Virtual Lord's Supper

Q:Are there ever instances in which it could be appropriate for people to celebrate the Lord’s Supper using a video feed over the Internet, especially for small rural churches in northern Canada that are separated by miles yet served by only one pastor? Could that be considered a real celebration of the Lord’s Supper?

A: A provocative question! My first thoughts are all about how valuable in-person, face-to-face, hand-to-hand Lord’s Supper practices are. Jesus’ command to “do this” activity engages all five senses, and much could be lost by agreeing too quickly that participation over the Internet is appropriate. That also sums up learning from the 1960s and ’70s about participation in worship via television.

I can imagine how powerful it might be for two congregations to celebrate the Lord’s Supper simultaneously, joined by an Internet feed.

I also am concerned about what we mean by a “real” Lord’s Supper. This language of efficacy has a long history, and was especially prevalent in the Middle Ages. We may not be able to avoid it entirely, but it tends to focus too much on the boundaries rather than the central ideals for communion.

Perhaps one way to proceed, then, is by affirming the goal of Lord’s Supper celebrations in general: to eat the bread and drink the cup in communities of genuine fellowship, accountability, and hospitality, with attention to the full range of biblical teaching about the Lord’s Supper.

With this goal firmly in mind, I can imagine how powerful it might be for two congregations to celebrate the Lord’s Supper simultaneously, joined by an Internet feed—especially two congregations in very different parts of the world who are joined in mission.

Perhaps rural congregations separated by long distances fit this description well. If so, I could imagine a single pastor rotating among congregations, and each time involving some others via video feed. To make this especially strong, perhaps the connection could also be used for intercessory prayers, allowing each congregation to pray for the other. The joining of two or more gathered congregations would preserve the essentially communal nature of the Lord’s Supper.

The possible permutations of this practice are endless, and some would be not advisable. But if a congregation remains intentional about only incorporating practices that strengthen mutual hospitality, fellowship, and accountability, this could be an effective strategy.

John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and professor of music and worship at Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also teaches in the religion department at Calvin University.