Derek Elmi-Buursma on Communion and Context
Whether you call it Communion, Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, or something else, you may wonder how to connect this sacrament with real life. Learn how one small urban congregation creates eucharistic liturgies for living in a broken world.
Derek Elmi-Buursma is the interim pastor at Loop Christian Reformed Church (CRC) in downtown Chicago, Illinois. While still in seminary, he served as project director for a Vital Worship Grant at Loop Church. In this edited conversation, Elmi-Buursma talks about how that grant changed the congregation’s invitation to, and practices of, communion.
How would you describe your congregation’s demographics compared to whatever you think of as your church neighborhood?
At Loop Church, people come from all over Chicago to worship together on the 12th floor of an office building in the heart of the city. On a given Sunday, about 30 to 40 people show up to worship: grad students, professionals, families, long-time members, first-time visitors.
It's interesting to figure out who our “parish” is. There’s so much socioeconomic diversity in the Loop, including business professionals, university and college students, and people experiencing homelessness. These three very different populations are themselves diverse and transient, so it can be challenging to know how to “be church” to each group. Our lease runs out soon, so our church may be moving into a new neighborhood and community.
Given your congregation’s scattered membership and transient location, how do you build community?
We have three missional groups and one prayer group that each meet monthly in members’ homes. Some people go to more than one group. Sunday morning becomes so important to our church because that’s the one time we can all get together. It’s also why it’s so important to do communion every week. When a church community is so spread out, communion helps define and nourish us for the week ahead.
What’s your quick description of what your grant was about?
Our grant, “Communion and Context,” explored how our local social, economic, and political contexts impact our celebration of the Lord’s Supper and how this sacrament prepares us to live faithfully in these contexts. We had conversations with other CRC churches regarding their practices and hosted an ecumenical workshop on the Eucharist. We invited guest presiders and created liturgies to offer a wider welcome to the table.
Why did you want to apply for this grant?
While studying at McCormick Theological Seminary, I was placed at Loop Church for a yearlong internship. I was struck by Loop’s practice of weekly communion. (The first Sunday of each month is a brunch service, and communion is not served.) I’d grown up in churches that celebrated communion less often, and I really appreciated Loop’s emphasis on the sacraments. I also noticed that Loop Church cycled through the same liturgies from The Worship Sourcebook every month.
At McCormick, we also had weekly communion, but each service had a different presider. It’s such an ecumenically diverse seminary, and the differences in each presider’s communion liturgy were noticeable and refreshing. I wanted to bring that feeling of authenticity in expression and celebration to Loop. The way we celebrate the meal shapes who we are, who can come, and how we go back out into the world. I wanted to give worship team members the confidence that they could use their own voices and experiences to shape the liturgy and help lead the congregation in the meal Jesus gave us.
During my internship year I applied for the grant and stayed on at the church to lead the grant as the project director. This past year I was offered the position of interim pastor, when the previous pastor had accepted a call to a different church.
How did a guest communion presider prompt your congregation to think differently about the Eucharist?
It was really powerful when the Rev. Nannette Banks, director of alumni/ae relations at McCormick, came to Loop as a guest presider. People came to the table in tears. I don’t know whether it was the wording of her invitation or the authenticity of her tone as she spoke…or maybe, for some in the congregation it was their first time to receive communion from a black woman. Loop church has many interracial families, so to have kids take communion from someone who looks like them is so important.
She presided over the Lord’s Table with an authenticity and presence that is difficult to experience when using rote liturgical forms. Rev. Banks spoke of how we, even as imperfect people, have access to God’s perfect love at the Table. She explained that Jesus invited his disciples to the table, regardless of their intentions, with the hope that they would experience transformation in eating the bread and drinking the cup.
Rev. Banks invited us as a church to come to the table with these words: “Come vulnerable, come willing, come wide-open, come willing to be transformed, come now to taste the bread of life and drink from the cup of life.” She stayed after the service to talk with the congregation about how her social location as a black Christian woman in America has shaped her eucharistic theology and practices.
What else did you learn about how to make communion more welcoming?
It helps to include connections to the scripture reading, sermon, or the life of the community. My dad, Randy Buursma, has guest presided at Loop twice. Both times he did not write out an invitation to be printed in liturgy, because he wanted to hear the sermon before inviting people to the table. For him, the scripture is the thread that runs throughout the service. It connects the sermon to the table and invites the community into God’s narrative.
Also, it’s welcoming to make people feel comfortable with not participating in communion. Loop Church used to worship in a space large enough to make one large communion circle. They gathered around a table made during a previous grant. But that made it very obvious who wasn’t in the circle. Now we rent a smaller space where we need to do three or four successive circles around the communion table. Or we’ll have people come up in a line while two servers hold the bread and the cup. Either way, you can’t so easily tell who participated in communion or not.
Besides the occasional street person, we get visitors who see Loop Church on Google Maps. We don’t know who will be there on any given week or what they will know about communion. So we have to be intentional to explain what communion is and why we do it.
Downtown Chicago has many unhoused people. How did that context affect your grant project?
Walking to church from public transportation or the parking lot, you’ll pass at least four or five people experiencing homelessness and asking for change. We’re not a large church; we’re not a social agency. But the gospel compels us to care. We invite them to join us on brunch Sundays and have been able to engage with a few pretty deeply, such as raising money to secure several months of safe housing with the hopes it would help them get back on their feet.
We also used grant funds to buy boxes of sub sandwiches one Sunday. We put the boxes on the communion table. After we shared communion, we distributed the boxes to the congregation and gave the charge to go out and share the food. It pushed people beyond their comfort zone, but they did it. Then they returned, shared prayer requests from the people they talked with, and we finished the worship service.
As a result of your grant, what has changed or stayed the same in your communion liturgies?
We still follow the basic structure of invitation to the table: “Lift up your hearts” [sursum corda], words of institution, and a prayer of thanksgiving. But we’ve continued to do what the grant pushed us to do—use different sources to create weekly communion liturgies infused with relevancy that reflects our local context or the sermon text.
I usually write the invitation and words of institution, and the four lay people on our worship team take turns writing the prayer of thanksgiving. They feel most comfortable writing out prayers they know are theologically sound. I have more time to write and practice my parts, so I can follow the form, yet use relevant words, and look at the people as I invite them to the table.
Since I’ve become interim pastor, we’ve planned sermon series so that liturgists writing the prayer will know the scripture far ahead of time. We print out the order of worship in the bulletin, but it may or may not include the communion liturgy. Sometimes I print that out on Friday as a bulletin insert. It will definitely be printed if the prayer includes congregational responses.
One week we combined the communion prayer of thanksgiving with the congregational prayer [prayers of the people]. This gave many worshipers a chance to offer extemporaneous prayers of thanks.
What’s an example of a communion invitation that expands your awareness of Christ’s body?
Thinking about who is welcome at the Lord’s Table pushed us to think beyond the circle of those present in our 90-minute service. At a recent service, we covered the communion table with a heap of bricks, to remember the devastation of flooding in the Midwest and Mozambique.
That day, after a sermon on the Lord’s Prayer, this was the invitation to the table: “This week we come to the table, remembering those in Mozambique who have had to search through the rubble to find the bodies of loved ones. At this table we remember those stranded on rooftops by floodwaters, those who are waiting for relief to arrive, those whose prayer ‘thy kingdom come’ takes on new meaning. We remember those who have not eaten for days, whose prayer ‘give us, Lord, our daily bread,’ takes on new meaning.
“As we prepare to come to the table, let us say the prayer Jesus taught, in solidarity with Christians in Mozambique and around the world.” And then we began the communion prayer of thanksgiving with the Lord’s Prayer, followed by other printed words that we said together. The final words of that section were: “Gather your whole church together, into your kingdom, where peace and justice are revealed, that we, with all your people of every language, race, and nation may share the feast and receive your presence.”
How else did the grant year create lasting effects?
Our celebration of the Lord’s Supper, while always meaningful to the congregation, was infused with a new sense of life, possibility, and transformation. Creating new liturgies that reflected our lived experiences or sermon themes gave the congregation new ways to encounter Jesus during the sacrament. We developed meaningful relationships with people who’ve returned as guest preachers and presiders. Our worship team was challenged to approach the liturgy of the Lord’s Supper with new intentionality and creativity but have come away feeling refreshed by the new opportunities to be nourished by God at the table.
Watch Nanette Banks’ invitation to the communion table at Loop Church. Read a justice-oriented communion liturgy by Lexi Wurpts, a member of Loop’s worship and grant teams. See the grant poster about their communion in context project. Calvin Institute of Christian Worship offers Vital Worship Grants for teacher-scholars and worshiping communities. Read The Meal Jesus Gave Us by N.T. Wright.