Few seem to realize that one of John Calvin’s major disputes during his time in Geneva was his advocacy of celebrating the Lord’s Supper every Sunday. He was adamant, but the consistory—and the city council, who governed church-related matters—wouldn’t agree. Calvin was even thrown out of Geneva for a time—he went to Strasbourg, France—but he came back. He continued to advocate for communion every Sunday but was still resisted.
I’ve always agreed with Calvin on this matter. When our family lived in Geneva for six years, we did celebrate communion each Sunday—at the English-speaking Evangelical Lutheran Church that was our church home. It met in the Old City of Geneva, in the shadow of Geneva’s St. Pierre Cathedral. The congregation was widely multicultural, with many members who worked in the ecumenical organizations based in Geneva, and about half our membership was actually Reformed. But each Sunday we gathered in a circle around the communion table to receive the body and blood of Christ, as Calvin intended.
All these memories came back to me recently when I preached and worshiped at Old First Reformed Church in Brooklyn, New York. Following my sermon, the pastor, Dan Meeter, invited the congregation to gather around the communion table as they do each Sunday. As Dan recites (mostly by memory) those familiar liturgical words, the bread and wine are then passed from one person to another. I confess that for me, this is close to the heart of worship.
Afterward, I talked about this with members of the consistory and other guests at a lovely brunch in a row house in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn. One guest said he especially liked the celebration of communion “because it’s less cerebral.” He has a real point. In our conversation, we shared how in the Reformed tradition and in most Reformed worship, the “head” is very dominant. We value sound theology, solid education, thorough catechism, and strong preaching. Worship is often full of well-organized printed words, supported by powerful spoken words, all interpreting the Word.
But how do all the senses become engaged in our worship of God? How do we worship God with our hearts as well as our heads? How do we engage our feelings as well as our thoughts? How do we offer our whole selves to God in worship? Personally, I’m convinced that this is what accounts for the rapid growth of contemporary praise music in many congregations today. Whatever else might be said, I feel this is a response—and a reaction—to a mostly rational, formal approach in traditional Reformed worship with a different style that engages more feeling and emotional expression.
I think, for example, of Faith Church in Dyer, Indiana. I was there for part of its “U-Turn” conference. Here’s a congregation that made a complete break from its past style of traditional worship—organ, choir, printed words, formal liturgy—and adopted a style of worship that is highly “contemporary” (we need better words to describe all this), similar to the model of Willow Creek.
What impressed me at a workshop on worship with Bob Bouwer, the lead pastor, and a highly gifted worship team, is the amazing amount of time, attention, creativity, planning, and prayer that is put into worship preparation. One purpose, they explained, is to engage the whole person in the worship of God, so the techniques of visual communication (videos, projection technology), creative music, drama, and the spoken word are all woven together. While there’s a clear message, it’s not just “cerebral.” And, by the way, because of this and many other factors in the congregation’s ministry, people who have been outside of the church are drawn to this congregation. It has added 1,800 members in the last year and a half, and now worships with more than 3,000 people.
But there’s more than one way to not be just “cerebral.” And that takes me back to the circle of believers around the communion table. I suppose that on most accounts, in terms of geography, theology, worship style, and neighborhood context, Old First Reformed in Brooklyn and Faith Church in Dyer, Indiana, are very far apart. But I see in both a search for fresh ways to worship God that go beyond the head to engage more heart and soul.
People are wondering and writing today about the new frontiers in worship style and practice. “Contemporary” worship is beginning to feel old to many of the next generation. Those in the “emergent church” and others like Bob Webber and Leonard Sweet are talking about the ancient/postmodern combination. In short, ancient practices of the church are utilized in a postmodern framework and style. For many, there’s a hunger for the transcendent, mysterious, symbolic, emotive, contemplative dimensions of religious experience to shape our public encounter with God in worship. Certainly, this is strongly reinforced by biblical images of God’s wonder, awe, and glory in places like Isaiah 6, Psalms, Revelation, and elsewhere. So I personally believe that the real challenge of worship in most congregations today—whether traditional, contemporary, blended, or whatever—is to recover in fresh, creative, and inspiring ways how to offer all of ourselves to God. If worship is just a head trip, it’s not going to go very far.
And while I’m in this provocative mood, let me go one step further. There’s a beautiful part of the RCA communion liturgy that comes at the start, called “The Meaning of the Sacrament.” It begins, “This is a feast of communion, remembrance, and hope. . . .” Every time I hear a pastor mumble through these words, his or her head buried in a hymnbook, my heart sinks. These words need to come alive and not just be recited.
So I thought, why not make a music video to introduce the celebration of communion? Why not take these moving words and bring them to life in image and song? I think of the growing number of churches that now regularly project words and video images in their worship. What would happen if the church, in addition to printing words in a nice booklet, produced a moving and inspiring video to help prepare hearts as well as heads for celebrating this sacrament? Is there someone who catches this vision and would like to try?
In any event, I’d like to reactivate the argument Calvin started. Let’s search for deeper and more inspiring ways to engage in the worship of our God. Let’s use regularly the most ancient gifts given by the Spirit to the church to do so—including sharing the body and blood of Christ—and let’s celebrate together in ways that engage the whole person, and communicate to present and future generations about God’s intended future for us all.
During this next year RW staff and others from various denominations will be spending time studying the Lord’s Supper from a variety of perspectives, including its theology, its practice, and its importance to the spiritual life of Christians. We invite you to participate in this process by reading and responding to articles on the subject that will appear in the magazine but also by sharing your best practices—ways in which your congregation uses disciplined creativity to convey the sacrament’s deep meaning. Or maybe you would like to share a story of a moment when the sacrament was especially meaningful to you. While we don’t promise that all of the responses will be published, we do promise to read them all. They will help in our growing understanding of the
sacrament as currently practiced.
Please send your reflections to firstname.lastname@example.org.
For additional material from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, click here.