticizing the Catholic practice of only taking the bread.”

    I think Catholic’s have changed this practice. The last few masses I’ve been to, there has been both wine and bread offered to all. Though, this was at the decidedly Vatican II oriented Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles.

  • These principles are very reminiscent of the practices of the community I grew up with – and to some extent am still a fellow-traveller with – the (Open) (Plymouth) Brethren.

    Indeed the PBs have an immense amount in common with those who’d identify with the term ’emerging’ today (at least, on a good day 🙂 ) though I’ve yet to encounter another PB in participating in the conversation. They’ve been doing lots of the things you’d associate with emerging cohorts since the 1840s. It must be admitted that there are lows as well as highs – with a distressing tendency to lapse into crazy legalism from time to time. Perhaps because of the latter, the whole thing is in terminal decline in many places.

    With regard to your six points: (1) communion is the central, main, weekly worship service, with open free participation from all; (2) many fellowships have an open table, though (3) many would expect baptism to precede participation in communion; (4) absolutely, totally [though, historically, ‘all’ has been interpreted to mean ‘all men’ 🙁 ]; (5) many will worship sitting quite literally around the table in a circle or horseshoe shape; (6) common meals aren’t usual, but a very strong custom of hospitality in the home is.

    [I’d say that the Wikipedia article on the Plymouth Brethren is fairly accurate, though curious (and backward-looking) in its emphasis in places, and not giving enough weight to the reality that because each fellowship is independent, belief and practice vary quite widely.]

  • Couldn’t agree more! I’m a fan of Hal Taussig’s “In the Beginning Was the Meal: Social Experimentation and Early Christian Identity” (Fortress Press: 2009).

  • What a curious coincidence.

    Today was the third regularly scheduled meeting of DiscipleNext, a cohort I initiated at work. we had about 14 in attendance and we celebrated the Lord’s Supper. 5 of the six imperatives you listed from Moltmann were in place. Our cohort only meets for 25 minutes, twice a week, so there is no time for a common meal.

    I do love the idea of a common meal to follow, especially as it represents continuity to the New Testament and patristic practice.

    Moltmann’s imperatives are not new however. What he describes is widely practiced within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). In some Disciples Churches, the clergy do not preside at the table at all.

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  • marusha
  • Timothy

    This is very close to how we do it at Jacob’s Well in Kansas City at a Sunday gathering (shoulda stayed after the road show to see it, eh?), and almost identical to how we do it when our group of friends meets together.

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  • EricW

    @Adam Metz February 8, 2011 at 1:22 pm
    Not very “emergent,” necessarily, but did you come across John Mark Hicks’ work Come to the Table in your research?

    Hicks’ book is definitely a good one. It reflects much that I have concluded after years of being in many forms of Christianity, from non-denominational Protestant to Eastern Orthodox.

  • John Mc


    I am late to this discussion but I wanted to echo your theme as well as a few of the comments. I was born and raised Roman Catholic. I am now Disciple of Christ. I have a very high view of the role of communion within and even outside of worship. (I believe all shared meals should reflect an element of Eucharistic sacramentalism – the Gospels disclose that Jesus engaged people most often in the fellowship at the table.) I see communion as the radical invitation by Jesus to the table of God, and I perceive the elements as a re-sacrifice of his body and blood , and I have hung on to my (C)atholic notions of transubstantiation.

    Mostly what I wanted to communicate here though is my belief in the profound openness of the table to all, not just to the baptized, not just to believers. If the communion elements are truly infused with the Spirit, then consumption of the Spirit by unbelievers can only have a sacramental effect on their soul – re-connecting them with the God from whom they have so long been estranged, if only for a moment. If the elements are merely a remembrance, then let the unbeliever participate in the communal act of re-imagining the sacrifice and perhaps the unbeliever will be able to remember something of the Spirit within themselves as well. The fact of their unbelief can do no harm, the body and blood are not so fragile as all that, but instead are items of power and vehicles of limitless grace.

    And while not all within our church and denomination share the same degree of egalitarianism nor many share the same sacramental view of the elements which I have described, our church and denomination do practice radical egalitarianism in our Eucharist liturgy: communion is to be the central aspect of all worship, all are invited to a table (though many would still limit participation to the baptized if they could) and it is served traditionally by elders, but often by non-elders.

  • EricW

    Some questions:

    1. Is the body (σωμα – sôma) that is not discerned (διακρινω – diakrinô) by the careless or callous communicant the bread that is being eaten, or the assembled fellow believers?

    2. Is the “remembrance/memorial” (αναμνησις – anamnêsis), as well as the “proclaiming” (καταγγελλω – kataggellô) of the Lord’s death, something the assembled are to do with respect to themselves and each other, or to God on Jesus’ behalf?

    3. Is the Lord’s Table a covenant meal between the Lord and those who are His, or a continuation of Jesus’ table meals with sinners and tax collectors and whosoever will come?

  • Kristen

    I love much of this.

    We’ll charitably agree to disagree on the importance of clergy. Sure, there won’t be clergy in heaven. There also won’t be marriage. But they’re both important now. But that is going to get us anywhere. Moving on!

    I find the idea of #6 quite attractive, but balk at the “must.” Maybe this is the church committee chair in me. I MUST organize a potluck EVERY WEEK for EVER??? I suddenly feel faint. Perhaps this is not the point. 🙂

    Eucharist as focal point of our gatherings, yes absolutely. Understand the entire gathered community as joining in the celebration, absolutely. The architecture of our worship spaces should reflect this and a “proscenium” sort of set-up is not helpful. A thousand times yes.

    I balk at communing the unbaptized though. It is my impression, and maybe I’m wrong but I don’t think so, that even in the very early Church when Baptism often came very late indeed, Eucharist always followed baptism. Always. Am I wrong? I understand the impetus of wanting to be as inclusive as possible, really I do

    And I remember a good friend of mine who had been generally hanging around church for several years before deciding to officially becoming part of it, and receiving the Eucharist for the first time at Easter. Both she and the Eucharistic minister had tears in their eyes. It was a beautiful moment.

    In heaven it’ll be different, true. Everyone will be part of the community. But the whole point of sacraments is that they point towards a heavenly realm that ISN’T HERE YET. As much as we all yearn for that consummation, we’re still waiting.

  • If you really want to get into the history, see Paul F. Bradshaw’s “The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship: Sources and Methods for the Study of Early Liturgy.” For a shorter example, St. Gregory of Nyssa Episopal has been up front in a theology of “First the Table, then the Font” — see:

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