Another Thought on Online Communion

The other day an article crossed my twitter feed “What’s so wrong about online communion?” As a pastor who recently launched an online campus this struck at the heart of what we are trying to do. To see the post that i am responding to please follow this link

After a time of prayer and thought the article still nagged at me.  So I wrote up a little google doc with the intent to post a response in the comments section yet there is no real place for further dialogue.  Adding to the noise on other social media doesn’t seem the prudent course either.  So where better to share my personal opinion on the matter than my personal (and seldom used) blog.  So, that being said, here are the thoughts that my little Google doc contained.

 

Thanks for your thoughtful article.  I admit that I read it because of the title and found myself drawn in and it gave me a lot to think about during a run and session at the gym.  It also has given me an opportunity to think about not just what I think about the sacrament of communion, but perhaps more importantly as a Methodist how I have gotten to where I am about my beliefs.  This being said I am come to see your response to Taylor W. Burton Edwards’ article as an open up of dialogue.  I feel that the role and “order” or the sacraments are central to faith experiences and should be examined over prayer and conversation by those commissioned to uphold such issues of Word, Sacrament, Service and Order.  In the case of the UMC this would be primarily the function of the fully ordained elders of the church.  

At first blush I found myself agreeing with the spirit of Edwards’ article.  I know that I would be more enthusiastic about it if I were writing a paper for seminary.  But like many well thought plans, my mind drifted to my ministry field and that of my friends.  

I know that my wife, a fully ordained elder, is currently serving her full-time appointment while serving as  elder in charge for 2 other local congregations who have no pastor currently.  Preconsicration is the only way that these 2 churches would be able to gather and share in the sacrament if they want to gather in their home church.  I guess the other option is for them to find another faith community to partake the sacrament. But there is something about being with those who are part of your faith community that adds dimensionality to the Holy Mystery.  When I think of the state of affairs that the church is in, we do run into a logistical problem of not having enough Elders.  The cause for this is not that our churches are growing at a rate  that we cannot keep up with, but many retire and young clergy are turned off or are not encouraged to do ministry in ways that are meaningful and relevant to those without a church home.  So we find a way, as our history of being practical theologians, so to speak – making it work.  Wesley broke from the Church of England and Asbury did what he needed to to get more pastors in pulpits.  

I don’t have much experience with “drive-through” communion so I cannot speak to that.  However I can say to use it as a basis against online communion is suspect (let’s do away with the word “virtual” we aren’t trying to consume pixels as if they are the host).  

That brings us to point #3; we shouldn’t practice online virtual communion.  As a pastor of a faith community that has an online campus I am conflicted about this.  I am not sure where I stand on the practice of the Eucharist with an online community, but I do know that the reasons that have been voiced don’t hold enough weight to forego thinking about how to faithfully have TRUE communion online.  I am willing to bet that those who are speaking out against the practice have not encountered an authentic online community.  For many, the possibility of celebrating the sacrament online isn’t even a concern. This is because for 99% of faith communities worship online is not an option.  

The argument that is gnawing at me is the assumption that there is no authentic connection or community online.  Sure, I will agree that we polish the things we place on facebook and other social streams, but Facebook is not the internet.  Let us not forget than the primary way we communicate is not face to face but via text, e-mail, snapchat, twitter, a phone call, Skype and many other over the air means.  To say we cannot have online communion because of a lack of authentic community online is like blaming the hammer for hitting your thumb when framing a house.  The web is a tool and the way we use it is up to us, #freewill.  To imply that we can’t participate in the sacrament for this reason, would mean that when we participate in the Eucharist in real life no one in our congregation is faking it or putting on a mask to hide their current state of affairs.  Online and in person we are a broken people in need of restoration.  

At our online campus we have been able to unite parents with their daughter who is studying in Ecuador, reconnect a number of young adults who have been absent from church for a while because of hurt, work schedule or because they cannot find a church that accepts them.  So, FaithPoint is the place they connect, it just happens to be our online campus.  A positive side of the web’s anonymity is that snap judgements based on appearance are not made.  We frequently have people who would NEVER worship in the same space together because of theological perspective differences coming together and engaging in healthy life-giving conversation.  It is amazing.  

Further, we believe in God who transcends time and space.  God is no more with me than God is with you (wherever that might be).  Online we offer prayers communally, and I don’t think that they are more or less effective than those offered under 4 walls of stained glass.  I do know that scripture does call us to not neglect meeting together, I feel strongly that the web allows us to do this in powerful ways.  Sure, all of my social media connections are not worshiping online with me.  But I have prayed with, had life giving conversations with and been blessed by the authenticity of those who are my community online.  Those who are worshiping together are gathering at a particular time, at a particular (web)address and worshiping to the same music and message at the same time.  I would much rather someone have the option to connect with a community online and become a deeper disciple than wander the wilderness of church shopping week after week without even so much as a greeting from the indigenous churchgoers.  I am not saying it have to be your cup of tea grape juice, but that doesn’t mean God cannot transform lives in powerful ways online.  If the Spirit can warm a heart after studying Luther’s introduction to Romans, the Son can be raised from the dead and the Creator can paint sunsets in fall, then isn’t there a possibility that we can encounter and be enfolded into the Holy Mystery as one body but in different rooms?

Like I said up top, I am still working though some of my understanding of this.  But to argue against an online community practicing communion because of authentic community just doesn’t cut it for me.  My intent is not to come across as another internet troll, but open this important conversation.  I would love to discuss this further over some coffee at a coffehouse or via Google Hangouts with a diverse panel to see how we may preserve the sacredness of communion while realizing there are powerful ways to do ministry that no one is doing, YET.  @CMBishop on the Twitter

  2Comments

  1. Rob Abell Rob Abell   •  

    Interesting. I have always felt that the “only ordained (licensed etc) may officiate” is shaky theological ground. In the sacraments, God uses ordinary things to do extraordinary things, yet we (in the umc) feel that somehow this amazing grace is left up only to the set apart. I wonder if we overcame this bias (I call it a bias, I’m sure many disagree), and allowed ppl in small groups, Sunday school classes, etc to share the sacrament as the spirit stirs them, if the stigma of whether or not it’s allowed in such and such a situation would go away, “community” would be less scrutinized, and constant communion become a greater reality. Just thinking publicly.

    • Chris Bishop Chris Bishop   •  

      Rob Abell i resonate with your thoughts. Of course the Elder in me wants to think about the way we would “order” that kind of expansion. But maybe a good first step would be some education in the difference in sacrament and sacramental acts, and then training those leaders or others interested in how to facilitate sacramental experiences. A sacramental act in the UMC being foot washing, or a kind of love feast (this term must have come about in the 60’s), marriage, or even a rousing Bible study where reconciliation happens. Equipping all of the saints of the church to see that there are other ways to create those “thin places” where the veil of the Kingdom is lowered a bit outside of just Baptism and communion would be powerful. We also could start that now instead of trying to wait for a quadrennium for some change.

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