Our whole lives are anchored by the shared experience of finding grace at God’s table.

Eight years ago, six families left Boston Square Church for a variety of reasons. Any church feels the loss of a single family, but for a church our size, where some of those who left taught Sunday school, baked cookies, ran the sound system, and served on council—that calls the future of the congregation into question.

The council began to discuss and research different options. Folks gathered every Sunday after church to pray for wisdom and discernment. At the end of a year of prayer and conversation, we realized we had two choices: make significant changes or close.

As we prayed and talked and worried and mourned together, a vision began to emerge. We decided to emphasize two pillars—passionate community and spiritual transformation. The first we did well already—we are a friendly, welcoming congregation with a strong commitment to Christian community. The second, spiritual transformation, was not as strong. We had filled out church health surveys showing that it ranked near the bottom of our church’s gifts.

But we wanted that to change. And we wanted that change to drive us into mission, which we defined very broadly as building the kingdom of God.

Embracing a New Vision

The more we talked about how to achieve those goals, the more the practice of weekly communion captured our imagination. It brought both pillars together in a way nothing else could. Almost by definition, communion builds community. As the Heidelberg Catechism declares: “through the Holy Spirit . . . we are united more and more to Christ’s blessed body.  And so, although he is in heaven and we are on earth, we are flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone . . .” (Q&A 76).

But communion also brings spiritual transformation. The Heidelberg Catechism teaches that, “as surely as I receive . . . the bread and cup of the Lord . . . so surely [Christ] nourishes and refreshes my soul for eternal life with his crucified body and poured-out blood” (Q&A 75).

As pastors, we knew this from experience. We both attended Princeton Theological Seminary, where communion was celebrated every week at a chapel service. We both realized how much that weekly communion service, more than all the other activities on campus, became a spiritual highlight of each week and the foundation of our identity as a community together.

Finally we held a special congregational meeting. The choice was to close or to approve a vision that included weekly communion. By God’s grace, the congregation embraced the vision.

No one knew quite what to expect, and we were immediately met with a number of challenges. Celebrating communion weekly brought several issues to the forefront with a new urgency.  Some folks were concerned that celebrating every week would make communion less “special.”  Others worried that our services would go too long. Still others wondered if unbelievers would feel welcome if we were celebrating the Lord’s Supper and they couldn’t participate. And what about children at the Lord’s Supper?

And then there were the logistical issues. Do we serve in the pews as we always had, or do we come forward to the table? Do we serve individual cups or dip the bread into a common cup?  Do we pre-slice the bread or tear from a loaf? If we come forward, do people file through stations or form a circle together? What about germs if we touch the same loaf? What about folks with gluten sensitivities? We spent hours and hours in our elders’ meetings talking through these theological and practical questions, and we experimented with various methods along the way.

In the end, we settled on a pattern that seemed to fit best. Most Sundays people come forward for communion, processing through stations at the front of the sanctuary. There, a pastor or elder breaks bread from a loaf for each person, who then dips it into either a cup of juice or wine. (We also have a small table with gluten-free bread and a separate cup available for those who need it; an elder is available to serve folks in the pews who are unable to come forward or prefer to stay seated.) 

Baptized children who have completed Children’s Worship at about second grade are welcome at the table, at the discretion of their parents. We created a short class for children to help them better understand participation at the table. And we encourage anyone—adult or child—who is not ready to partake in the elements to come forward and receive a blessing instead.

Along with celebrating communion every week, we are able to vary our communion liturgy according to the church year. For example, during Advent we focus on communion as a foretaste of our future. In Lent our celebration is more penitential, and during ordinary time our emphasis is on being nourished in our faith. Repeating the same liturgy every week for a season allows the various themes to take root in our souls.

A Different Congregation 

Change is never easy. After our vote, more people left. And after we decided to welcome children to the table without first making Public Profession of Faith, a few more left. We had to cut our overall budget by 25 percent, and for at least three years we were only able to make our operating expenses because of a sizeable bequest that came at just the right time.

But now, years later, we are a different congregation. Almost half of our current members joined after we voted to change. We’re still small by Grand Rapids standards, and our budget is still bare-bones. But there is a new life and vitality in our church. Longtime members have been gracious about the changes, and some folks who were not sure about celebrating communion every week now say they can’t imagine going to a church without it. 

Most important, our practice of weekly communion is shaping us as a body in profound ways.  We see the teachings of the Heidelberg Catechism coming to life. Experiencing God’s love in the tangible form of the bread and the cup every week is connecting us more deeply to Christ and to one another and is nurturing us for ministry in our world. Folks at church talk about their faith more now, about how they are growing in their relationship with God. As we gather around the table each week, dying and rising with Christ has become more of a theme in our worship and our spiritual lives and in our actual conversations.

Whereas before we generally liked one another, now there is a deeper sense of community and of praying for one another and bearing each other’s burdens. Seeing folks come forward to the table each week deepens our bonds and reminds us to pray for each other. Experiencing Christ’s sacrificial love for us each week as the bread is broken and the wine is poured spurs us to greater service and sacrificial giving.
Weekly communion is making the Christian life more down-to-earth real for us. Our faith is more than just a matter of words; it is a physical reality as we receive Christ not only in the Word, but in the bread and wine.

Our whole lives are anchored by the shared experience of finding grace at God’s table. More than ever, we see members living their faith in their daily lives—reaching out to neighbors and strangers, giving generously, opening their homes to others. We have become much more of a “sending” congregation, with members involved in building the kingdom in our city and praying for and sending people on short-term and long-term travels to build God’s kingdom as missionaries, students, and teachers around the world. 

The new life we’ve experienced at Boston Square isn’t only because we celebrate communion each week. But that has been central to what the Spirit is doing at Boston Square. “Do this in remembrance of me” is more than just a phrase carved in the communion table. It’s the foundation of a community experiencing spiritual transformation.

Discussion Questions

  1. How often does your congregation celebrate Holy Communion? What do you think about the frequency of celebration?
  2. In your opinion, what are the drawbacks to weekly communion? The advantages?
  3. In what ways do you think weekly communion might strengthen your spiritual life?
  4. The authors remark about the impact of their change on their community’s life. Why do you think weekly communion might affect the life of the church community?
  5. From the New Testament to the time of the Reformation, Holy Communion was part of every worship service. Why do you think this changed in Reformed churches? Why are churches returning to the older practice?

About the Author

Elizabeth Vander Haagen is co-pastor at Boston Square Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Jay Blankespoor is co-pastor at Boston Square Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Mich.

See comments (6)

Comments

While serving as an elder in my congregation we moved to monthly instead of semi-monthly communion. I agree with most of what is presented here, but I'd suggest one other important aspect is that the Lord's Supper focuses the congregation on the Atonement. Too often in our contemporary culture mission creep can set in as churches focus on "programs" and "strategies" while neglecting the essential message of "Christ crucified for unworthy sinners". 

I like the idea of varying the liturgy based on the church calendar. Should help with people's concern of it being "less special". Thank you for sharing your story.

Elizabeth and Jay, I’m glad to hear your communion practice includes a gluten-free option. In our congregation, we moved to using entirely gluten-free communion bread and allergen-free preparation (separate knives, cutting boards, etc.) so that there was no risk of a person with a significant gluten allergy experiencing an allergic reaction. If it’s feasible for a congregation to do so, it’s a meaningful step to families and individuals with significant food allergies,

Thanks for this Elizabeth and Jay! I would love to implement this in our small, rural church and would also love to hear of other CRCNA congregations who are doing this. John Calvin was absolutely right in advocating for weekly communion and I long for the day when our denomintion as a whole would return to this practice.

This is a very interesting article. When I read articles like this I usually look up the church in my year books. The church had about 196 members in 2010 and in the 2015 it had 180.

Here is what was said about those who left.: ":some of those who left taught Sunday school, baked cookies, ran the sound system, and served on council—that calls the future of the congregation into question.": Based on you mentioning money these were good supporters of your church.

But based on this you have 16 less members and may still have financial challenges. So how does this church square its vision with its "results"?

Telling me churches do not have to justify results will not be a good answer.

 

Mr. Boessenkool, it seems that you may be confusing "count data" with "witness data." While it may be true that there are fewer people attending worship (this is a measure of count data), this fact has little to do with the spiritual health of the church, which is measured by tools that indicate the energy with which people attend, and their enthusiasm for the vision of the congregation; and the amount of satisfaction that those members express (satisfaction, not as in "golly, this makes me feel good," but as in "what is happening here appears to bear witness to the shalom of the reign of God"). The article clearly states that the congregation is still among the smaller (per count data) but that it has come a long way (per witness data). If you would like information regarding the differences between these sorts of measures, I encourage you to look into a book called "Owl Sight" by Russell Crabtree.