General CBF / peer learning groups

Rethinking our rituals

By Laura Stephens-Reed

During a gathering of my field education cohort during seminary, the leaders facilitated a discussion about the meaning of the Lord’s Supper. For most people in the room, communion was about welcome, nourishment, and grace.

I had a different take.

In the church of my youth, we had the Lord’s Supper once per quarter. It was tacked onto the end of the worship service when everybody in the congregation was already eager to get to the buffet line. A platoon of men – all men, always – marched to the front of the sanctuary with military precision to receive the trays of bread and juice. They distributed the elements with stern looks on their faces. Our church was large, so this whole procedure this took 20-30 minutes.

Nothing about my experience communicated welcome, nourishment, or grace to me.

I was grateful to my cohort leaders for hearing my perspective and my fellow students for helping me think about the Lord’s Supper in new ways. After partaking of the elements in many other contexts and hearing the power of communion for others, I embrace a much more positive theology of the Lord’s Supper.

But still I wonder, how do others understand this holy meal? Who feels included, and who does not? How does gathering (metaphorically if not physically) around the Lord’s table affect how we see and interact with our fellow church members and those we encounter beyond the church’s walls? I hope that I am alone in my negative teenage experience with communion, but I suspect I am not. And the Lord’s Supper is just one of many potentially meaningful rituals we perform as a church. Among the others, what are the issues of power and access and timing? Where do we neglect opportunities to form and inspire disciples of Christ?

With many practices already adapted for COVID, now is a good time to assess the rituals into which we invite longtimers and newcomers. These could include elements of worship, signature events, or markers of the program year. What is the purpose of the ritual? What are the conditions by which that aim is met? Who shapes and leads the ritual, and why are these the people to do this? Who is welcomed, and how is that communicated? What do people need to know in order to participate fully? How do we know when we need to tweak our practice?

These are just a few of the questions you might ask as you consider how a particular ritual points people more directly to God and to one another. Go forth with delight, thoughtfulness, and maybe even a bit of holy chaos to do this good evaluative work.

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