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Online Communion?

The United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry met recently in Nashville to discuss the relative merits of offering Communion online. You can find detailed background of the meeting here. Here is a portion of that article:

The meeting follows growing discussions about online Eucharist in local churches around the globe, particularly in Europe, said the Rev. Larry Hollon, the top executive of United Methodist Communications. His agency includes United Methodist News Service.

He noted that some nondenominational churches already offer online communion, and some United Methodist churches are considering expanding their online ministries.

“There is a need to recognize the value of online community as well as an equally important need to discuss its limits, as is true with actual community,” Hollon said.

The Rev. Daniel Wilson, who plans to attend the Nashville meeting, is preparing to serve as online campus pastor forCentral United Methodist Church in Concord, N.C. The 178-year-old downtown church near Charlotte plans to offer its first service at the not-yet-working http://centralonline.org on Christmas Eve.

“I believe, yes, there is community that happens online, that for certain personalities and certain people is just as significant as the (sense of) community I feel in a group of people gathered together in a sanctuary,” Wilson said. “I don’t expect everyone to understand that or believe that. But yes, my belief is that community can be the same online.”

He said his online campus will use the United Methodist liturgy for communion. “You will see onscreen an invitation from one of our pastors to get your elements of bread and juice or wine. We do not want to water it down so much that people use Goldfish (crackers) and apple juice.”

As people watch worship online, he said, a team from Central will be available to chat with viewers, share in prayer and answer questions. That includes questions about the sacrament.

His congregation’s vision is that the new campus “will be the DNA of Central Downtown-Concord taken to an online medium.”

“We still will be very mission focused. There will be teaching and Bible study opportunities as well as online worship. …To our knowledge, we are among the first mainline congregations attempting to make a holistic online congregation. My No. 1 goal in all of this is that it becomes a very relational way of doing ministry.”

Read the rest here.

This is an important teachable moment concerning the nature of worship that I don’t want to ignore, so I’d like to open up some discussion about this issue.

First, what does the offering of Communion online reveal about their understanding of the nature and purpose of Communion?

One of the questions those involved thankfully wrestle through is whether true “communion” can take place online. Is such horizontal communion even necessary? If the Table is seen as either a means of grace or merely a memorial, why couldn’t online Communion be acceptable?

Third, notice this comment in the article:

“We do not want to water it down so much that people use Goldfish (crackers) and apple juice.”

This raises interesting questions about cultural contextualization in the Lord’s Table. Are bread and wine necessary? What about grape juice in place of wine? Must the bread be unleavened? Are there any biblical limits to what might replace bread and wine? Would Goldfish and apple juice be a legitimate contextualization?

How would the regulative principle of worship inform this discussion?

Finally, what does this discussion say about how online social media have changed contemporary views of church, community, and spirituality?

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.