Part 1 (see here), focuses on the many challenges pastors face in leading their congregations through this health crisis and time of COVID-19 social isolation. Simply put, churches exist to meet and most are not meeting corporately right now. It is true, the church is the people, not the building or the location, but those people are defined by the fact they live in accountable relationships with one another and meet weekly for worship.
One encouraging response to social isolation is that many evangelical churches have shown amazing Christ-exalting creativity. My congregation has blown me away as members have come up with things to do from home to serve one another and serve others. The medical professionals and most vulnerable members of our church family have felt loved and supported during these difficult days. Our congregation’s children have blown me away with everything from chalk art to letter writing (picture drawing too) efforts to encourage others. Praise God!
Nevertheless, our creativity has to fall within the bounds of biblical fidelity. I am convinced that one of our best ways of discipling in this crisis is in teaching our congregation what they ought to miss. There are some things for which there is no substitute. In the last post, I explained that I want my congregation to miss corporate worship and preaching. It this post, I explain why I want them to miss the Lord’s Supper. These are practices of the church for which there are no substitutes, including cyber-substitutes. I want them to know the spiritual growth found only in longing for that which we ought to long.
Missing the Lord’s Supper
I want my congregation to desperately miss the Lord’s Supper in this time of social isolation. The Apostle Paul, from beginning to end, warned the church at Corinth about division. The division in the church that inhibited their mission and bore false witness to the world about the relationship of the church and Christ was on display at the Lord’s Supper in Corinth (1 Cor 1:10-13, 11:17-23). What they were doing, Paul says, couldn’t even be called the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:20).
The Lord’s Supper is a sign of the Kingdom that calls the gathered church to Christ-centered gospel unity. A kind of community where personal preferences fade in the face of the gospel mission. We hear a lot of talk about creating or finding community in the church. As my friend and staff colleague Adam York says, “You don’t find community, you build it.” In the local church, you build it by gathering face-to-face for worship and by coming together at the Lord’s Supper. Gospel unity and congregational oneness are on visible and physical display in the communal act of communion.
Without the act of physically gathering together, we cannot take communion because gathering is fundamental to its meaning, not incidental. As J.L. Dagg wrote, “The rite was designed to be social.” Notice, in the lengthy discussion of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11, how often gathering is mentioned:
“when you come together” (1 Cor 11:17)
“when you come together as a church” (1 Cor 11:18)
“When you come together” (1 Cor 11:20)
“when you come together to eat” (1 Cor 11:33)
“if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home—so that when you come together it will not be for judgment” (1 Cor 11:34)
Could you imagine Paul who tells the Corinthians that they cannot even call what they are doing the Lord’s Supper endorsing so-called cyber-communion? Communion is not something that can be rightly enacted in isolation via the internet, using whatever elements are easily at our disposal rather than bread and the fruit of the vine.
When people are not gathered together, one family with goldfish for the body and Gatorade for the blood and another with white bread and water, the exhortations of Paul are hardly discernable. Much less, the physical/visual display of oneness Paul describes: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor 10:16-17).
No. Communion demands a physically gathered believing community, the church. I long with our members to come to the table again but until then we are being discipled by what we are grieving the loss of. In fact, the Lord’s Supper reminds us that we are not relegated to living isolated Christian lives, without face-to-face love and accountability, and only superficially connected by image.
I have developed two responses regarding our amazing virtual tech capabilities in this COVID-19 crisis. 1) I am more thankful than ever for technology and how it can genuinely help us stay superficially connected in a time of isolation. 2) I am far more aware of its glaring limitations and inadequacies as a substitute for genuine face-to-face community. In this crisis may we grow by what we do and by what we miss