Online Questions for Offline Churches: Is Communion Just A Cracker?

Communion: the bread and the wine Whenever new church models, technologies, and techniques come along there are some who embrace them and some who question them. For me, it has been interesting to see how some of the questions about the “new” are equally valid to ask about the “old.”

In “Online Questions for Offline Churches.” I’ll look at some of the questions raised about recent high tech church models and how they reflect back on the churches who choose not to partake in the new models.

In this post, we’ll jump right into the online communion question which was covered by Newsweek last fall.

1. Does Something “Mystical” Happen to the Elements at the Table?

This question has been hotly debated over the last 500 years and certainly won’t be solved here. The question often asked today goes something like, “Can communion be transferred over the Internet?”  To get a grasp of why this is a question, I’ve laid out (and totally oversimplified) the three main views on communion:

Transubstantiation Spiritual Presence Memorialism
“This is my body, do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19) “This is my body, do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19) This is my body, do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19) (Luke 22:19)
The Roman Catholic view is that the bread and wine fully become the body of Christ and are offered as a means of grace. The Reformers believed that Christ’s body is present with the bread and wine, so there is a mystical element with the memorial. The Anabaptist (those of the Radical Reformation who reject almost all tradition) see the Lord’s supper as purely a remembrance. Many evangelicals unreflectively hold this view.
Definitely not compatible with online communion May not compatible with online communion Probably is compatible with online communion

Among Protestants, the two main views may be more or less compatible with online communion. Luther and Calvin’s views differed slightly, but they both basically felt that something mystical or spiritual occurs at the Table, while later Anabaptists saw communion as 100% memorial with no spiritual or mystical event taking place.

Today’s churches who only have communion one a month or quarter usually have Memorialist roots. These churches are probably the most likely to accept online communion, while more Reformed or high church traditions are more likely to reject online communion – though not always as evidenced by a Methodist pastor (from a “spiritual presence” background) in Texas that has been offering online communion for years. Rev. Neal offers a detailed theology explanation for why he offers communion online, but only while someone is unable to attend a local congregation.

Before making a judgment on whether online communion is “good” or “bad,” one needs to look at his or her beliefs about what communion actually is and what happens at the Table.

2. Does Church Leadership/Authority Matter?

As far back as as Augustine’s day, there have been questions about the role of leadership in offering communion.  In the Donatist Controversy, the question was whether baptism and communion were valid if they were given by a priest who had ever recanted his faith.

In our day, the questions are whether or not anyone can offer communion to anyone else in any setting, or if it is reserved for a “local church” with leaders and elders. Can parachurch organizations (seminaries, college campus organizations, etc.) offer communion? Should families offer communion to one another? Should small groups, Bible studies, etc.? Can you “break bread” with yourself?

These questions are particularly hard to answer for Protestants, those from democratic countries, and those living in a post-modern world – all of which are anti-authority to various extents. These questions also show how weak (flexible?) evangelical ecclesiology is. We know we are the church, but it seems we’re not quite sure what the church is.

3. Do Relationships Matter?

In some early churches, a convert could not participate in communion until he or she had undergone a one year catechetical training in the faith. The Didache (an early manual of church practice) also said that all participants in the Elements must publically confess their sins to one another before participating. (aside: J.I. Packer has recently written on when communion should be withheld)

Online churches are often criticized because attendees do not having deep, physically-present relationships, but instead only know each other by discarnate, disembodied avatars. But the truth is that many congregants of today’s “offline” churches are far less relationally invested in one another than what we see in the early church. There might in fact be serious problems with online churches, but there are also serious problems with community in the offline world as well.

Summary

The point here is that many “offline” churches who criticize online communion as well as online churches who embrace it are often unaware of the origins and meanings of their own communion practices. Technological questions like “Can we?” and even “Should we?” are answered before “What does it mean?”

Before calling online communion good or bad, church leaders would do well to study the doctrine, its meaning, and its history and then clearly teach it their congregations. That way, however you come down on the online question, this precious means of grace can be more than just “that thing we do with the crackers and grape juice every quarter.”

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John Dyer

In my day job, I work at Dallas Theological Seminary, and at night I write Bible software for countries whose leaders could be called "overlords." This one time, I wrote a book about technology and Christian faith. You can find out more about what I'm up to at http://j.hn/.

13 thoughts on “Online Questions for Offline Churches: Is Communion Just A Cracker?”

    1. True North,
      Thanks for your comment. Perhaps I should have given a bit more context.

      Here are a few links to the first few online baptisms that happened last year:
      http://frclive.blogspot.com/2008/03/first-online-baptism.html
      http://www.leadingsmart.com/leadingsmart/2008/10/can-you-baptize.html

      I haven’t found any links to video of online communion, though the link to Rev. Neal’s describes it fairly thoroughly.

      Do you have any thoughts about the theology behind it?

      1. I’m an Anglican and my view of the Eucharist is most like Calvin’s as described in his chapter on the Lord’s Supper in the Institutes. I’m not sure how theology would address the question. Online communion seems to be a step toward what Albert Borgmann calls hyperreality, which in its perfect state is fully realized virtual reality. So if the technology was perfected in such a way that the person receiving communion or being baptized could in every way be “present” virtually in the local congregation, would that be desirable? Why would we want to do this? Would we call two people eating dinner while video chatting “sharing a meal together?”

      2. I forgot about your chart. I would be in the middle. but I don’t think the theology of the Eucharist is necessarily prohibitive of online sacraments. Even Roman Catholics could use preconsecrated elements if they so desired.

        It seems to me that the post itself assumes a sort of “commodified” view of sacraments. It focuses on what the elements bear and carry to the individual communicant, rather than its celebration in the context of the local community.

        1. Your point about “commodification” of the elements is well put.

          Part of the idea in this post is to show how the concept of and questions about online communion bring up long held, but usually unexamined beliefs we hold about communion.

          For example, is there a difference between tearing off a piece of a shared loaf of bread instead of taking an individual cracker off of a plate that passed around? If we question the individual pieces used online, perhaps we should also question it in our own offline congregations.

      3. “Online churches are often criticized because attendees do not having deep, physically-present relationships, but instead only know each other by discarnate, disembodied avatars. But the truth is that many congregants of today’s “offline” churches are far less relationally invested in one another than what we see in the early church. There might in fact be serious problems with online churches, but there are also serious problems with community in the offline world as well.”

        The above statement is most certainly correct, but it hardly justifies online communion. The argument could be that the impact of Borgmann’s “device paradigm” in the church, i.e., commodification of the church (the view that discipleship and community are commodities the church is supposed to provide) is the source of much of the church’s problems w/community in advanced industrial cultures. Online communion is just an extension of the basic problem that is at the source.

        The problem with hyperreality is that it has a low threshold, it requires little or no exertion for engagement. Is the communicant desiring it out of convenience? Out of the desire to not have to engage with the messiness and ordinariness of a particular local church community? This is hinted at in the almost oxymoronic nature of the term itself: online community.

        1. Good to see that you’re a Borgman fan! Your analysis of him seems right on.

          The issue you bring up regarding convenience and community is huge. While I think the online world is often the epitome of such convenience, much of our modern offline world (cars, phones, air condition) also puts convenience over community be insulating us from the “messiness.”

          So we need to be aware that any criticism we give about the online world is equally valid for our high tech offline world as well.

  1. I am an Anglican priest, and I can assure you with complete confidence that neither the Catholic nor the Reformed view are in any way compatible with on-line communion. Rev. Neal has a fringe-opinion and does not represent the theological position of those whom you chart “in the middle.” I will let True North do the arguing, I’m just giving you the bottom line.

    1. Thomas, thanks for you comment!

      I totally agree with you that online communion is incompatible with Catholic and Reformed theology. Even Rev. Neal only offers it in special cases where a person cannot attend a local church, whereas online-only churches offer it as a regular part of their Sunday online experiences.

      The point of this post was not to argue for online communion at all, but to point out that many who are debating the issue are unaware of their theological heritage or that others think differently on the issue. Those embracing online communion are often unaware that it inherently teaches a memorialist view. And those critiquing it from a memorialist view do not have strong doctrinal grounding for their objection (where as you, of course, do have very firm grounding).

  2. John:

    Good post, and great thoughts. I ended up here thanks to the Collide blog.

    Currently my congregation is doing the leg work on launching an internet campus and many of these same concerns have arisen. I have a high view of communion as sacrament, which is a funny thing coming from someone who grew up Southern Baptist. I also believe that there is more going on in partaking of the bread and cup than an act of personal, obedient devotion. The fact that the local body takes of one loaf and one cup symbolizes something much greater–the reality that God has welcomed all people into fellowship through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. Somehow, “virtual” communion seems to fall short of this aspect of our constitution as a community which stands in the time between the times.

    I’ve read enough Wendell Berry to be convinced that global communities do not make sense apart from local communities, and I’ve read enough Neil Postman to know that with technology there are both winners and losers. In my mind, the church loses when we cease to gather in local, physical bodies to celebrate the Lord’s meal.

    Ben

    1. Ben, thanks for your thoughts. There are some great things that can happen online, but I agree that the deepest levels of personal connection don’t seem possible.

      If your church posts anything about how they went about making the decision regarding an internet campus, I’d love to hear it!

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