Why can’t communion be our altar call?

I wonder how many Biblical literalists take John 6:53 literally. In it, Jesus says, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.” Jesus isn’t being “metaphorical” or “mystical.” He clarifies any confusion as to what He means by His flesh and blood in Luke 22:19-20 when He breaks the bread and passes the cup. For the first 1700 years of Christianity, communion was the centerpiece of our weekly worship (even for most of the Protestants who broke off in the 1500’s). The revival movements of the 1700’s and 1800’s effectively replaced the communion table with the altar call as the climax of worship in evangelical Protestantism at least (yes, that is an oversimplification). What I don’t understand is why communion and the altar call can’t be the same thing.

First, I should say that while I may not understand the Catholic/Orthodox view of communion correctly, I do think they have a very legitimate concern with the discipline of sacramental life and the dignity of the body of Christ. When you take the body of Christ seriously as not just a figure of speech but an actual organism, then you view the sin of the body’s parts as a more pernicious kind of threat. This is the basis for the argument Paul makes in 1 Corinthians 6 against sexual immorality. We are raping Jesus’ body when we engage in formication or any other sin that gives Satan a stronghold in our community. Sin is never a private matter between us and God; it destroys the intimacy God longs to have among the community He created to delight in. The crucified and resurrected body of Christ reestablishes a safe space of joyful intimacy between Creator and creature that was lost in humanity’s fall into sin.

I’m not sure a Catholic or Orthodox would endorse this explanation, but the best I can tell, their communion table is closed to people who have not covenanted with their common life of sacramental discipline in order to protect the body of Christ from the rape of our sin. Or to modify the metaphor slightly, it protects us from the organ rejection that will happen to us if we try to stay in Christ’s body while living in open rebellion against His Lordship since His life swallows up mortality and spits out everything that is not life. I’m aware that neither of these metaphors are perfect representations.

All of this is just to say that I don’t wish in any way to disrespect the millennia of Spirit-led meditation that have led many Christians to believe in a closed communion table. The reason why I part ways with them on this issue (aside from being part of a denomination defined by its open table) is because communion is the heart of the gospel to me. God is telling us that He wants us at His party! And He wants to share His feast with us so badly that His Word became flesh and died on the cross so that we wouldn’t have any reason to fear His invitation. Christ’s table is the means God gave us to invite the world to His feast. So it scandalizes me that any altar call would not also be a call to Christ’s table. How can you even call it an altar if there is no sacrifice on the altar? I also believe that the altar call should be the climax of weekly worship (instead of putting the focus on collecting peoples’ money after the sermon to “pay” for an inspiring word). So in other words, I’m a hopelessly Baptist Catholic averaged out into Methodism.

Every Christian worship service should include a direct invitation to the kingdom. If people are invited forward individually without engaging in the sacrament of our incorporation into Christ’s body, then what our altar call says is that salvation is an individual achievement to be applauded rather than the gift of eternal intimacy with God that Christ’s perpetually crucified and resurrected body provides for us. We can try to qualify what our actions proclaim with pious theological statements about God’s sovereignty and so forth, but if everything we do in worship to represent salvation looks like an individual’s “decision,” then it’s a farce for us to call salvation a gift.

The communion table tells us that salvation is a gift that only Jesus can give and that all we can do is receive the bread of heaven with the open hands of humble beggars. We may not know the moment at which we “get saved” if we accept the many altar calls of communion both before and after our hearts are “strangely warmed” by the Holy Spirit, but if we understand salvation as Christ’s ongoing incorporation of us into His body rather than our “decision” to “believe in Him,” it seems much more conducive to really surrendering ourselves to His Lordship and avoiding the life of Pharisaic behavior in which many falsely saved Christians take refuge to conceal their lack of eternal assurance.

I crave the life that I receive in Jesus’ flesh and blood every Monday at the Catholic basilica in DC. The reason I do this while not being in covenant with the bishop of Rome is because I find myself in the strange position of being called both to marriage and ordained ministry and believing that my wife is called to both of the same. I don’t mean any harm, though I’m sure someone will say I’m being selfish and disrespectful. All I can say is that God has evangelized me incredibly through each Monday mass.

John Wesley preached that communion could be a “converting ordinance.” In other words, he saw its potential to bring non-believers to salvation. We talk in Methodism about means of God’s grace. Depending on where you are in your journey into God’s kingdom, the form of grace you need from God is different. The sacrament of communion offers many shades of grace. Seekers might see in communion a strange, beautiful ritual that piques their curiosity about God. Those who have despaired of the loneliness and dishonesty of their worldly self-reliance can be “cut to the heart” and brought to their knees in repentance by the same basic word that Peter proclaimed in Jerusalem in Acts 2: “This Jesus whom we crucify gave His body and blood to make peace with us when we were His enemies.” Then, those who have surrendered themselves to the life that crucifies our sin can receive the “sweet brokenness” that is deeper repentance and fuller incorporation into Christ’s body.

Of course if this is what communion is supposed to accomplish, then we need to ask whether the way Methodists typically do communion is appropriate to its essential purpose. In our contemporary worship service each Saturday night, I let the Holy Spirit give me the words of invitation based on the particular theme of that week’s message. I understand the rationale for using the words that Christians have used for centuries in order to be one body across time, but if they’re just words in a hymnal that serve the purpose of reassuring us that we’re being “proper,” then that’s a pretty abysmal altar call. If what we’re doing sounds like a flight attendant going through a standard checklist, how is that anything that we can call reverent? If saying the exact words from the third century is important, then they shouldn’t be words we read from a hymnal but words we memorize and teach the significance of. If nobody understands their significance, then it’s sacrilegious to make proper and banal what could be eternally lifesaving.

I may get rebuked for saying this, but I really think we should tailor the words we use for our invitation each time according to the message and the particular crowd we see before us, so that it can be a true altar call that reaches curious seekers, people who are ready to be swallowed into Christ’s body, and Christians who want to fall more deeply in love with their savior. We should expect nothing less from the altar to which our eternal high priest invites us.

19 thoughts on “Why can’t communion be our altar call?

  1. Might I suggest the book, “Torture and the Eucharist” by Catholic Theologian William Cavenaugh. It is a argument about how the world tears down union and contrasts it with the power of creating unity and whole people in the Eucharist. If you have not read it, do so, it is furthermore a solid discussion of how the Eucharist informs the political life of the Body of Christ.

  2. FWIW, the Mozarabic Rite of St. Isidore had a really flexible anaphora; as long as the celebrant worked in 1 Cor. 11:24-6 somehow he could say whatever he thought appropriate.

    So you’re not without precedent.

    • Older than that, we have Justin Martyr’s testimony around 150 (First Apology) that the presider would offer a more or less ex tempore Eucharistic prayer. There, though, the values were a bit different– brevity wasn’t the point. Justin refers to the presider praying here “as long as he was able.” Not quite sure how that would fly these days.

      In the UMC, however, the origins of our Eucharistic praying tradition aren’t with Justin or with the Mozarabic Rite of St Isadore, but more where most mainline Protestants turned as part of the ecumenical scholarship on early Christian liturgical rites– the so called “West Syrian” tradition, of which the (also very long!) “Clementine Rite” in Book 8 of the Apostolic Constitutions (ca 380) is a prime example– and in which, more or less, the anaphora at the ordination of a bishop in Apostolic Tradition (ca 215) fits as well. In other words, pretty much all of us have normed around some form of a comprehensive, Trinitarian written text– at least as a starting place– rather than around the notion of primarily ex tempore praying that includes the Verba as a “touchstone.”

  3. Without getting into the details of a much worded and challenging article, there is one thing I want to put forward: the need for a more steady frequency in this practice of the table of the Lord. What if we make it available every Sunday or, even better, as many times as possible during the week? We should always welcome some more grace.

  4. Actually, Morgan, for Mr Wesley and Mr Asbury, and for early Methodism in the US through 1808, the Communion Table was not at all open. One required a ticket from one’s class leader to gain admission even to the building where these Methodist communion services would be held. While the requirement of the ticket from the class leader ended in the Discipline as of 1808– presumably because there was already a decline in attendance at or attention to class meetings– one really does not find many if any examples of “wide open communion” that begin to “stick” anywhere in Methodism until the early 20th century.

    I’m not sure what this does to your argument, but it is something to consider as you continue to think through these issues.

    • To me, that speaks to the tension between church discipline and evangelism. In Methodism, church discipline has become an almost non-existent concept which is a huge problem. You can’t “expel the immoral brother” if you have an open table. I would prefer to keep the open table but be proactive in engaging people individually about what they’re going to do now that they’ve publicly taken their place in the body of Christ.

      Regarding Charles Finney et all, I think revivalism has been mostly a theological disaster in America because it created the idea that worship is supposed to be a spectacle and conversion is supposed to be a dramatic event rather than a persistent process. However I do believe that we should always be evangelistic in our preaching and at the table.

      • Historically, it’s more of a case of “What Mr Finney wanted, Mr Finney did not get,” or, more precisely, what “Mr Finney did not want was what Mr Finney got.” He was always very clear that he expected congregations to continue to offer worship as they always had, and that it would be completely inappropriate for Sunday morning worship to end up resembling the revival meetings. His vision was that the revivals were supplemental to the work of worship in congregations, and that both were essential to the Christian life. Trying to mix the two in one service would do damage to both.

        I thought Finney got this right. I wish more of his successors both in the revivals and in the pulpits of American Protestant churches had paid attention.

  5. The best explanation I was ever given regarding the closed table is that if we see the table as open to all, we no longer feel the pain of separation caused by our lack of denominational unity. The closed table should always be seen as an indication of our lack of unity and should constantly call us to seek to be “one as They are one”. Although I tend to agree more with your view regarding an open table, I believe this explanation to be a more dynamic understanding of our need to be one body of Christ and our individual responsibilities to seek unity where we can.

  6. It depends on what parts you mean in saying, “we should tailor the words we use for our invitation each time according to the message and the particular crowd we see before us.” If by “invitation” you mean the invitation to the Table that comes before the prayer of confession and words of assurance/pardon, then yes, I think you’re right. If you mean the Great Thanksgiving itself, then tailoring the wording is fine so long as you keep with the form and order of the liturgy found in the UMH and BoW. That’s not a UMC thing, mind you. It’s because the structure of the Great Thanksgiving expresses both the very best theological and historical interpretation on the sacrament.

    You’re also right about memorizing the liturgy. This is something most pastors struggle with and more times than not we read like we’re reading from an instruction manual instead of reading words of life.

    I would also hasten to say the purpose of the Table is just about oneness or being proper — it’s about declaring the mighty acts of salvation through Jesus Christ, reminding us of the call that we’re “to be for the world the Body of Christ redeemed by his blood” as we serve together “one in ministry to all the world,” and it’s about declaring the vision of the Kingdom in terms of what was, what is, and what will be (eschaton).

    I like your assertion that the culmination of worship be at the Table and not in the invitation!

    • The challenge that’s uncomfortable to name is a substantive, 20 minute sermon and a full-fledged 15 minute communion liturgy cannot fit in a one hour worship service. I’m fine with a 90 minute worship service. I’m also comfortable (though perhaps I shouldn’t be) with a sermon and abbreviated liturgy that bleed into each other which is what we do at our contemporary service. What kills me is when we make the sermon a 7 minute half-homily once a month so that we can do communion without causing a traffic jam in between our two 1 hour traditional morning services.

      • The liturgy does not last 15 minutes. Read this link for more: http://umcworship.blogspot.com/2011/05/fast-food-at-table-of-lord.html

        The liturgy should take no more than 5 minutes. It may feel long because it’s presented slowly or without life and vitality. But if a sermon “must” last 20 minutes, I would question your premise about the most important part of the worship service — if it’s the Table, then we should adapt to preaching for 15 minutes to fit it within an hour. I’d also consider fitting other elements of worship around flowing towards the Table if it is, in fact, the culmination of the worship experience.

  7. I absolutely agree about making the words of invitation to the table come naturally out of the read and preached word. But I do think the words from 1 Corinthians should be used as we prepare and consecrate the elements – or at least a rough approximation – and those words can occasionally be set up in a way that re-establishes to the congregation that we are saying these words as a means of continuing the work of God and the church since the days of the NT. These words could never devolve to equal an airline spiel – not in a million years, if they are offered in a humble spirit, with recognition that they are the words we’ve been given for this purpose. Otherwise, I LOVE this thinking here and agree wholeheartedly. I would also add that not every Catholic table is closed. In smaller settings, there is sometimes an openness to believers in Jesus, regardless of where they were baptized. It is not advertised but it is done.

    • It was at a more intimate weekday gathering in a Catholic parish that a priest was gracious enough to let me attend where I learned the meaning of communion. Had he not exercised this discretion I would have never been transformed by that experience. I usually tell or summarize the story from 1 Corinthians and pray the consecration of the elements at a minimum

  8. Re: Catholic communion. May I suggest you bring your own (as a UM Minister you can bless it yourself) so as to avoid offense? I find the Mass meaningful myself, but do avoid the elements there out of respect.

  9. You make about 20 points in this and I agree with just over half of them. I’ll skip those and address the most central element of this, though I’d be happy to dialogue further perhaps in a more structured environment.

    We Methodist rightly believe in Word and Table in worship. Communion is a converting ordinance and is offered five days a week in Eucharistic services at Asbury Seminary. (I think it is offered at two other times by an Anglican organization separate from the official chapel office.)

    I’ve enjoyed learning from these services, many of which are held in a smaller more intimate setting, and from Dr. Robert Stamps’ class on sacramental theology.

    I hope to have weekly communion at my future churches and have found that it can hold its meaning even when receiving it multiple times a week for a year. I also hope to teach people the deep meaning behind the liturgy over time so that by understanding it retains its place in their hearts and lives. Many sermons or homilies can directly close by in the reality of Christ’s flesh and blood shed for us and the real presence of God when we commune with him at the table. I think both communion and “altar calls” can be appropriate, but communion seems to make the most sense, most of the time.

    When presiding Dr. Stamps ends the liturgy, which can be given with great life and power, often by saying “come hungry, come expecting…” At our best the most we offer is encounter with Christ. It is undeniably found at the table. It is appropriate to bid them come.

    • Thanks for sharing. I would celebrate and/or receive every day if I could. I understand your perspective on the Catholic mass, but when I go there, I am nothing but a helpless sinner begging for God’s mercy and life. It has provided sanctification and enriched my ministry to receive instead of celebrating. You said there were 8 or 9 points you disagreed with. Interested in learning if you’re willing to share.

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