THE REBOOT BLOG | July 8, 2021
For Youth Distributing Communion to Fellow Congregants
Summer Series 2021 #4
By Mark W. Stamm
Professor of Christian Worship and Chapel Elder, Perkins/SMU
Remember our earlier discussion about the Body of Christ and leadership roles distributed within it? Since at least the second century, many churches have assigned the leadership role of presiding at the Lord’s Table to their pastors. That practice continues in most places. Yes, the pastor leads, but the church must gather around her/him in order to celebrate it properly, and thereby we resist the fragmenting that we saw in that first century Corinthian church. So is it acceptable for you to serve communion in a worship service? Yes! Many denominations allow it. Not only is it acceptable, but also doing so can be a very good thing.
This tradition of churches gathering around a pastor embodies a commitment that moves in two directions—the congregation needs its pastor, but the pastor needs the congregation. Neither celebrates alone, and the classical structure of the Great Thanksgiving makes this evident. The pastor speaks much of it, but there are spoken parts assigned to the assembly, the “Amen” at the very least, but other responses are given to them as well. For a good example, see The United Methodist Hymnal, pp. 9-11, with musical responses pp. 17-25. These musical responses could be played in a variety of styles, and many more could be composed. But, my primary point here is that congregation and pastor offer this prayer together, and through it we believe that the communion elements are consecrated. Only then is communion distributed.
Moving beyond this argument from tradition and liturgical structure, now let’s push deeper to consider a spiritual perspective that can shape your practice of serving communion. You may notice that many persons bow their head or close their eyes in prayer as they await their turn to receive the bread and cup, perhaps continuing prayers of confession. There’s much to be said for this attitude, but consider another possibility. One of my wise professors once suggested that we may also want to lift our head and open our eyes so that we may watch our sisters and brothers go forward, praying for them as they do so. Here is a form of holy noticing, and there’s much to be said for this practice as well. Recall the previous blog post and the call to intercessory prayer. There I urged you to imagine the world and its many needs, bringing all of those before God in prayer. Here I bring a similar dynamic to bear in relation to Holy Communion and our fellow church members. We’re family. As you serve communion, imagine yourself participating in God’s blessing of them, because that’s what’s happening. Believing that can change you, and perhaps even your attitude toward those in your church family who aren’t your favorites.
Now that we’ve discussed attitudes and aspirations, let’s talk about specific preparations, actions, and words.
1. Before the service begins, wash your hands thoroughly, following the twenty second rule that we’ve emphasized during the COVID-19 pandemic. You may wish to use hand sanitizer immediately before serving the elements, but I suggest you see that as a supplement to hand washing.
2. As to COVID-19—as well as other health challenges that may arise--we’ll continue to figure out safety protocols in the months and years ahead. Thus I won’t try to express a definitive word here, except to remind you that Holy Communion is by nature an interactive human encounter that uses food. Further, Christ has commanded us to “do this” (I Corinthians 11:23-24), and so we must figure out ways forward. Any safety protocols should express care and concern for others, but we must guard against ritualizing fear and separation. For a good example of an attempt to strike such a balance, see Resuming Care-Filled Worship and Sacramental Life During a Pandemic.
3. When serving the bread from a loaf, tear off the pieces and hand them to the communicants, and thus fewer persons handle the loaf. Likewise when using wafers, the server hands it to them. Most important is that you look at each communicant directly—even if you’re both masked—and speak to them the simple words of blessing, “the Body of Christ given for you.” You may speak names as in “Mary, the Body of Christ given for you,” but given the possibility that you won’t know (or remember) everyone’s name, I suggest the simpler statement, again, with direct eye contact. There is no need to rush. It only takes a second or so to make a connection, but doing so can be life giving. Again, believe that Christ is working through you.
4. When administering the cup, offer it looking at the communicant directly as you speak the simple words, “the Blood of Christ given for you.” As before, I won’t try to cover all of the safety protocols that may emerge. These may range from wafers to which a few drops of wine or grape juice have been added ahead of time, to pouring chalices, to prepackaged elements. Likely these practices will continue evolving and local congregations will have to discern best pathways.
In all, however, the essential character of the Lord’s Supper remains as the gathering of the Body of Christ. At this banquet, each of us should be served by one of our brothers or sisters, and I contend that applies even to the pastor. After doing the assigned work of presiding at the Table, she/he receives communion on the same basis as the others in the assembly. If you serve me some day, I hope you will do it well, and with compassion, because I need the grace of God just like you. When you serve communion, God uses you as messenger of that grace, both to your blessing and to theirs.