A New Order of Christian Nurture
The unfortunate history of the Lord’s Supper is that we have always managed to find a way to fight over the very thing that was meant to bring us together. So what are we disagreeing about this time? In many Reformed and Presbyterian churches the clash of the day is over whether baptized children who have not professed their faith should be allowed to take part in the Lord’s Supper.
Is profession of faith a necessary gateway to communion? For almost five hundred years we have been saying yes. Certain Bible passages have bolstered this view, especially 1 Corinthians 11:29: “All who eat and drink without discerning the body eat and drink judgment against themselves” (NRSV). Our Reformed confessions seem to reflect this same attitude: no profession, no communion.
In the last several decades, this view has come under some scrutiny. Let’s start with that critical passage in 1 Corinthians 11. The problem Paul was addressing there was that wealthy Corinthian Christians were somehow excluding poorer Christians from their celebration of the Supper. Within this context, the phrase “discerning the body” is more about paying attention to everyone in church than it is about recognizing the body and blood of Jesus in the bread and the wine. So the theme of the passage seems to be more about who should be partaking in communion than who shouldn’t be.
This raises the question, Are we also being exclusive? Are we excluding baptized children from communion when we shouldn’t be?
A Brief History
Many would respond by saying that requiring profession of faith has protected the dignity of communion for the last five hundred years. After all, hasn’t the church always required children to make some kind of profession before communion?
Actually, it hasn’t. As soon as the early church began to regularly baptize infants, the church also began to regularly welcome baptized children to the Table. At the time of Augustine, infants were baptized and confirmed simultaneously. Then, as baptized children, they were welcomed to the Table.
During the Middle Ages, baptism and confirmation started to drift apart. The Church said that baptism could be performed by any priest, but confirmation could only be done by a bishop. Over time, infants were baptized and children were not confirmed until they were seven or eight years old.
The late medieval church introduced another ritual. Children could not take part in their first communion without confessing their sins and doing penance. Catechisms were written to help children recognize sin in their lives. The Reformers basically adopted this rhythm with some variations—their catechisms taught children how to articulate their faith rather than confess their sins. Profession of faith rather than confession of sin became the Reformers’ new gateway to communion.
Our Reformed Theology
What about our Reformed theology? Deep reflection on the meaning of baptism has caused many people to think seriously about our present practices. It seems that whenever and wherever the sacrament of baptism is strongly practiced and pondered, the desire to welcome baptized children to the Table is not far behind.
If we confess that our baptism is a sign and seal of initiation into a covenantal relationship with God, and if we confess that the Lord’s Supper nourishes and feeds that covenantal relationship, then why are we allowing children to experience one and not the other? Are we really saying that children who have not professed their faith do not share in the body and blood of Christ?
For many, these are troubling questions. Bringing the two sacraments more closely together is a driving force in welcoming children to the Table.
The result of these reflections has been a growing desire in many Reformed and Presbyterian denominations to welcome young children to the Lord’s Supper. But how can this be done?
Some denominations have allowed baptized children to the Table. Others have allowed young children to make a very basic statement of their faith to their pastor or to elders in the privacy of their home. Still others have modified their public profession of faith practices to accommodate younger children. Regardless of these differences, there is a growing recognition that children should be invited to take communion at a younger age.
Developing Clear Patterns of Faith Nurture
How can congregations encourage children to participate in the Lord’s Supper?
One place to start is within the instructional program for the younger children. The time when children join the worshiping body of the congregation seems like a natural opportunity to invite them to the Table. In many churches, children between the ages of three and seven leave the service for their instructional or children’s worship program. Often by around the age of eight or nine, these children participate in corporate worship. It would be a very good idea to include instruction on the meaning of the Lord’s Supper in the curriculum for the younger children just before they join corporate worship.
This instruction could include going through a typical Lord’s Supper liturgy and talking through each part. It might even include sitting through a communion service so that a child can see what happens. Perhaps the pastor can be invited to answer questions about it afterward.
Parents and guardians also need to get involved. They can talk about what happened when their children were baptized and show photos if they have them. They can also explain what eating the bread and drinking from the cup means to them personally.
If your denomination requires some form of profession of faith, this would be a fitting time to invite children to consider that, so that when they join the congregation in worship, they would also be able to join in communion.
Having younger children come to the Table may also mean taking a second look at how your congregation practices communion. Perhaps it is time to switch to grape juice or to take a good look at the Lord’s Supper liturgy. C.S. Lewis once commented that liturgy is a little like dancing. Too much change and variation leaves everyone stumbling about. The Lord’s Supper liturgy should have a certain predictability about it. It may vary from one church season to another, but it helps to have elements that the congregation knows almost by heart. Children are very gifted at memorization. Making it possible for them to join in various parts of the liturgy is one way to welcome them.
Does the liturgy have to be “watered down” in order to be child-friendly? No. Remember that children do not have to understand everything that happens during communion (who among us does?). Inviting their participation in communion, however, is a visible reminder that this Supper is always a gift of grace.
If younger children are invited to the Table, with or without some kind of profession of faith, there is still an urgent need for young people on the verge of adulthood to give some kind of robust and mature public profession of faith. This public profession can include all the traditional elements—an affirmation of baptism, a commitment to follow Jesus, a statement of faith in the Bible and in the confessions of the church, and a willingness to engage fully in the life of the church and accept its authority. This more mature public profession of faith should be recognized as the time when a person takes on the adult responsibilities of church membership. As such, public profession can still function as the guide for matters such as who is a full voting member of the congregation, who can serve as an elder or a deacon, and who can present a child for baptism.
Whatever your congregation does, it is important to develop clear patterns of Christian initiation and nurture. The issue of including children at the Table has shaken a rhythm of Christian nurture that is centuries old: baptism, catechism instruction, and, lastly, public profession of faith as the gateway to communion and an acceptance of the adult responsibilities of the church. It will take some time to establish a new rhythm of Christian nurture that looks more like this: baptism, communion (with or without a form of private profession of faith), catechism instruction, and a mature public profession of faith as an acceptance of the adult responsibilities of the church.
Whenever changes like these occur, it is helpful to remember these general principles: be patient; be gentle; move slowly. Respect your denomination’s guidelines, and always remember that the Lord’s Supper is an expression of our communion, our unity in Christ.
For Further Reading
Calvin Theological Forum. Children at the Lord’s Supper, Spring 2007. This publication features reflections on this issue from biblical, theological, and historical perspectives.
Keith Mathison. Given for You: Reclaiming Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. Phillipsburg: R&R Publishing, 2002. Offers a balanced view of the strengths and weaknesses of both sides of the issue.
John T. Hinant. Children at the Lord’s Table. Indianapolis: Three Fountains Publishing, 2005. A historical and theological guide written for the Disciples of Christ denomination.
Tim Gallant. Feed My Lambs: Why the Lord’s Table Should Be Restored to Covenant Children. Grand Prairie, Alta.: Pactum Reformanda Publishing, 2002. An impassioned plea to open the Table to children.
Reports to the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church, 1986, 1988, 1993, 1995, and 2007.