The Neglected Element?

Reading through the excellent articles in this issue of Reformed Worship, I could not help but notice that, except for Dr. Neal Plantinga’s feature article, one of the central elements of Reformed worship is notably absent. This was a glaring omission for me because the experience of weekly communion in my own congregation has become so deeply important for my faith.

From the earliest days of the church, worship has had two main elements: Word and sacrament, pulpit and table. This nearly universal practice continued for fifteen hundred years until, ironically, the Reformation—this despite the fact that both Martin Luther and John Calvin, in somewhat different ways, pointed to the Eucharist as the moment in worship when Christ, proclaimed in the Word, is offered to his people in the bread and cup.

There are many reasons why the practice of communion as an essential element in weekly worship was lost in many Reformation churches. One main reason is that Calvin’s rich theology of Christ’s real presence in the sacrament was passed over for Zwingli’s assertion that Christ is only symbolically present. When the Lord’s Supper is merely symbolic, a sort of memory aid, the preaching of the Word became all that we really needed.

Soon, the Eucharist was celebrated only periodically (four times a year was common in Reformed churches). Its historic and biblically deep connection as the embodiment of the Word was lost, and preaching alone took central place. As Calvin put it, “[T]he Lord’s Table should have been spread at least once a week for the assembly of Christians, and the promises declared in it should feed us spiritually. . . . All, like hungry men, should flock to such a bounteous repast” (Institutes, IV.xvii.44, 46).

There is a growing movement among Reformed and other churches to restore the Lord’s Supper to its rightful place as in weekly worship. But after years of only periodic celebration, it is often difficult for congregations to make that shift. For those interested in restoring weekly communion, here are a few suggestions:

  1. Introduce your people to Calvin’s rich sacramental theology so they may see the Lord’s Supper as more than a mere symbol.
  2. Help them to recognize the important ties between the preached Word and its sacramental reception.
  3. Respond knowledgeably to the frequent objections that communion is too special to be a weekly element of worship or that it takes too much time. (Perhaps this also points to the difficult work of shorter sermons.)
  4. Recognize that it often takes at least six months of learning and practice for a congregation to experience how important weekly communion is to its faith and life.

Chantel Varnado’s intriguing article about altar calls reminded me of another way we can think of the Lord’s Supper: It can serve as the quintessential altar call. Following the sermon, in which the gospel of Christ is proclaimed, we invite the congregation to come to the altar or table to receive him in the bread and cup of holy communion.

Leonard J. Vander Zee is pastor of South Bend (Ind.) Christian Reformed Church.