this phrase was added: “Pastors are encouraged to move toward a more frequent celebration of this means of grace.”1 General Superintendent J.K. Warrick has suggested that churches should consider more frequent Communion and has shared that in his last few pastorates Communion was served monthly.2 Yet, how should one go about fulfilling this new “core duty” of all pastors in the Church of the Nazarene?
What follows are my reflections and advice from more than 20 years of wrestling with the question, “How can I lead a local congregation on a journey toward more frequent Communion?” Early on, I came across the advice of James F. White, a Methodist worship scholar, who advocated a gradual process. He related that reforms in sacramental practice should be based on three general norms of pastoral, theological, and historical concerns.3 Using White’s guidelines, I will look at the role each of these three concerns might play in the process and then move to some “how to” suggestions for making the move to more frequent celebrations of Communion.
1 . Know your pastoral context.
Armed with a new understanding of worship and the role of the sacraments, it is tempting to quickly and decisively make the “necessary” adjustments to worship. But every congregation has its own established worship practices. It borders on clergy malpractice to blithely ignore such practices in pursuit of the goal of more frequent Communion. In its simplest form, the pastoral norm simply means that, “The forms of worship should reflect the people who worship.”4 Reform of worship practices never consists of generic changes done for generic congregations. A context always exists for the worship life of a congregation, as well as for our pastoral ministry. An awareness of those contexts is essential if we wish to see changes embraced rather than resisted or only tolerated. White’s admonition is critical:
The pastoral norm is that worship must be shaped to fit the needs of actual people in a specific time and place. An intimate knowledge of one’s people is demanded of each pastor so that one will be sensitive as to how the people understand worship practices. Not only does it mean knowing one’s people but also accepting and respecting the culture in which they feel comfortable. . . . Above all, pastors are called to love their people as they actually are.5
If gentleness is still a fruit of the Spirit, it is certainly a good fruit to be evidenced in our pastoral leadership on this issue.
2. Frame the issues theologically.
The pastoral context should not diminish the issue: Which worship practices do we engage in to keep this congregation happy? Neither should changes in worship practices be a matter of imposing our personal preference or style. They should be theologically sound, yet pastors do well to remember that the ultimate focus is not on winning a theological argument or embracing a “liturgical fundamentalism.” The focus is on enriching the worship of a particular congregation through the resources of our Wesleyan theological tradition. Consequently, we address the theological reasons for more frequent Communion and simultaneously address this question: How may we most effectively embrace and live out our theology of the activity of God’s grace in our worshiping life? As we affirm God’s prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace, how might we best convey and embody that grace in our worship practices?
3. Know our history.
It is important to emphasize that this journey is a recovery of our Wesleyan-Holiness tradition. It is neither the rejection of our tradition in favor of another, nor the embrace of worship practices that are simply a “cool” thing to do. It is, instead, a journey toward the recovery of our own rich theological tradition. As you teach and converse about Communion, here are some “talking points” about our theological tradition’s attitude about Communion:
A. Early Church. The New Testament documents do not give us detailed descriptions of weekly worship services. When the Church got around to writing about and reflecting on worship (by the middle of the second century), they left us records of a pattern of weekly Communion.
B. John Wesley. Wesley believed that Communion should be celebrated weekly. One of his best-known sermons on the topic was entitled “The Duty of Constant Communion,” a title he meant more literally than figuratively. His own practice included periods of the Christian calendar when he received Communion daily. From the time Wesley began the practice of weekly Communion (in 1725 at the age of 22) until his death (in 1791 at the age of 88), he received Communion an average of once every four to five days.6
C. American camp meeting tradition. While the American camp meeting ethos and a sacramental emphasis are often contrasted as opposites, the historical reality is that camp meetings developed out of a concern for the sacrament of Communion since many people in rural areas had little access to a minister. The Cane Ridge Revival in 1801 sparked the Second Great Awakening in America and laid much of the groundwork for revivalism, which flourished in the 19th century. The initial reason for the gathering at Cane Ridge was to have a series of services, which would prepare people for an outdoor Communion feast.7 Nazarene historian Steve Hoskins gives credit to the camp meeting tradition in South Carolina for his own valuing of the Lord’s Supper.8
D. Church of the Nazarene origins. There are at least three notable reference points from our earliest history: 1) Phineas Bresee’s own practice in his Los Angeles congregation was to have a monthly service that alternated between a Love Feast and a Communion service— so Communion was celebrated every other month; 2) the churches affiliated with the Association of Pentecostal Churches in America (a group in the Northeast that was part of the merger at Chicago in 1907) had monthly Communion, with a Friday service to prepare for Communion; 3) the earliest Manual statements on Communion emphasize the “obligation to partake of this sacrament, as often as we may be providentially permitted.” 9
John and Charles Wesley compiled a hymnal in 1745 with 166 songs for the Lord’s Supper. Unfortunately, few of the rich hymns in that collection have made it into most modern hymnals. There is a great need for songwriters to create new Eucharistic music. In the meantime, there are many well-known songs that every congregation can incorporate. In the 1990s, I began the transition to more frequent Communion in a congregation that used the 1972 Nazarene hymnal (Worship in Song) in the pew racks, but had the 1951 Nazarene hymnal (Praise and Worship) in their hearts. They knew many of the songs (and the accompanying hymn numbers) in the 1951 hymnal by heart. So, I began where they were but began shifting our Communion music from somber, instrumental songs to vibrant congregational songs. I’ll never forget the puzzled look on the face of our church organist when I gave him the list of songs for the first Communion service we celebrated after he came to our church. He usually expressed no more than a raised eyebrow at some of my musical selections for worship, but he could not let this situation pass without verbalizing his questions. “I’m supposed to play these songs during Communion?” he asked. He was equally incredulous when I informed him that the congregation would be singing along, but it was the issue of the tone or mood of the songs that was his greatest surprise. As I recall, the song that seemed most incongruous in his mind was Wonderful Grace of Jesus. That was far too upbeat and would be sung with far too much gusto for a Communion service. In his repertoire of songs, that was categorized as a “camp meeting” song, and to him, it seemed irreverent for us to sing that during Communion. But songs that capture a sense of joy and a celebration of God’s grace are at the heart of the meaning of Communion. They do not have to be found in the “Lords’ Supper” section of the index to be used for Communion.
In conversation, body language can either reinforce or contradict our spoken words. In worship, the symbols that we use function similarly to body language—either affirming or denying the words we speak. The symbolism of many Communion services diminishes or destroys the message that should be conveyed by this means of grace. If the words of the Communion service were muted, the meaning conveyed by the symbols would often be too individualistic, minimally participatory, and overly somber—far from doing justice to the meaning of the sacrament. As we give greater attention to the symbols we use in the Communion service, we can assure that the symbols reinforce the message. Are we inviting people to celebrate an abundance of God’s grace, or doling out grace a thimbleful at a time? Are we celebrating our life together as one body or fragmenting ourselves into isolated units? Are we actively responding to an invitation to receive the grace of God or passively waiting to be served?
These simple changes can greatly enhance the symbolic value of our Communion service:
- Avoid using tiny, hard, tasteless morsels and call them bread. Since the instruction to use only unleavened bread was dropped from the Manual in 2005, there is no reason not to use leavened bread.11 Use real bread that tastes and smells as if it truly provides sustenance—possibly even bread prepared by one of the members of the congregation, to be brought as an offering in worship.
- Use a common loaf and a common cup to emphasize we are truly one body.12
- Invite participants to come forward to receive the elements, to emphasize our participation in the act of worship and our response to the invitation to the Lord’s Table. Those who are unable to come forward can be served in their pew, which is in itself a powerful symbol that shows the invitation to “come forward” is not intended to exclude anyone.
- Receive the elements standing, to emphasize the celebratory aspect of Communion. In seasons of the year when a penitential response is the focus, participants may be invited to come forward to kneel at the altar to receive the elements.
While none of us do our acts of worship in order to be seen by others, we must acknowledge that there is power in the imagery of the whole congregation coming forward to the Lord’s Table and sharing the common cup and loaf. Participating in this act regularly is a powerful way for a congregation to “live into” the life they are called to share. Whoever is at risk of remaining “on the margins” within congregational life is visibly included when Communion is served in this way. Whenever there are tensions in relationships within a congregation, our unity in Christ can once again become the norm for us as we share the common cup and loaf at the same table. Never underestimate the power of symbols to either diminish or enhance the message we proclaim through our words.
3. The Christian Year
In the last 50 years, incredibly rich resources for Communion services have been developed. These resources help the Church to recapture the breadth of meanings of Communion and to connect the Communion service with the Christian calendar—varying our focus during the seasons of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost. Use of these varied resources helps to allay concerns that more frequent Communion will make Communion less meaningful. Until now, however, most Nazarene congregations that have begun the journey toward more frequent Communion have found themselves looking elsewhere for worship resources that more appropriately reflect the majesty of the sacrament of Communion. The time is right for the Church of the Nazarene to take another look at our Communion practice to provide a ritual that is fuller, more varied according to the seasons of the Church calendar, and that more directly emphasizes Communion as a means of sanctifying grace. For example, from the Manual in 1908 to the present this phrase has been embedded in the Communion service: “The minister may offer a prayer of confession and supplication.” Why not provide the text of such a prayer, which articulates an appropriate prayer of confession that reflects our Wesleyan theology? Similarly, the Communion ritual ends with the instruction, “The minister may then offer a concluding prayer of thanksgiving and commitment.” Why not develop a Communion service that models such a prayer? Beyond this reconsideration, it is time to develop a book of worship that provides resources for all of our services of worship.
The move toward more frequent Communion should be preceded by teaching on the sacraments and sustained by an ongoing commitment to such teaching. Such teaching will need to come in a variety of formats. A single sermon or series of lessons will not be sufficient to create new understandings of Communion or to see a congregation wholeheartedly embrace new Communion practices. Methodist pastor and educator Laurence Stookey suggests this approach:
Instead of one sermon about the Eucharist now and again, it is wiser to make brief references to the Eucharist in sermons on a variety of subjects. When preaching on stewardship, mention may be made of the example of sharing set forth for us at the Lord’s Table. A sermon on the nature of the church can take note of the fact that in the Eucharist the church engages in a unique occasion of fellowship among its members in the presence of God—as we do each time we offer the eucharistic prayer. A sermon on the incarnation may note the way One who at Bethlehem came to us in human flesh and blood now comes to us in a similarly humble manner in bread and wine. And so on for other themes.13
There is a dynamic interplay between teaching about the sacraments and the practices that we incorporate. On the one hand, we should not assume that the reasons for more frequent Communion will be self-evident to a congregation. Nor should we assume that the meaning of what takes place in Communion is self-evident. But on the other hand, once some preparatory teaching has taken place, that teaching only comes alive in the midst of the celebration of Communion. In my current pastorate, I began to teach about the sacraments from the very beginning. One of the themes I stressed was that an emphasis on evangelism was not mutually exclusive to an emphasis on the sacraments. I do not think that teaching was fully understood until we put it into practice. We scheduled a revival with a speaker (Dr. John A. Knight) whom I knew would share that understanding. Before he came to preach, I asked him if he would be willing to end the series of revival services with Communion, particularly highlighting the inclusion of those who had come to Christ during the revival. He agreed, and our closing service was a very tangible way to connect the historical dots of the line from John Wesley to the Second Great Awakening to our own revivalistic heritage.
That was only one moment, however, in the ongoing task of teaching a congregation about the sacrament of Communion. The teaching task continues as a gradual process, best accomplished by intertwining sermons, Bible studies, Sunday School lessons, and the celebration of Communion itself.
I know the frustration of having yet “one more thing” added to the list of expectations in pastoral ministry. And to some, the fact that Nazarene pastors are “encouraged” to move toward a more frequent celebration of Communion may seem like just “one more thing” we are expected to do. Yet, this differs from so many other addendums to our job description in that it actually is at the core of our calling to ministry. When we are ordained as elders, at the front and center of the charge we receive is the admonition to preach the Word and administer the sacraments. What a joy to discover that we are being encouraged to lead our congregations to more frequently participate in one of the central elements of our vocation in pastoral ministry! Every time we invite our congregation to the Lord’s Table, we invite them “to partake of the life of Jesus Christ, to your soul’s comfort and joy.” How can we not welcome the encouragement to extend that invitation more frequently? As we seek to fulfill the call to more frequent Communion, may we be renewed in our sense of vocation, and may we find that, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”14
JIM FITZGERALD is senior pastor of Trinity Church of the Nazarene in Duncanville, Texas.
1 Manual of the Church of the Nazarene, 2009-2013 (Kansas City: Nazarene Publishing House, 2009), Paragraph 413.9, 190.
2 Interview with J.K. Warrick. “Our Goal is God,” Grace and Peace Magazine, Issue 5 (Summer-Fall 2011): 27-28.
3 James F. White, Sacraments as God’s Self Giving: Sacramental Practice and Faith (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1983), 121. See also his New Forms of Worship (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1971), chaps. 1--3.
4 White, New Forms of Worship, 32.
5 White, Sacraments as God’s Self Giving, 121.
6 John C. Bowmer, The Lord’s Supper in Methodism, 1791- 1960 (London: Epworth Press, 1961), 55.
7 This pattern had its roots in Scottish Presbyterianism. See Leigh Eric Schmidt, Holy Fairs: Scottish Communions and American Revivals in the Early Modern Period (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989). On the Cane Ridge revival, see Paul Conkin, Cane Ridge: America’s Pentecost (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990) and William L. DeArteaga, Forgotten Power: The Significance of the Lord’s Supper in Revival (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 117-133.
8 Refer online to http://www.graceandpeacemagazine.com/videos/mediaitem/199-steve-hoskins-on-the-value-ofcamp-meeting.
9 Manual of the Pentecostal Church of the Nazarene (Los Angeles: Nazarene Publishing Company, 1908), 31. This was the wording that was used in Bresee’s local church Manual beginning in 1898. The same wording was used following the merger in 1908, and in every subsequent Manual until it was dropped in 1928.
10 J. Ernest Rattenbury, The Eucharistic Hymns of John and Charles Wesley, ed. Timothy J. Crouch, American reprint ed. (Cleveland, OH: Order of St. Luke Publications, 1990), 58.
11 The exception being those services when the connections are intentionally drawn to the Passover meal, where unleavened bread is the symbol which best conveys the meaning of that event.
12 Using your pastoral sensitivity, if drinking from a common cup would not be an acceptable practice in your congregation, serve by intinction--dipping the bread in the cup.
13 Laurence Hull Stookey, Eucharist: Christ’s Feast With the Church (Nashville: Abingdon, 1993), 109.
14 Frederick Buechner, “Vocation” in Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1973), 95.