The purpose of this blog post isn’t to argue whether Online Communion is appropriate for your tradition. The purpose is to share how to practice Online Communion and why these specific practices make for a holy experience online.
For many folks, it may be that your church and community is enmeshed in a stalemate over online communion: enough people don’t want to do it that your community is not participating, and yet each week or month that you yearn for the sacrament, you find yourself frustrated by entrenched traditions that are unyielding to the COVID-shaped world.
My local church had the same journey. BC, that’s “Before COVID,” we would celebrate Holy Communion each week. We abstained from Holy Communion for the first four months of COVID-19 while we prayed, searched the scriptures and our church tradition, and then did a test run of Holy Communion held online weekly for the month of July. Then we evaluated as a community, made some changes, and relaunched it as a twice-a-month online communion experience in September.
Here are four choices we made that your community can make that will help remove the barriers to an experience of God through the sacrament of Holy Communion.
Platform: Choose “face to face” video conferencing instead of streaming
Many churches are livestreaming or premiering their worship services on youtube, Vimeo, Facebook, or church-specific platforms. While these are terrific and necessary during COVID, they do not allow the body of Christ to see each other during service. There’s such a disembodied experience when you can’t see or hear each other people that is a barrier to the experience of online communion.
Therefore, I would recommend online communion be practiced solely on Zoom or another video-conferencing software of your church’s familiarity. It allows the gathered body to see each other and share the experience with each other.
If you are planning on holding Holy Communion alongside a regular worship service that is typically streamed on a weekend or weekday, my church has found success to go immediately from the Livestream to the zoom meeting. We distribute the link in advance, name it during the worship service, and then hold the brief service 5 minutes after the worship service live-stream/premiere ends. That way it can be informed by the flavor of the previous worship service, but you don’t lose people who have to come up with a new time. Finally, Zoom allows for the same link to be reused, so regular folks can just add it to their calendars and always have the link available.
Face to face is so important. While officiating Holy Communion on a stream is efficacious, it isn’t felt the same way as when you are immersed in the experience via videoconferencing.
Structure: Choose formal, informal, or blended structures.
Your faith tradition may have strict rules around Holy Communion, and if so, you probably aren’t even reading this article. 🙂 But for the rest of you, we’ve found reception within our congregation by mixing up the experience of Holy Communion so people’s preferences are satisfied and stretched.
As written above, my congregation celebrates Holy Communion online twice a month, and each experience is very different:
- Formal: A formal service is held in the sanctuary of the church, with the clergy in robes, and a set call and response liturgy. On Zoom, we can irrevocably mute participants so they don’t distract, BUT the whole congregation can see each other in the zoom meeting. We do the liturgy and music and share communion in our distributed houses in a formal, traditional setting. Just be sure to not “spotlight” your video because that keeps people from seeing everyone else in a gallery view.
- Informal: An informal service is held in the pastor’s home, the officiant in contemporary dress, with only the essential elements of the liturgy. Other participants can speak and share. At one point in the service, the officiant calls people by name and invites them to share what type of bread and cup they have (see next section). That hearing of each other’s voices and the connection is so important. Everyone is unmuted so it can be distracting, but the liveliness of it seeps through and is appreciated.
By mixing up or settling on one form or another, you’ll find reception with the congregation. If you are looking for a liturgy for online communion, a great and Creative Commons resource is Wil Ranney’s Interactive Online Liturgy for the Sacrament of Holy Communion at Aboundant.
Elements: Allow and celebrate whatever people bring to the table
In some faith traditions, only unleavened bread and wine is allowed for Holy Communion. But for others, there’s more leniency.
In this time of COVID-19, I firmly believe the Spirit will bless whatever is at hand, and the Spirit wouldn’t want a Christian to risk an extra trip to the store just to get “the right thing” to participate in a community worship experience. I tell my congregation to bring pizza and beer, sushi and saki, PB&J and juice boxes, whatever, God will use whatever you bring. Often in the informal settings above, people get a kick out of what others bring for the celebration. The laughter or joy allows your community some levity and reminds us that the first communion was around a raucous dinner table in an upper room.
Check with your faith tradition authorities or “take thou authority” and allow the people to celebrate with whatever they have.
Inclusion: Pull out all the stops, but don’t cease offering
This is the hardest section to write: holding Online Communion on videoconferencing excludes those without computers who can run the app. While it can be a ministry opportunity to help them get set up over the phone, or donate a better computer to an elderly parishioner, it’s hard to overcome with some members.
Zoom, in particular, has some options to help with inclusion of folks on zoom. Zoom allows you to run it in a browser, although that excludes that person from using their camera and fully participating. But they can see the people. In addition, Zoom allows you to call in to experience online communion by calling in on the phone, even a landline. Check the options and the administrator of your account to activate these features.
Finally, remember that you can hold an online communion service, blessing individually wrapped and sanitized elements, and then members of your community can come by, pick them up, and deliver them to congregants without computers. Heck, even traditions with stiff-necked Communion policies allow that! While there’s still barriers to those in assisted living situations, it could include others in the body of Christ gathered that week, even those who experience homelessness. Check your authority’s hygiene best practices to safely deliver communion.
Providing spiritual nourishment for the many, while excluding a number of ones, is a hard ethical and theological choice to make. My hope is that you don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good, and provide nourishment as best you can.
Every action you can take to bring the incarnation to an excarnated experience will smooth the channels of the Spirit to flow, even across screens, time, and space. Let me know in the comments and on social media if you have more questions or suggestions.
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