Photo by James Coleman on Unsplash
Covid-19 has disrupted the normalcy of the lives of people all around the globe. The weekly routines of most of us have moved from physical social interactions outside the home to internal virtual interactions within the home. This has been especially true for the practices of some churches who have chosen to engage in worship via livestreaming. Many pastors who are used to interactions from a live audience are now preaching to empty auditoriums with only a camera in their face. The music teams are leading in song with the hopes that those on the other side of the camera are singing along. These “virtual gatherings”, however, do not mean that we have redefined church (as if we could), rather, the churches choosing to engage worship online are doing so in an emergency situation—meaning that what many churches are presently doing is not normative for the church. Additionally, any concept of a “virtual church” only exists because a true, gathered, local church existed in the first place (I am not arguing for the creation of online or virtual churches). As many in this emergency situation are being creative in making online worship engaging, there still are a few churchly things that may be a bit more perplexing to figure out. The ordinances are on this list, of which presenting the Lord’s Supper virtually may be a hard nut to crack, especially for those in baptist(ic) traditions like my own. In what follows I argue that in an emergency situation it can be permissible (but not ideal) to offer a virtual Lord’s Supper and then provide some suggestions on how to offer such a Supper.
Initially, one may simply say this is not a problem at all, just have communion in your homes with your family. Others may say, it is no big deal since the Lord’s Supper really does not have any great significance other than merely being a memorial. I think that these approaches, though pragmatically enticing, have not rightly considered what the Lord’s Supper truly means. We must not consider the Lord’s Supper as an individualistic or personalistic ritual that aids a believer in worship to our Lord. The practice of the Lord’s Supper, as seen in 1 Corinthians 11, was one in which the entirety of the church participated. In verses 17, 18, and 20 we find evidence that the Supper is to be eaten with the whole church or when they “come together”, and when they try to have the Supper inappropriately, Paul claims that it is not the Supper at all. This preface to Paul’s ordering of the Supper in verses 23–26 is important in determining the ordinance’s context. It is for the church (and here particularly the local church), not for individuals. There is a communal nature to the Lord’s Supper.
In order to consider our main question, we also must consider the meaning of the Lord’s Supper. In other traditions (Roman Catholic, Lutheran, etc.) there is often a belief in a Real Presence of Christ in the Supper. Typically, Baptists disagree and understand the Supper as either a memorial or a form of a spiritual presence, where the presence or memorial is a communal activity. A Real Presence in the Supper that efficaciously brings meritorious grace would change the way one utilized the Supper and perhaps would allow for individual consumption. A non-sacramental understanding of the Supper would not necessitate such a practice, for an individual offering would also lessen the communal aspect of the Supper.
So, as we consider what the Supper means (as non-Real Presence) and the context of where we can or should have it (in the church, and not merely individualistically) we can then ask if and how we could take the Supper virtually. What seems to be impermissible is the practice where families or small groups are encouraged to take this ordinance on their own apart from the whole church. But is there a way to participate in the Lord’s Supper with the church virtually? I think the answer is a yes, but let the reader understand it would be for emergency gatherings—not the normative practice.
Technology has given us such great advantages for church practice. That we can record, stream, and broadcast our worship services throughout the world is a privilege that the history of Christianity has not had. It does create challenges and comes with unintended consequences, but it also creates opportunities. One of those opportunities is to meet virtually. If I am losing you at this point on the sociality of such a meeting, perhaps we could consider Paul in Colossians 2:5. Here he states, “For I may be absent in body, but I am with you in spirit.” In 1 Thessalonians 2:17 he says, “But as for us, brothers and sisters, after we were forced to leave you for a short time (in person, not in heart).” There seems to be a principle that a non-bodily communal/social presence exists. Clearly Paul was not thinking about the internet when he made these claims, but they, nevertheless, provide a way forward for virtual communal gatherings.
If we can have a non-bodily presence, can we not just have the individual practice of the Supper? I still do not think so. The Supper itself is a supper, a meal—there is social/communal eating involved and I think it would cease to be the Supper if this element was removed. However, today many people virtually eat together. It is not too difficult to conceive of a spouse on a business trip who orders take out to his/her hotel room and then logs online to have dinner with the family at home at a predetermined time. Though the social/communal interaction is not ideal, it is still present. According to this principle I think we can also, in emergency situations, practice the Lord’s Supper with our churches (the whole local church).
Now that we have established a theological way forward to participate in the Lord’s Supper virtually, the only remaining question would be how one does this. Many Baptists (and others) have insisted that the symbolism of the Supper comes through a common loaf broken and a common cup poured out. Clearly this is what happened in the upper room with Jesus and the twelve. It also shows the symbolism of the unity of the congregation in participating in such common elements. If this type of symbolism is of greater importance for your church perhaps there could be ways to distribute these elements ahead of time. (How that particularly works out would be challenging, but not necessarily insurmountable or theologically unimportant).
If this is not a major concern for your church, then it is easier to practice. Here one family or group of believers gathered, or even an individual, would need to procure their own elements for the Supper. Guidelines for such elements should be communicated ahead of time for these preparations (this is especially the case if the elements are more narrowly defined by your local church).
Finally, the time and place of the virtual Supper would need to be established. This could function like the online worship services that are becoming commonplace (also existing because of an emergency situation) in this quarantine. For instance, communication (including guidelines) about the Lord’s Supper would be given including the virtual location (e.g. FaceBook Live) and the time of the live service. Then members would only need to login and participate virtually in the service at that place and time and the elder or pastor would guide the virtual congregants through the Supper in a similar way that is done in a non-virtual gathering.
In conclusion, I think a virtual Lord’s Supper is a possibility for our churches in these trying times. But I also want to reiterate that I think this is a practice in an emergency situation and should not be substituted for bodily gatherings when those are again available. There are a variety of things lost in a virtual Lord’s Supper and it is definitely not ideal, but it is an alternative that I think is within the realm of biblical/theological permissibility, for in it the Supper can do what it intends to do “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26).