Roughly three months ago many congregations in North America could not have imagined online worship. First attempts, implemented quickly as health authorities recommended or insisted on avoiding public gatherings to prevent spread of the virus that causes COVID-19, consisted of pieced-together recordings of parts of the liturgy. For churches still meeting online, many services have become more sophisticated and streamlined. Some provide invitations to a coffee fellowship room on a video-meeting platform after the service. Gathering apart, but together, to worship has become the new way of experiencing the body of Christ for this time.
But what of communion? Is virtual communion an oxymoron (a contradiction in terms) or a genuine experience? To celebrate or not to celebrate the Eucharist was a decision that church councils had to make in each part of the Christian Reformed Church. Among churches in the classes (regional groups) of B.C. North-West and B.C. South-East, the responses vary.
For Fleetwood CRC in Surrey, B.C., it was natural to continue with communion for their livestreamed service. “We have livestreamed our services for years and always welcomed the participation of (those at home) to share in communion,” said pastor Tom Bomhof. “So when we all had to be homebound, we kept up the practice.” Fleetwood does not pre-record its services allowing the congregation to worship together in real time, sharing communion together in that moment.
Bridge Community Church in Langley, B.C., celebrates communion every Sunday. “However, we did not have communion the first week,” said Pastor George Keulen. “I received feedback from members that they missed it and so since then we have.” Sophie Nagetgaal, a member at the Bridge, describes the beginning of a service. “We are invited to light a Christ candle and prepare the elements with bread or crackers, juice or wine in our homes. … Although we look forward to being together in person, the weekly church service continues to be an important and life-giving part of our weekly family rhythm.”
Ladner CRC is one of a number of congregations who will not be celebrating the Lord’s Supper until they meet together in person again. “Our church council discussed this issue at length,” said council member, Bev Bandstra. In the end they agreed that “one of the ways to refuse to normalize livestream worship was to not find a virtual Lord’s Supper substitute.” Bandstra noted that it’s especially hard to not share communion at this time with members who would ordinarily be served in their homes. (Elders regularly bring the elements of the Lord’s Supper to share with members who are unable—from age, illness, or disability—to easily travel to join in communion at the church.)
Jenna Fabiano, a pastor at Willoughby Church in Langley, B.C., said their pastoral staff made the decision to not have communion online. “Our staff have a strong conviction that communion should be a communal event celebrated with the body of believers physically present,” said Larry VanWieren, the council chair. VanWieren acknowledged that some congregants expressed a desire for communion but, generally, feedback was minimal. Langley Immanuel CRC, which is currently without a lead pastor, is joining Willoughby Church in online worship.
Terrace (B.C.) CRC holds more loosely to a decision. Although they celebrated together for their Good Friday service and will again on Pentecost, the council decided to forgo communion in April “in part to acknowledge the tension and hunger for that great heavenly banquet,” according to Pastor Joel Ringma. “The congregation responded with understanding and grace. There is both a longing to participate and a dissatisfaction with taking the fellowship meal without fellowship. It seems contra to Paul's instructions to the church in Corinth.” (See 1 Cor. 11:33.)
Churches also are considering best practices for the celebration of communion once in-person services take place again. Sonya Grypma is a council member at Willoughby CRC and heads the church’s COVID-19 Response Team. Her team will consider what worship will look like in “conformance with the current government protocols and guidelines in light of the easing of restrictions. As part of this process, we will consider best practices for the celebration of communion in terms of the mitigation of health and other associated risks.”
All who responded share the longing for that time when communion can again be served in person.
Related: The Christian Reformed Church’s Worship Ministries has collected reflections on this topic from pastors, chaplains, church polity experts, and historians, on The Network.