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Should churches offer Holy Communion online?

By Heather Hahn*
3:00 P.M. ET September 27, 2013

"Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here, and on these gifts of bread and wine."

A United Methodist pastor typically will recite those words while consecrating the communion elements.

But can a virtual community be considered "gathered" together? If a pastor consecrates the bread and cup on my computer screen, does that blessing travel through the Internet to the juice in my fridge?

United Methodist leaders will tackle those questions and others when they meet Sept. 30–Oct. 1 to discuss the possibility of churches offering Holy Communion online.

The meeting at the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry in Nashville, Tenn., will draw together United Methodist bishops, theologians, pastors and agency executives who offer different perspectives on the sacrament in the Internet age. The consultation was organized by the higher education agency, Board of Discipleship and United Methodist Communications.

"The practice of online communion has implications for all United Methodists, clergy as well as laity, as well as for the denomination as a whole," said the Rev. Kim Cape, the top executive of the Board of Higher Education and Ministry. "There are many questions that need to be addressed: sacramental, ecclesial, ecumenical as well as pastoral authority."

She hopes the gathering will result in a document for the Council of Bishops to use in discernment. As of Sept. 25, Bishops William T. McAlilly, Michael McKee and Larry M. Goodpaster had confirmed they would attend the Nashville meeting.

Ultimately, the practice of online communion could go before the General Conference, the denomination's top lawmaking body and the only body authorized to speak for The United Methodist Church. The next General Conference is in 2016 in Portland, Ore.

"Since this is a matter that affects all United Methodists, the questions surrounding this new practice need to be considered at the denominational level," Cape said.

Use of online communion

The meeting follows growing discussions about online Eucharist in local churches around the globe, particularly in Europe, said the Rev. Larry Hollon, the top executive of United Methodist Communications. His agency includes United Methodist News Service.

He noted that some nondenominational churches already offer online communion, and some United Methodist churches are considering expanding their online ministries.

The United Methodist view of communion

United Methodists practice open communion, meaning all at worship are invited to partake. The church proclaims that the table of Holy Communion is Christ’s table. The table is open to anyone who seeks to respond to Christ’s love and seeks to lead a new life of peace and love.

Throughout the history of Christianity, church leaders have debated how best to understand the “Holy Mystery” of the Lord’s Supper — especially whether and how Christ is present in the meal. “The Wesleyan tradition affirms the reality of Christ’s presence, although it does not claim to be able to explain it fully,” says the denomination’s statement on the sacrament, This Holy Mystery: A United Methodist Understanding of Holy Communion.

Each local United Methodist church determines how often to serve communion. Many churches celebrate communion once a month, often on the first Sunday, as well as special days of the year such as Easter and Christmas Eve. Since the adoption of “This Holy Mystery” at the 2004 General Conference, United Methodist congregations have been encouraged to move toward a richer sacramental life, including weekly celebration of the Lord's Supper.

Learn more about Communion

"There is a need to recognize the value of online community as well as an equally important need to discuss its limits, as is true with actual community," Hollon said.

The Rev. Daniel Wilson, who plans to attend the Nashville meeting, is preparing to serve as online campus pastor for Central United Methodist Church in Concord, N.C. The 178-year-old downtown church near Charlotte plans to offer its first service at the not-yet-working http://centralonline.org on Christmas Eve.

"I believe, yes, there is community that happens online, that for certain personalities and certain people is just as significant as the (sense of) community I feel in a group of people gathered together in a sanctuary," Wilson said. "I don't expect everyone to understand that or believe that. But yes, my belief is that community can be the same online."

He said his online campus will use the United Methodist liturgy for communion. "You will see onscreen an invitation from one of our pastors to get your elements of bread and juice or wine. We do not want to water it down so much that people use Goldfish (crackers) and apple juice."

As people watch worship online, he said, a team from Central will be available to chat with viewers, share in prayer and answer questions. That includes questions about the sacrament.

His congregation's vision is that the new campus "will be the DNA of Central Downtown-Concord taken to an online medium."

"We still will be very mission focused. There will be teaching and Bible study opportunities as well as online worship. &ellipsis;To our knowledge, we are among the first mainline congregations attempting to make a holistic online congregation. My No. 1 goal in all of this is that it becomes a very relational way of doing ministry."

The larger communion of saints

At least one United Methodist pastor, the Rev. Gregory S. Neal, has offered online communion since 2003.

Neal is the senior pastor of Northgate United Methodist Church in Irving, Texas, and also leads the online Grace Incarnate Ministries. He has written an essay, "Online Holy Communion: Theological Reflections Regarding the Means of Grace," circulated in advance of the Nashville meeting. Neal also plans to attend.

"Do I consider it immeasurably better for one to partake of the Means of Grace - and, most especially, Holy Communion - within a physically localized community of believers? Absolutely," he writes.

Most people use his online ministry to "supplement and amplify" what they are receiving in their local communities of faith, he said.

Still, he argues, when people partake of the sacrament via the Internet, they are partaking within the broader community of the "one holy catholic and apostolic Church of which all Christians are a part."

Concerns about the practice

The Rev. L. Edward Phillips, associate professor of worship and liturgical theology at Emory University's Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, has been exploring the questions raised by the practice ahead of the Nashville meeting. Phillips served from 2001 to 2004 as chair of the Holy Communion Study Committee for the denomination's General Conference.

Phillips has plenty of concerns. Chief among them is how to understand where the practice of online consecration leaves the communal part of communion.

"People have many meaningful experiences online, friendships that are nurtured among people who haven't met," he said. "In a way, the church is trying to see how we can put this to good use for spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ."

But a meaningful experience watching a service of communion on a television program, movie or Passion play does not equate to participation in the Lord's Supper, he said.

"Here's one thing you can't do online: You can't give somebody a bowl of hot soup and you can't touch their hand while you are giving it to them. You can't give them a hug if they're down," Phillips said. "Maybe we ought to pay more attention to the sharing (of the sacrament)."

The theologian, also an elder in the Memphis Annual (regional) Conference, said he does see some potential benefits. Online ministries, including the practice and explanation of Eucharist, could help draw more people from their computer screens to local churches.

He also can imagine circumstances when online communion might be the best option available for some people to experience the sacrament. Still, he warns, "hard cases make bad law."

Hollon said he hopes the meeting will identify issues that need deeper attention.

"These have to do with the nature of community and how the church includes people and connects with them," he said. "I hope it will also identify our history as a Wesleyan movement that sought to be inclusive, innovative and theologically consistent with the teachings of Jesus."

*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.

News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.