Adding a Leaf to the Table: In defense of inviting children to the Lord's Supper
The setting was a campfire on a summer night at church camp. A young lady who had not spoken a single word all week stood up and haltingly proclaimed, "I love Jesus." That was twenty years ago, but I still remember it as the moment I realized that this child (and many others like her), so loved by God, would never be able to join us at the table to celebrate our Lord's Supper. Because of her mental impairments, she would not be able to meet our expectations for those who could make profession of faith and be welcomed to the table.
That incident and others like it raised a lot of questions for me. Should the ability to articulate an understanding of God's love and grace be the key to the gate surrounding the table? More to the point, should there be a gate at all? Should anyone who is hungry be able to come to the table? Should anyone who is thirsty be able to come and receive? Should the emphasis of this holy sacrament be on us? Or might we rejoice in the fact that at the table, as at the font, the focus is on God and the emphasis is on God's grace!
Feeding Our Children
Twenty years ago at that campfire I was overwhelmed by being in the presence of a love so strong that it could make the mute speak! That experience gave birth to doubts about our practice of fencing the table. But it was not until my wife gave birth to our first child that my conversion was complete.
On January 18, 1990, our son, Thomas, entered the world. For nine full months he had already been fed by his mother in utero. What an amazing creation! "Here," God seemed to be saying, "Here is a new life, and I have been sustaining him in your body all this time. I will continue to sustain him all his days, but now you must accept the shared task of nurture. Feed him. He will not know what it is. He will not understand it. He will not even properly appreciate what you are doing. But unless you feed him, he will die. If you feed him, love him, and share all manner of other essential things with him, he may grow into the young man I created him to be."
We do not wait until our children can articulate an understanding and acceptance of the biological system and how it processes food before we feed them. As they grow, they come to know. As they grow, they begin to realize how important eating this food is. Why would we treat the spiritual food for our eternal life any differently?
When we have company for dinner, we do not feed some of our guests and starve the rest. The kids may eat hot dogs while we eat steak, but that is a matter of taste, not the stinginess of the hosts. Come to dinner at our house and everybody eats. Everyone is fed. Some appreciate it more than others. That isn't the point. The point is that food is offered. All are included.
A Gradual Change
As minister, I am not the host when we come to the Lord's table. I am a waiter. I serve the food. I offer it in the Host's name. I have served two churches now that used to usher the children out of the sanctuary before celebrating the meal. Of course they did. How rude to serve a meal and not share one's food! Talk about 1 Corinthians 11 in action! Both of these churches decided to take a look at who they considered to be the church. Both had been operating as though adults are Christians and children may become Christians someday. That's not what we confess at baptism. We celebrate that God has adopted us, not that we have adopted God. Jesus said, "Do this." He did not say, "Only some of you do this." Even disloyal Judas, frightened Peter, and silent others were invited—no, commanded—to "do this." No age was mentioned. No faith level was mentioned. Just, "Do this... I have desired that you eat this meal with me."
At Preakness Reformed Church, in Preakness, New Jersey, we spent five years studying, talking, and praying our way into inviting children to the table. For the first several years we engaged in educational forums and pilot programs, and we talked with other churches. We worried that this change might hurt our confirmation program. For so long admission to the table had been the carrot at the end of the con-fession-of-faith stick. But what if we separated the two? Also, many members of the congregation remembered the meaningful experience of making their profession of faith as adolescents, and they didn't want to lose that for their children.
To meet those real and important concerns, we still ask our adolescents to profess their faith—but we also invite them to come to the table long before that, as children. We've discovered that our new approach has made profession even more meaningful than it used to be. Now it doesn't just feel like a means to an end, a manipulation of a faith statement. Those who wish to profess their faith now do.
Those who are not ready continue to be welcomed and fed at the table.
How did we finally decide to go ahead and invite children to the table? After a lot of discussion, a lot of education, articles in church newsletters, forums, and even snippets in sermons, we concluded that sacraments are not initiated by us. When a child becomes part of God's family through baptism, he should also be welcomed at God's table.
This whole discussion at Preakness about what it means to be a member of the family led us to make another important change too. When a member professes her faith, the elders ask her to make a written statement of what she believes. After five years, they send the statement back to her, asking if these words still reflect what she believes and challenging her to think about how she has changed, how her faith has grown, and how she would write the statement today. The idea is that learning and developing in our faith is a lifelong process.
Other churches have developed their own meaningful ways to include the whole family at the table:
• The Pequannock Reformed Church, New Jersey, introduced the idea of children at the table by including the whole family at their Maundy Thursday communion service. Special classes for children, adults, and families prepared the way for the special night.
Leaders at Pequannock discovered that once people experienced children as a part of the communion meal, they were usually less resistant to the idea and more willing to consider it at times other than just irregular occasions.
• At All Saint's (Episcopal) Church, Fairfield, Connecticut, a monthly pancake breakfast is followed by a class for young children (three- to five-year-olds), teaching them how to hold their hands to receive the bread and how to dip the bread in the cup. As they grow older, they are taught to understand their behavior. For them, participating in the family meals is part of what it means to belong. My four-year-old nephew knows that he loves to go to church. He loves to sing songs (that he doesn't understand). He loves to pray (although to what degree does he know what he is doing?). He loves communion. His parents realize how important regular training is—that this is how foundations are built for life.
The Whole Family of God
The church I serve now took one week to decide to invite its children to the table and then printed this announcement: "When Sunday school begins again in the fall, we will ask the children to leave their Sunday school class and join us after the sermon in the church for communion." We implemented communion education at every level of our Sunday school program as an ongoing means of Christian nurture.
That first week the children (who go to Sunday school during the sermon) were led in by parents, grandparents, or loving teachers. "Sally, kneel here. Put your hand out. Listen to the minister tell you what this is: "This is the Body of Christ, broken for you.' Eat the bread, Sally. Let's talk about this at home."
From where I stood, I could see tears rolling down the cheeks of members of the congregation. Tears of joy shed by parents sharing their faith, their Loved One with their loved ones. Tears of joy shed by choir members who observed these families coming forward, kneeling, praying, singing, being the whole family of God.
We were no longer an exclusive community. We were an inclusive family at the family dinner table. "Come, you are welcome here. Come, you are invited. Come, meet our Lord here. Come, this is the joyful feast that nourishes us unto eternal life."
Growing into Our Baptism
At the table, God offers. We respond. Our hope is that through this meal, we will grow in our recognition and appreciation of God and of God's desire for our lives. It is an ongoing process, "till in heaven we see him face to face."
Having children at the table shifts the focus and the emphasis of the sacrament of the Lord's Supper to be in concert with the focus and emphasis of the sacrament of baptism. God is the focus, and grace is the emphasis.
Should we be concerned that a young child has limited understanding of sin and forgiveness, let alone salvation? Absolutely! We should be wondrously concerned. It is our joy and our charge to share our faith with the children of the covenant or, for that matter, with all the nations as we go forth to make disciples.
John Westerhoff says that we "grow into our baptism." Or, as Calvin put it "If they happen to grow to an age at which they can be taught the truth of baptism, they shall be fired with greater zeal for renewal, from learning that they were given the token of it in their first infancy in order that they might meditate upon it throughout life" (Institutes, IV.xvi.21).
The Lord's Supper, instituted at our Lord's command, is the "feast of remembrance, of communion, and of hope" (Donald Bruggink and James Ester, Worship the Lord, p. 9). The purpose of this sacrament is to feed the faith of Christians and nourish them for discipleship.
Calvin did not believe infants should share the Lord's Supper because they were not old enough to be discerning. But, likening the supper to the Passover, he did encourage children to participate. Calvin insisted that a person must have passed "tender infancy, and ... take solid food" in order to participate in the Lord's Supper. But young children regularly went before the elders of Geneva to profess their faith in a way that was not only acceptable, but expected by Calvin.
Come, Share the Feast!
When I was growing up, adding a leaf to the dining room table always meant a special meal and lots of friends. Adding a leaf to the dining room table meant everyone was going to sit there. There would be no little table for the little people and big table for the big people. Adding a leaf was the prelude to bringing out the china and crystal. We learned how precious those were. We learned to be careful. We learned manners at that extended table. We watched and learned how to talk with adults and how to listen when someone else was talking.
Now that I am raising a family of my own, I am teaching my children how to add a leaf to our table. We are going to share a feast!
INTRODUCING A NEW RESOURCE FOR CHURCHES, PARENTS, AND CHILDREN ...
This resource packet will help your church to welcome children to the Lord's Supper. Includes Children's Profession of Faith, a guidebook for pastors and elders; a booklet for parents called Nurturing Your Child's Faith: Leading Your Child to the Lord's Table; a keepsake pamphlet that provides space for expressing a child's faith in his or her own words; and a copy of Q&A: A Summary of Biblical Teachings. Available from CRC Publications, 1-800-333-8300. Ask for Children's Profession of Faith Kit, # 33020100RW. $6.95 U.S., $9.35 Canadian.
FROM A FIVE-YEAR-OLD BOY, AFTER HIS GRANDMOTHER PRESENTED THE STORY OF THE LORD'S SUPPER DURING A YOUNG CHILDREN IN WORSHIP SESSION
My grandma told a story about a supper Jesus had before he died. He said, "The bread is my torn-up body, and the wine is the blood."
When the grownups in church have the bread and wine in church, they're just doing the story like Grandma told us about. When people drink from that cup, they show that they are Jesus' friends and that they love him.
When the usher-men pass the plate, my mom never lets me take any bread, but when I grow up and get married, then I can. Because I love Jesus, I love him more than anyone else.
FROM AN EIGHTY-TWO-YEAR-OLD MAN WHO GREW UP IN THE NETHERLANDS
My wife and I did not become professing members of a church until we were in our mid-twenties. When we did become members, we knew what it was all about, and it meant a lot to us.
Last summer we were in a church where children were allowed to participate in the Lord's Supper. One boy lifted the glass and said, "Cheers!" He really didn't know what communion was all about.
Still, if children know what it means, they should be there. After all, the Lord's Supper is for those who love Jesus, who believe that Jesus shed his blood for the forgiveness of their sins. It's really very simple.