Finding Your Focus
“Do this in remembrance of me.” For most Christians, these familiar words of Christ trigger the sweet scent of grapes and the taste of bread. We all know that Lord’s Supper services are intended to help God’s people remember Christ. But how can we help God’s people better retain knowledge of Christ—and translate that memory into lives of worship?
Find Your Focus
In planning a creative liturgy for the Lord’s Supper (or any other service) we begin with determining the theme. We ask questions about the character and activity of God in this event. Who is God? What did God do? Scripture reveals the wonderful variety of God’s character and activity related to the Lord’s Supper. We see God as just, loving, humble, holy, perfect, angry, gracious, and more. We observe the activities of justifying, forgiving, and unifying.
We need to allow our creativity to flow out of theological themes into our public worship. To do that, we need to know what these themes are (see sidebar) and make choices about how to apply them to worship.
Should we mourn the pain of Christ or celebrate our own gain? Do we focus on what Christ did for each of us individually or on the unity of the church? Should we emphasize the suffering of Christ, the grace of God, the guilt of each sinner, the restoration of righteousness, the hope for eternity? Worship planners often gravitate toward their own theological bias and end up serving the same meal each time they plan a communion service, dulling the appetite of worshipers.
While there is something to be said for routine, there is no glory in monotony. At the boarding school I attended in West Africa, we had a nickname for the dessert served to us each and every evening. We called it “365” for the number of days each year we had to eat it. Don’t get me wrong—it was good stuff! Slices of banana, pineapple, guava, papaya, and mango—all fresh from the trees. What I wouldn’t give for a taste of it right now! But having it served up every day made us whine like the Israelites over their fresh manna.
I grew up knowing well that I was a sinner and that my personal sin caused the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. Communion services were somber, dark, and penetrating as the Lord’s meal was served up with heaping side dishes of guilt, regret, and shame. What I “remembered” was my personal sin and the atoning sacrifice of Christ.
There’s nothing wrong with that theme in the Lord’s Supper—it is the biblical truth. But it is not the whole biblical truth. If that is the only focus at the Table, congregations are cheated out of a complete and comprehensive memory of God’s work in Christ Jesus. Communion meals must convey the full grace of God, consistent with the full revelation of Scripture.
If our first job as worship planners is to be students of God, our second is to become students of God’s people. After we have selected a particular focus for our service we can begin to ask, How will God’s people best remember this truth about God? What moves people toward greater guilt or greater reception of grace? How can they know, feel, see, hear, and understand the unity of the body of Christ or the hope for an eternal future?
It’s no accident that a visit to Disneyworld is a memorable event. Disney leaves nothing to chance—everything is crafted to stimulate a visitor’s senses so that she never forgets her experience. A friend of mine spent a decade as an “Imagineer” designing theme parks for the Walt Disney Corporation. He and other Disney Imagineers regularly practiced the art of “five sensing” (for more on this, see Howard Hendricks’s Color Outside the Lines)—intentionally creating an environment that enlivens the five human senses: sight, smell, taste, hearing, and touch.
Practicing “five-sensing” in worship planning not only provides a wealth of creative ideas for worship practices; it also honors the marvelous intricacies of “fearfully and wonderfully made” humans.
Start by sitting in your own sanctuary. Not at the pulpit, not at the organ, piano, or sound board. Sit down where your congregation sits. What do they see in worship? Sniff the air—what do they smell? Imagine—what could they hear? What could they feel? How might they move?
Then select a single theme of the Lord’s Supper and “five-sense” your sanctuary to help your congregation remember it. As you work through the five senses with your focus in mind, hunt for one or two ways to make that particular idea memorable.
For example, take the theme of substitutionary atonement—the truth that Jesus died in my place.
- Sight: Invite people to sign their names on a long scarf and drape it on the cross during the communion liturgy.
- Sound: Read key Scriptures during distribution (music is not the only sound of worship!)
- Touch: Hand each person a nail. Let them feel the cold steel and sharp point. Invite them to pound the nail into a cross—creating another memorable sound.
In another service you might want to remember the faithfulness of God’s covenantal promises.
- Sight: Create a slideshow of faces of your congregation. Include all ages and, with the consent of their loved ones, show people who have recently died and received the promises.
- Sound: Ask several voices to read the names of your congregation interspersed with names of God’s people from Scripture and throughout the ages.
- Touch: Connect the sacraments. Schedule a baptism for the same day. Or set the baptismal font at the front of the church and invite the congregation to dip their hands in it before proceeding to take the bread and wine.
Or you may want to emphasize the unity of God’s people.
- Sight: Ask the dance team to demonstrate this focus in how they move together.
- Sound: Choose choral music with rich harmonies over a solo voice.
- Touch: Invite the congregation to join hands.
What About the “Harder” Senses?
Admit it. Many worship planners are primarily “ear and eye” people. We craft words, arrange notes and instruments, design banners and PowerPoint presentations—all for maximum emotional and intellectual impact and memory. Few of us spend much time intentionally providing help for the other human senses that help God’s people remember him. Here are a few ideas for engaging the “harder” senses.
Research shows that our noses are our most powerful sensory tool for remembering. Years from now, what smells will trigger memories of God and of the Lord’s Supper for your congregation?
- Select good juice or wine so that when the tray of tiny cups passes under their noses, kids and adults can inhale the rich, sweet grapes.
- Bake communion bread in the church kitchen during worship. Or bake it in bread machines right in the sanctuary.
- Is this the Sunday to focus on the “stinky” reality of sin? In their book Sunday Morning Live, Mary Sytsma and Jane Vogel suggest passing around a bag of Limburgher cheese—after it’s been left on the kitchen counter for a few days!
- Leave the windows open on a March evening and allow the congregation to feel the chilly night air during a Tenebrae service. (If you’re from Texas, close the windows and turn up the air!)
- Do you want your congregation to understand the richness of God’s gift to them? Don’t serve tiny squares of cheap bread cut on Saturday afternoon and left to dry under a kitchen towel. Tear generous portions of fresh bread and allow time for people to chew and remember.
- Substitute earthen mugs filled to the brim for tiny plastic cups.
Although not technically a “sense,” moving our bodies allows us to “feel” in different ways. It is also the key to helping our congregations experience the unity we share because we are one body through Christ.
When we eat a meal together, we sit around a table, yet in our sanctuaries we are positioned to worship “face to back.” There are few more powerful communion experiences than looking into the faces of your brothers and sisters while taking in the body and blood of Christ. In order to do this, most of us will have to get out of our seats.
My favorite communion experiences have been when the congregation encircles the perimeter of the sanctuary. We don’t always fit neatly, so we need to talk to each other, move around a little, spill into the pews, and drape up the front steps. It’s all part of the experience.
Here are some other suggestions to position people “face-to-face” for the meal:
- Set up tables in the foyer. Serve people in rotating groups.
- Scatter teams of leaders and invite people to come in groups of eight to ten. Ask them to pass the elements, giving them words to repeat to each other. Perhaps they can join hands for a prayer of blessing before returning to their seats.
Be alert to the details that help distinguish one theme from another. Simply getting out of our seats doesn’t create a sense of community. Nor does inviting people forward to tear a piece of bread, dip it into a cup, and eat—as wonderful as that is—emphasize the unity of the body of Christ. Instead, invite people to take a piece of bread and a plastic cup of wine before they encircle the sanctuary. Be clear that they are to wait to eat and drink until all are served and the entire family can celebrate together.
Scheduling a communion service without articulating the specific focus is a bit like inviting a group for dinner by asking everyone to “bring a dish.” Everyone will eat something, but you’d be hard pressed to call it a well-planned meal.
Besides communicating the theme, tell others about specific “five-sense” ideas. Bringing those ideas to life often requires preparation and the help of busy volunteers. Honor the volunteers by giving them time to do their jobs well.
- In some churches, children do not participate in communion. Do you want to invite the children to come with their families and receive a blessing from the elders? Tell the elders ahead of time and suggest several phrases of blessing that they can use.
- Are you going to try encircling the sanctuary for the first time? Borrow the choir. Bring them into the sanctuary and have them walk through the pattern. Ask them to lead the rest of the congregation on Sunday.
Be sure to communicate intent as well as content. Don’t just tell people what to do or where to stand—connect the focus to their actions. Help them discover that creative worship isn’t a fad or a gimmick, but that it is embedded in the richness of God’s revelation to us and in our response back to him as his created, creative people.
- Pay attention to those who can’t move easily. If you ask the congregation to get out of their seats to be served, be sure to assign a team of “rovers” to carry bread to those who are unable to participate physically.
- If you plan to bake bread, plan ahead. Bread takes time to rise, bake, and rest before it can be used. If you use bread makers, tell the preacher not to be surprised by the interruption of beeps as the machines move through their cycles.
- If you are initiating a new communion practice, clearly tell the congregation what they need to do. Don’t ruin the experience by making them nervous about their part.
Five Steps Toward a Well-balanced Table
- Pastors, elders, and planners need to agree on the themes of the Lord’s Supper that are important to your church. Your list might include the following themes:
- Personal sin and guilt and the need for redemption (Rom. 5)
- Atonement, justification—perhaps expressed in joyful celebration of the release from sin (Rom. 3, 5; Eph. 2)
- Personal and communal responsibility to holy living in response to the grace given to us (1 Pet. 1; Rom. 8; John 15:9-10; Deut. 6:4-9)
- Covenental continuance, or confidence in God’s unfailing promises (Lam. 3:23; Gen. 9; Jer. 31:31-34 with Heb. 8:7-13)
- Unity of the body of Christ—both within your own congregation and shared with God’s people around the world (Eph. 2, 4; 1 John; Heb 11)
- God’s provision for our every need (Amos 15)
- Hope for the future—both a hopefulness in our daily lives as we await the future and an anticipation that Christ might return soon (Ps. 23; Rev. 7; Rom 8:18ff.)
- Assess and admit your own bias. Which expression of the Lord’s Supper is your “default” position? Have you been serving up the same meal each time? Review the recent communion services and determine what’s been missing from your menu.
- Schedule ahead. Connect each of the upcoming Lord’s Supper services with one of the intended themes. Doing this far in advance allows you to be creative with details and clear in your focus.
- Don’t try to emphasize every theme associated with the Lord’s Supper on every occasion. The result will be the same as any chef trying to overload a menu with every possible ingredient available—heartburn! Instead, spread the variety over a year’s worth of communion services. If you serve communion two or three times a year, perhaps the variety of themes will encourage your congregation to celebrate the Lord’s Supper more frequently!
- Keep an ongoing record of the days you serve the Lord’s Supper, describing not only the service plan, ambience, and details, but also the intended theme of that particular service. That way, next year you’ll be able to skip step 2!