Does the Lord’s Supper Need Ritual?

A close associate tells me he took a professional friend to a Sunday morning worship service in his church. It was the morning for the Lord’s Supper.

When the time came for communion, the pastor simply had the elements passed, virtually without comment. There was no explanatory ritual.

The layman who reported this admitted he went away from the service with a sense of holy disgust. His friend had little church background, was not a person of faith, and might therefore be mystified by those unexplained little cups and bits of bread. Or the absence of explanation may have robbed him of spiritual enlightenment.

Ritual, in the present case, means the prescribed words and actions that we use in church repeatedly to refresh memory, clarify understanding and deepen conviction. “The ritual of the Lord’s supper reinforces our understanding of Christ’s death and resurrection, and the grace He imparts as we remember.” Served with skill, and in the Spirit, the words themselves can do real work in communicants’ hearts and minds.

Our forefathers bequeathed to us the core arrangement of these words to accompany the symbolic actions of the Lord’s Supper. What value should we seek in them? (1) They define who may partake. (2) They review for us the meaning of Christ’s atonement. (3) They remind us that repentance is always needed in the Christian life, and they prompt us to repent. (4) They also prompt us to review the seriousness of our commitment to Christ. (5) They unite us as a body around common declared Christian beliefs. (6) And above all, they prompt us to give thanks — eucharist! Who can question these values?

Without the words, only the communicants have an understanding of what the acted ritual is saying, and even they may need the detailed reminder.

When I was a college pastor, I sometimes had communion for the whole of Sunday afternoon in 30-minute segments. First it was for college freshmen who were believers or seekers, then for the sophomores, followed by the juniors and then seniors. During the last 90 minutes I served the three large adult Sunday School classes, serving the eldest last.

It was not lost on me that the oldest seemed to feel the deepest gratitude. There were tears. I assumed it was because those who had served the Lord the longest understood and felt the need for atonement most deeply. The depth of gratitude seemed to be the fruit of a deep and mature faith.

The Sunday after New Years I served communion for the first time in many years. I confess that I heard the words of the service more deeply and movingly than I recall ever before. I believe the congregation was helped by the conviction with which I led the ritual and served the elements.

The ritual can be fresh and doesn’t need to seem formal if the server has prepared his own heart and feels deeply the truth of what is being read. That was evidenced by the response of the elderly who had heard the words most often.

So why did the pastor described above have such a deep resistance to the spoken ritual of the Lord’s Supper? This was not his only case of resistance in worship. He never invited his congregation to pray the Lord’s Prayer together, never had them sing the Doxology, and intensely avoided the riches of the hymn book. Liturgical prescriptions — which are few in number in our more free church worship — may have threatened what he considered his “freedom.”

Or he may never have learned that words have power and that the Holy Spirit can ignite them as messengers of truth in the hearts of God’s people during worship. Perhaps his real commitment was to a sort of folk religion which had no alliance with believers of all ages. Or it even may have been a simple unrecognized resistance to authority that he was acting out in this way.

It has been the long conviction of our denomination that the serving of the elements of the Lord’s Supper needs with it a review of the carefully-stated meaning of redemption. The words are heavy with truth.

As I see it, before and around and behind what is going on between God and the communicant, there is a kind of grand ritual involved in the serving of communion. I believe that instead of cancelling the words that go with it, or abbreviating them severely, it is better to treat the prescribed words and actions with respect and give them the freedom to do their potentially deep, accompanying work in our hearts!

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9 thoughts on “Does the Lord’s Supper Need Ritual?

  1. Pastor, Don,
    As usual, another good word.

    I was saved at the Lord’s Table in 1975. The old Spirit-filled, Brethren Bible teacher, Peter Ayling of Merrickville, Ontario gave the instruction from 1 Corthians 11 and right there I was “convinced of sin, righteousness and judgment to come.” I surely thought that if I should partake of the elements I might be struck dead on the spot.

    Quite honestly, it was a rather homely event with a half hamburger bun under a napkin and a half glass of what might have been Kool-Aid in a Tupperwear cup with childrens teeth marks evident around the edge and an imprint of Donald Duck on the outside. Nevertheless. the seriousness of their approach and reverence for the moment left me stunned and ashamed of my ignorance of the body and blood of the Lord.

    I am almost convinced, that we should remove the Lord’s Supper from being five minutes meaninglessly tacked on to the end our “worship” service extravaganzas.

    • Tony: Your testimony warms my heart. What stands out to me about your mentor is that he was very serious about what he was doing in serving the Lord’s Supper and the Spirit anointed his labors, however primitive his elements may have been. And in that situation you were wonderfully converted — on the spot. Blessings!

  2. Bishop Bastian:

    Thanks for an excellent piece, as usual. Not only are some suspicious of ritual but, oftentimes, simply don’t trust ritual. Yet, whenever we find ourselves in deep need, we always understand that we need ritual to see us through.

    It is interesting to me that some of the most “ritualized” services I have attended have been those organized around seeker-sensitivity. In fact, sometimes these are literally “scripted.” What is oftentimes missing in all of our services though is theological thoughtfulness and an awareness of our need for both thanksgiving and lament.

    Holy Communion provides us with an opportunity to respond to God in a way that few other forms of worship do. The various alternatives provided in the FM Discipline/Handbook allow for both form and freedom. As Tony suggests above, we should not try to be “tacking it on” to the end of the service, but including it in the heart of our worship as a regular and key component of our worship.

    • Hello, Brian: I agree that those who have an inordinate fear of ritual end up providing an inferior form of it. For example the leader who never reflects ahead of a service on the content of a public prayer is likely to end up saying the same thing in the same way every time and what is repeated becomes the new ritual. But isn’t it good to belong to a Christian body that believes in the freedom of the Spirit in worship, acknowledges it, makes a place for it, but at the same time connects with our history and the blessings of our forefathers in the few prescribed rituals we have — baptism, the Lord’s Supper, weddings, funerals and such.

  3. Many years ago, I was in charge of a youth retreat at Chesley Lake. As the weekend progressed, a strong bond of fellowship and love emerged out of all the “fun” times we were having together.
    Someone said, “We need to seal what is happening by concluding with a communion service”. Problem – no grape juice, but lots of bread. I dispatched one of the guys that had a car to find a supply (remember this was Sunday AM). As he walked out the door, he asked what he should do if he couldn’t find grape juice. I told him not to come back empty-handed – grape pop would do.
    So that morning, grape pop and slightly stale bread reminded us of Christ’s wonderful sacrifice, and the bond that his blood made rich. And, for some reason unknown to me, I had come to reteat with my Book of Discipline.

  4. Burt, you give one more testimony that, used rightly, the service of communion can bless even when observed in unusual circumstances and with adapted elements. Did you see Tony Hedrick’s response?

  5. Good thoughts. I miss communion in the USA. Overseas we had communion each month and sometimes I had it more than once if I was asked to serve it at some church on other than the first Sunday. I think rituals like that are good and make us think when they aren’t commonplace. WK

  6. Don,

    Even though you already previewed this for me after service at lunch on January 16, I relished reading it. It was through the phenomenological study of religion that I learned from a colleague at Central Michigan University that I began to realize the power and significance of ritual. I then read Mirecea Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane and Victor Turner’s the Ritual Process. Turner was a man who was converted to Christianity by Africans. He states that he was “materialistic monist” with a disdain for ritual until he lived among and observed the ritual process of Ndembu in East Africa. Their spirituality made him realize the poverty of his worldview and he became a believer and joined the Roman Catholic Church. I taught my students that they could go as missionaries and actually end up spreading secularism unless they learned the function and force of ritual in being fully human.

  7. Let’ s ask ourself, did the apostles practise that after receiving the Holy ghost the great teacher?

    Remember, they were asked to baptize in the name of the father, son and Holy ghost by Jesus in Matthew 28. But, when they receive the great teacher, they began baptizing in Jesus name as the spirit taught them what it means so it is good to double check what did they do after receiving the holy spirit with regard to that matter.

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