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Lord's Supper Practice in the Reformed and Presbyterian Tradition

Though John Calvin favored weekly communion, many churches in the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition are just starting to renew Lord's Supper practices. A feature story exploring Lord's Supper practices in the Reformed and Presbyterian Traditions.

Many Christians know the early church celebrated communion every week. After all, the Lord’s Supper is how Jesus asked believers to remember him.

And a fair number of people in the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition know John Calvin passionately advocated for believers to receive weekly communion. He made it a condition before agreeing to leave Strasbourg and return to Geneva.

Yet almost everyone knows that, despite Calvin, most Reformed or Presbyterian churches do not offer a weekly Eucharist.

Congregations talk about observing the Lord’s Supper more often. But they have to agree on the Eucharist’s purpose before they can fully appreciate the richness of what has been handed down from the early church. This was the theme of a recent Calvin Institute of Christian Worship consultation involving pastors from throughout North America and is especially well-stated in Fred R. Anderson's instructive article"Moving Toward Every Sunday Communion."

Last Supper or Lord’s Supper?

You have lots of company if you think “communion” and picture the Last Supper, described in Matthew 26:26; Mark 14:12-26; and Luke 22:14-20.

The New Testament, however, offers a richer fare of insights and images than just these texts. Easter meals in Emmaus (Luke 24:30-32) and Jerusalem (Luke 24:36-49), as well as a seaside breakfast (John 21), describe recognizing the risen Christ while sharing common food. 1 Corinthians 10 and 11 describe the ethical commitments involved in sharing the bread and cup, as well as stirring testimony to the way the Lord’s Supper celebrates the unity of body of Christ.  

We most deeply experience the sacrament of communion when we understand its layers of meaning—including that Jesus died for us, that we experience his presence in the Lord’s Supper, and that we look forward to communing with Jesus and all the saints in the new heaven and earth.

In his short treatise on the Lord’s Supper, John Calvin explained his view that the sacrament is not a sacrifice, but rather a meal in which God nourishes our faith. The past-present-future aspects of the Lord’s Supper are conveyed by using the Reformation communion hymn “I Greet Thee Who My Sure Redeemer Art.” (You may know its later version, “I Greet My Sure Redeemer.”)

Many churches miss this richness by observing the Lord’s Supper only as a reenactment of the Last Supper. Fred R. Anderson, pastor of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, recalls pushing for weekly communion and hearing another pastor respond, “Why in the world would any congregation want to observe a funeral on a weekly basis?”

In an instructive essay on barriers to weekly communion, Anderson says the Last Supper/Lord’s Supper equation persists in part because earlier Bible versions mistranslated Jesus as saying “This is my body broken for you” instead of given for you.

Even when they move to more frequent communion, many churches do this first during Lent. Fritz West, pastor of St. John’s United Church of Christ in Fountain City, Wisconsin, suggests Advent and Easter as better seasons for celebrating the Eucharist more often. “This would teach the joy of the meal rather than its penitential aspect,” he says.

It takes too long!

Church architecture, communion distribution methods, interminable liturgies—and turf tussles—all play into objections that weekly communion simply takes too long.

You’ve probably been in Reformed or Presbyterian churches that profess to value faithful preaching of the Word and proper administration of the sacraments. They may prominently display a communion table, often inscribed with words such as “Eat, drink, remember, and believe.”

Yet when you read the worship space, you notice that the communion table sits lower than the pulpit. Densely packed seating and narrow aisles put everyone’s attention upfront on the preacher but leave little room for distributing the elements or letting worshipers come forward to receive or share communion. The architectural message is that Word and sacrament are not equally important.

Anderson describes presiding over Lord’s Suppers where the communion tablecloth looked like a funeral casket pall. Ministers, elders, and clerks solemnly marched to receive, distribute, and return trays of bread cubes, then repeat the process with trays of tiny wine glasses.

“It was all done in complete silence—not so much as a note of organ music, hymn or anthem, much less a recited psalm—for again, I was told this was people’s ‘private time’ with Jesus,” Anderson recalls. “Clearly, Paul’s admonition about discerning the body had been as completely lost on these congregations as it had been in the medieval church.”

In churches that think worship should last no more than an hour, introducing weekly communion means something else will have to be cut to make time for communion. Preachers, music ministers, and other worship leaders aren’t always eager to reduce their own parts or to lengthen service. Those responsible to prepare, distribute, collect, wash, dry, and store communion trays doubt they can commit so much time each weekend.

Weekly and special?

Another reason churches in the Reformed/Presbyterian tradition choose to have communion only quarterly or monthly is they fear the sacrament will lose its special quality.

In centuries past, people could partake of the Lord’s Supper only if they had a communion token or communion card. They earned these by attending preparatory classes (before each  communion observance) or passing catechism tests and having elders approve their conduct and beliefs. For Christians from this background, having communion every week can seem to require an impossible standard of preparation.

Anderson explains that deep piety sometimes prevents worshipers from embracing weekly communion. Before he convinced his congregation to celebrate the Eucharist each week, he helped them evaluate their devotion to long sermons, treasured music, and elaborate Lord’s Supper traditions.

He says this devotion was “keeping them from a weekly experience of the Risen Christ present among them, speaking to them in the reading of scripture and preaching of the sermon, and feeding them with the gift of himself through the elements of bread and wine in order that they could be strengthened in their faith and life.”

Pastors and worshipers in churches that offer more frequent communion soon find that the Bible has more than enough truth to enliven the service of word and table. They vary the liturgy, prayers, and sermons for Lord’s Supper services by exploring different communion themes and observing seasons of church year.

Gradually worshipers internalize ancient Eucharist patterns. The result? People joyfully come together around the table to meet the Lord.

Lord’s Supper Practices: Use what’s already there

Once your church decides to celebrate the Lord’s Supper more often, you might wonder how to do so in a way that embodies how deep, broad, and high Christ’s love is for us.

Your congregation doesn’t have to invent new communion songs, prayers, and visuals, though you certainly may, if that’s how God has gifted you. You don’t have to agonize over how to make the Eucharist meaningful.

All you need to do is use what’s already present in the practices of the age-old, worldwide body of Christ. Simply follow the ancient patterns, make the symbolism bigger, and include children so everyone gets fed.

Follow the ancient pattern

At a Calvin Symposium on Worship, Hughes “Scotty” Oliphant Old spoke about the unfolding of Reformed Eucharistic liturgies from John Calvin till now. “Calvin always says the Lord’s Supper is a communal experience, not just individual,” said Old, dean of the Institute for Reformed Worship at Erskine Theological Seminary in Due West, South Carolina.

This communal experience flows out of knowing how God’s people prayed long before the Reformation. Old explained that Jesus followed Jewish tradition in blessing God for food, asking God to bless the food, and remembering salvation history.

Early Christians built on this tradition to create a Eucharistic prayer called the Great Thanksgiving. Old lamented, “I’ve seen evangelical Presbyterians that never have a Eucharistic prayer before communion. They plead for grace instead of joyously recounting God’s mighty acts of creation and redemption.”

Over the centuries, churches have focused more or less on certain parts or have varied the order. But the Great Thanksgiving often includes:

  • Sursum corda. Christians have used the “Lift up your hearts” call to prayer since the third century.
  • Sanctus. Worshipers speak or sing verses that start with “Holy, holy, holy.”
  • Benedictus or institution. The presider often uses the words Paul received from the Lord to explain the significance of bread and wine (1 Corinthians 11:23-26). Old says that when he was a Presbyterian pastor, he patterned this prayer on one by John Knox.
  • Memorial Acclamation. Everyone responds by singing or saying the mystery of faith: “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.”
  • Epiclesis or prayer of consecration. The presider or presider and worshipers ask the Holy Spirit to transfigure the communion meal so that Jesus is fully present. Here many liturgies have worshipers do the “Great Amen,” Lord’s Prayer, and passing of the peace.
  • Breaking and giving. The minister performs the visible word by breaking bread and pouring wine (or lifting trays of already broken and poured elements). The people receive the Lord’s Supper. 
  • Postcommunion thanksgiving. Worshipers thank God for the sacrament and ask to be sent out with God’s power and presence so others see God in their lives. This section often includes prayer, liturgical responses, and spoken or sung psalms, such as 103, 113, 116, or 138. “We need to teach our congregations the Eucharistic piety. It isn’t just what the minister does. The whole congregation needs to give thanks by offering their lives to God,” Old said.

Make the symbolism bigger

Water, table, bread, cup, gestures, words. They’re so ordinary, as daily as God’s presence with us, whether or not we notice.

Then again, as Larry Sibley paraphrases John Calvin, we can’t take God full strength. That’s why God comes to us through ordinary things.

“So maybe we ought to make this symbol much stronger than we usually do. A large loaf of real bread, a flagon of wine, and be generous with it, rather than…and flowing water rather than a damp hand on the baby's head, because that's how God is present,” Larry Sibley said at a Calvin Symposium on Worship. He is an author and seminary lecturer in practical theology.

“Dispense with the text for the rite, for both the presider and congregation,” suggests Fritz West, pastor of St. John’s United Church of Christ in Fountain City, Wisconsin. The presider can memorize all or parts of a communion prayer. She or he can also internalize the basic structure and offer a free prayer.

“The sursum corda, the sanctus/benedictus, the memorial acclamation, and of course the ‘Great Amen’ can all be easily memorized by the congregation. It may be followed by the previously memorized Lord's Prayer. 

“One is not often asked to memorize set pieces in our culture, but persistence reaps reward—especially with children. Memorized pieces can become benchmarks of the faith. Repeatedly using the Taizé communion song ‘Eat This Bread, Drink This Cup’ became for our children an entrée into a simple, but faithful, theology of communion,” he says.

Learning the words freed him to communicate more with his actions. And West noticed that St. John’s people who’ve memorized the communion liturgy are more likely to see and respond to his gestures. Saying the words of institution by rote lets him extend the bread and cup, by eye contact and posture, so it feels more like an invitation to the congregation.

Include children so everyone gets fed

When St. John’s UCC expanded monthly communion to every Sunday in Lent, they intentionally involved elementary school children. “The idea was to stress the ordinariness of the meal, the holy in the ordinary. It was to bridge the mystery gap, which distances both children and adults from the Lord's Supper,” Fritz West says. 

They did Lenten communion differently. Instead of being served in pews, worshipers came forward in two lines to take bread from one of two trays West held and wine or juice from elders who stood on either side of him. 

Now, each Sunday in Lent, three children bring in the plate with the bread, the communion pitcher with the wine, and the cup.  West admits that entrusting kids with these church treasures is a challenge. Adults have to hold back from warning kids not to drop anything. “For children, it’s a challenge of faith, trust, and understanding,” West says.

When the elements are on the communion table, West gives a children’s sermon about an aspect of the meal. Kids cluster in the front pews so they can watch the communion ritual.

“After the communion prayer proper concludes, the children are invited to stand around the table as the bread is broken and the wine is poured. Some children take this as a shared responsibility. One five-year-old said, ‘Mom, I helped preach at the table.’ The children are then dismissed to go to their parents, so they can come forward to partake with their families,” West explains.

Learn More

The United Church of Christ has used this communion prayer by Fritz West at annual synods. Read West’s book Scripture and Memory: The Ecumenical Hermeneutic of the Three-Year Lectionaries.

Hughes Oliphant Old’s many books on Reformed worship includeWorship: Reformed According to ScriptureLeading in Prayer: A Workbook for Ministers, and a series on reading and preaching scripture in worship throughout history.

Lift Your Hearts on High: Eucharistic Prayer in the Reformed Tradition  by Ronald P. Byars is a brief yet substantive handbook. To God Alone Be Glory: The Story and Sources of the Book of Common Worship by Harold M. Daniels explains how and why the Reformers recovered “only a fragment of Christian liturgy rather than the whole.” Association for Reformed and Liturgical Worship works to complete that recovery and archives Fred R. Anderson’s excellent essay on barriers to weekly communion.

Check out these Calvin Institute of Worship resources for celebrating the Lord’s Supper. Read an excellent essay by Catholic theologian Joyce Ann Zimmerman on paschal mystery.

Listen to or watch portions of N.T. Wright’s “Space, Time and Sacraments” seminar on baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

Many North American churches use the Lima Liturgy on World Communion Sunday. It includes possible simplifications. 

In her review of Susan Ashbrook Harvey’s Scenting Salvation: Ancient Christianity and Olfactory Imagination, Lauren Winner explains that ancient Christians found meaning in Eucharistic aromas of bread and wine. “Smells, after all, were a bit like God—you knew they were there, you sensed them, but you couldn't see or touch them. When you encountered an odor, you knew that odor had a source, even if the source was far away. Scents, then, pointed toward a God people could not see,” Winner writes.

John Chrysostom preached often on what it means to celebrate communion as the starving body of Christ. Find out who’s hungry in your church neighborhood. 

Start a Discussion

Talk about communion:

  • In what ways does your church help people understand how the Lord’s Supper helps us look back, live now, and look forward? In what ways does your practice emphasize individual piety or communal identity within your congregation and throughout the whole body of Christ?
  • How much does your communion practice have in common with what these stories describe? Do you know the reasons why you do or don’t do certain things in the Eucharist?
  • What, if anything, would you like to change about your Lord’s Supper practice, liturgy, frequency, distribution method, or other aspects? What will your congregation need to understand for this change to be accepted?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to deepen and increase communion? 

  • Did you create a survey to understand what members value about your current practices and why they hold these values? Did you make and discuss a visual about where you match or diverge from communion practices in other traditions or eras?
  • If you found a good way to get more ages involved in some aspect of the Lord’s Supper, will you share it with us? What worked best, especially to help the congregation own the communion liturgy as the work of all (not just the minister) or to include children more fully?