For the first twenty years of my life, or so, I had no idea that the Lord’s Supper could be celebrated using anything other than plastic thimble-sized cups of grape juice and mass-produced, stale wafer “Chiclets”.
The expansion of my liturgy horizons came when I attended worship with my Episcopalian fraternity brother. I had no idea what that short, padded bench was for (kneeling), and I was sure that eating Communion bread from a common loaf and drinking real wine from a common cup would result in the revocation of my Southern Baptist ID card, should someone important find out about it.
A cursory reading of the New Testament should reveal to believers that Communion in the early church usually occurred regularly, and whenever believers gathered for meals, which was often. It is difficult to imagine a partaking of the elements that didn’t involve a regular glass of wine and regular loaf of bread, things that would have been on hand at most meals. In modern evangelical church practice, there are many reasons that Communion has been relegated to a once-quarterly practice that occurs exclusively in a formal worship service, not many of them good. But in that context, it is easy to see why plastic cups and wafers become the norm — ease of use — despite the fact that few of us would serve these to a guest in our home.
Serving food and drink during worship presents practical difficulties, because we are not usually eating meals during our formal services. The simplest, most efficient way of distributing food and drink to the congregation, under the circumstances, is to use uniform portions and assembly-line delivery: “Chiclet” wafers, thimble drinks, and plate-passing.
Many believers observe, however, that the typical elements of grape juice and wafers, and devices such as disposable plastic cups, seem unsubstantial, somehow. And unsubstantial elements might tend to make the commemoration of the Lord’s Supper unsubstantial, as well.
The typical Communion I grew up with remains standard practice for many Southern Baptist churches. Wafers are distributed to members by passing plates down the pews, and cups of juice are distributed afterward in the same way. Congregants consume the elements separately, usually with some instruction or Scripture reading between. Oddly, the juice and wafers are usually served with nice, impressive, substantial plates and trays. Meaningful Communion can certainly be conducted this way, but I would encourage churches to consider whether there is not, in this traditional method, some incongruity between the serving tools and the elements themselves.
Additionally, congregations that continue to use the typical method should be especially aware of the limitations that traditional elements and methods pose, and be deliberate in planning ways to overcome them.
Many congregations are exploring alternatives to the typical Communion scene that I have described here. Churches are scheduling Communion more frequently, at times other than the formal worship service, and with different forms of the elements and methods of serving them.
Look for my next article, in which I discuss some of these options: “How May I Take Communion: Let Me Count the Ways.”
© 2012 Rob Faircloth