Updated: May 8, 2020
Evangelicals have perpetrated an unprecedented fast foodification of communion. Here's why it matters—and why it must end.
C.S. Lewis had a high view of communion. “There is no good trying to be more spiritual than God,” Lewis wrote: “God never meant man to be a purely spiritual creature. That is why He uses material things like bread and wine to put the new life into us.”
Lewis may have been onto something. Every cardinal doctrine of the Christian faith seems to have some material component. For one, God created the beauty of the universe—a beauty which reflects his “eternal power and divine nature.” God also created us to inhabit physical bodies—bodies which he plans to raise in “glory” and “power” in spite of death and decay. Finally, God—while incarnate in a body—ordained the sacraments as a manifestation of our reconciliation to him.
It is for this reason, Lewis says, that God ordained material communion. “We may think this rather crude and unspiritual,” Lewis says. “God does not: He invented eating. He likes matter. He invented it.”
That’s a nice sentiment, of course, but Lewis was wrong. Unlike poor, unspiritual Lewis, we American evangelicals really are “more spiritual than God.” God may have burdened us with this crude physical ritual, but we know that all that really matters is the higher reality behind it. And, if we’re being honest, something about the whole concept of communion does not sit right with us.
The fact of the matter is that, as far as we can tell, communion should not really exist. Christianity is a purely spiritual religion, and communion obscures it with a chunk of entropic debris. Christianity is really too intangible a thing—too Platonic an affair—to have anything to do with yeast. Not to mention that the whole thing smacks of popery. Frowning, we double-check our Bibles and confirm that communion really is in there. “Regrettably,” we grumble, “Jesus did ordain this icky sacrament: we cannot outright disobey him.” And yet. “Is there really no way out of this predicament?” we wonder. This whole thing was a very unfortunate mistake by Jesus.
Suddenly, a scheme comes into resolution. Yes, we’ve got it. Instead of obeying Jesus like a servant, we will obey him like a lawyer looking for loopholes in a contract. We will obey the letter of Jesus’ words, but we will do the absolute bare minimum that Jesus' words technically require. In this way, this whole business of communion can be mostly disposed of. Jesus faced his disciples at a table? Well, we will not even face the person distributing the elements. We will arrange the entire thing like an economical assembly line designed by Henry Ford. This isn’t in the spirit of biblical communion, you say? Sorry: if Jesus wanted us to imitate him then he should’ve been more specific.
And what about the elements themselves? Unfortunately, there does not seem to be any way around the words “eat” and “drink”; we must actually consume matter of some kind. But, did you notice? Jesus did not specify the amount of bread or wine we are to ingest. This gives us an idea: each of us will consume one teeny particle—a few molecules per person—of the communion elements. We will nibble the smallest amounts of bread and wine visible to the naked eye—the eentsiest tidbit that can possibly be grasped by human hands. It will be as if we are scarcely eating anything at all.
Next, how much time must this onerous burden take? Jesus described communion as involving “remembrance,” suggesting that we ought to be remembering Jesus during the act of communion. Fortunately, Jesus did not specify the exact degree of remembrance required. How should we interpret Jesus’ words? Naturally, the best interpretation is that Jesus was telling us to remember him for the absolute minimum amount of time possible. And—would you believe it?—that just happens to be the exact amount of time required for everyone to drink from tiny shot glasses.
And there you have it: this business of communion is almost entirely gotten rid of. It’s as if we hired Henry Ford himself to nearly annihilate the sacrament from existence. We can virtually carry on as if Jesus had never ordained it in the first place.
Many readers will by now have objected that I am being unfair; that things are really not as bad as I am making them out to be, and that their churches are not minimizing communion—they are simply practicing it in their own way. If you are one such reader, I now address you. My goal is to convince you that contemporary evangelical communion—fast food communion—is objectively dishonoring, unbiblical, and lacking in power. And, as the above title suggests, it must be stopped.
At the outset, those who think I am being unfair should consider two questions. First, when is the last time that you heard a sermon which was primarily on the subject of communion? In fact, I’ll be generous: when was the last time you heard a sermon in which communion was one of the primary two topics of the sermon?
Now, step back and consider the matter of communion from scratch, beginning only with the Bible. Communion appears explicitly in 1 Corinthians as well as in both Matthew and Luke. In John’s Gospel, Jesus repeatedly describes himself as “bread” and pointedly commands us to “eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood.” Considered in this light, doesn’t your answer seem at least somewhat surprising?
Of course, pastors cannot preach on every topic imaginable. But, if you were an alien—examining the Bible and Christianity for the first time—you would naturally expect communion to have a much more prominent place in evangelical churches than it actually enjoys. You would be surprised to find it seated quietly in a dim corner, where it is only occasionally and briefly acknowledged. The paucity of sermons and writings on communion in evangelical circles is at least one indicia that we have slouched into a radical devaluation of communion—not merely a different way of approaching the sacrament.
Secondly, closely consider the way in which we physically administer communion. As I’ve discussed above, our communion certainly appears to be designed around the idea that the sacrament is simply an obligation to be disposed of. Our communion practices are exquisitely economized to use the minimum amount of time and resources conceivable. In extreme cases, certain churches have even removed the practice of waiting to consume the elements in unison—the last residual crumb of reverence these churches had retained—so that the whole congregation seems to nibble nonchalantly on the crucified body of God.
Already, all of this should be suspect. Hyper-economization is not normally a principle that evangelicals use in our sermons, prayers, and instrumental forms of worship. When evangelicals do hyper-economize, it is usually in an area that is regarded as unimportant, like the aesthetics of the church building.
Still, if you don’t agree that all of this is a devaluation, consider a hypothetical. Imagine that evangelicals really did have the motives I’ve described: that we really did want to devalue communion as much as we could without technically violating Jesus’ words. My question is this: if we did want to minimize communion, what more could we possibly do than what evangelical churches have already done? The only answer I can think of is that we could install a system of tubes in the church ceiling, which would simultaneously drop teeny particles of bread and wine into the congregants’ mouths, like a sort of hamster feeder for humans. I think we can rule out this option on account of its being too expensive to install and clean. If our current practices are consistent with the maximum possible devaluation of communion, then this is strong evidence that this is what we are in fact doing.
Contemporary communion reminds me of Israel Shahak’s discussion of Talmudic Judaism in his entertaining book Jewish History, Jewish Religion. Shahak—who was a sort of Jewish Christopher Hitches, attacking his own culture’s religious traditionalists—portrays the observance of Talmudic law as a series of gymnastics designed to circumvent biblical commands while technically complying with them. For example, while on a kibbutz in 1952, Shahak personally witnessed an elaborate procedure for milking cows on the Sabbath. Ordinarily, milking a cow is considered “work” and would therefore be prohibited on the Sabbath. However, rabbis have ruled that an exception exists “purely for relieving the suffering of the animal caused by bloated udders.” If the milking is done for the cow’s benefit, it is not “work” as long as the milk goes to waste on the ground. Shahak explains:
Now, this is what is actually done… a pious kibbutznik goes to the cowshed and places pails under the cows… He then goes to the synagogue to pray. Then comes his colleague, whose ‘honest intention’ is to relieve the animals’ pain and let their milk run to the floor. But if, by chance, a pail happens to be standing there, is he under any obligation to remove it? Of course not… Finally, a third pious colleague goes into the cowshed and discovers, to his great surprise, the pails full of milk.
In recent years, many people on social media have somehow gotten the idea that using an analogy is a logical fallacy. In case you are one such person, understand that my point in bringing up Shahak’s story is specific. Any Christian can see that the procedure Shahak describes is a devaluation of Sabbatarianism. And the very thing that makes it a devaluation is also present in our own case: it treats the law in question as an obligation to be gotten around and economically disposed of. The distinction is apparent to us in Shahak’s example because we are on the outside looking in. But the distinction was apparently not so clear to the kibbutzniks in Shahak’s story—who may have believed that they were simply honoring the Sabbath in an alternative way. Likewise, it might not be clear to us if we have begun to take for granted some similar practice in the church.
As an aside, all of the standard defenses that are sometimes offered of fast-food-style communion could also be offered of Shahak’s cow-milking chicanery: both are innovations which save time, save money, leave more time for other acts of worship, help facilitate practice by large groups; and by extension make the practice more accessible, more democratic, more egalitarian, and so on.
Many Christians today espouse the idea that all forms of Christian worship are equally acceptable to God—or, even if they are not, that you must never criticize another Christian’s worship. This idea sometimes takes the form of the charge that “If you don’t feel worshipful when doing X, that says more about you then about X.” This argument quickly collapses into the absurd. It seems highly unlikely that these critics would quietly submit to absolutely any worship style that a highly experimental church might implement—such as, for example, replacing all worship songs with loud shrieking noises. In Paul’s words, “if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle?”.
More importantly, this kind of total subjectivism about worship is transparently unbiblical. Paul’s letters are rife with criticism of improper forms of worship. In one amusing example, Paul asks rhetorically: “If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders of unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds?” Of course, the standard response is that only Paul had the right to make these criticisms. But Paul himself said “imitate me as I imitate Christ.” The question is not whether improper forms of communion can be criticized, but whether fast food communion actually is improper.
There are at least a few direct biblical reasons to question fast food communion. First, consider the message of the Parable of the Talents of Matthew 25. In this story, a master divides up his fortune and entrusts it to three servants, of varying ability, before going on a journey. The third servant is the least capable of the three and is therefore given the smallest amount of property. The first two servants invest their money and return the interest to their master. The third servant does the absolute minimum required—burying the money in the ground and returning it safely, but without interest. At the conclusion of this story, the minimalist servant is rebuked by the master and then cast into hell.
Importantly, we are never told that the master directly instructed the servants to invest the money; we are simply told that he “entrusted to them his property.” When the master returns and rebukes the third servant, he never accuses the third servant of disobeying the letter of his instructions. Instead, he simply says that the third servant should have done something more ambitious with the money. The rebuke appears to be that the third servant made a calculated choice to hold on to the money in the stingiest way possible.
Of course, I do not say that this parable is “about communion” any more than it is about anything else. The exact subject matter of the parable is actually unclear. Matthew puts it in an arrangement of stories about the Last Judgment, each of which has a different emphasis. While the succeeding story of the sheep and goats is a general injunction to do good works, the preceding Parable of the Ten Virgins is about the fact that Jesus’ return will be delayed. What is the special message of the Parable of the Talents? The overall moral of the story seems to be that the Last Judgment will be highly inegalitarian. But the story also plainly communicates that obedience consists, in large part, in going beyond the bare minimum in honoring our master’s commands. In light of this general principle, when we are obeying any of Jesus’ instructions, we should never purposefully set about trying to do so in the most threadbare way we can possibly conceive of. And this is precisely what we have done by creating fast food communion.
Secondly, consider the statement in Hebrews 12:28-29 that we should “offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” As an aside, the mere phrase “acceptable worship” —or “well-pleasing worship”—refutes the idea that all worship offered by Christians is equally acceptable to God. More to the point, we are told that “reverence and awe” should characterize proper worship.
I do not deny that there is a great deal of room for reasonable debate about what "reverence and awe" entail. My assertion is simply this: if you cannot really imagine a less reverential way of administering communion than the way your church administers it now, this is sufficient to show that you are not administering communion with reverence.
You might respond that you can imagine a style of communion which positively denigrates communion—for example, by stomping on the communion elements before eating them. Yet Hebrews does not say simply that we should not worship God with irreverence. It says that we should worship God with reverence. There is no positive reverence or awe in something that the worshipper minimizes to the greatest imaginable degree.
Finally, consider the overall place of beauty in the Bible. In Matthew 16:6-13, Jesus defends a woman who poured an “alabaster jar of very expensive perfume” over him, saying “She has done a beautiful thing to me.” In other contexts, the Greek word translated as “beautiful” can simply mean “good”—but, in contexts like this one, it has a specifically aesthetic meaning. In Luke 21:5, it is used to refer to the “noble stones” adorning the magnificent Herodian Temple.
Solomon’s Temple was itself marvelously beautiful, adorned with bronze, gold, and artwork. For instance, in the inner sanctuary, Solomon “covered the two doors of olivewood with carvings of cherubim, palm trees, and open flowers. He overlaid them with gold and spread gold on the cherubim and on the palm trees.” Some Christians assert that the design of Solomon’s Temple was idolatrous or displeasing to God, but this is sheer eisegesis. God’s glory came to dwell in the temple—not entirely unlike the way God is manifested in the communion elements—and he explicitly blessed the temple, telling Solomon that “I have consecrated this house that you have built, by putting my name there forever.” God never utters a word of disapproval of the temple’s design.
By pointing to these biblical examples, I am in no way criticizing low church aesthetics in general or demanding that all churches adopt a high liturgy. I am not arguing about what kind of beauty God wants us to use to honor him. There is nothing in my argument that the most passionate Hillsong listener should object to. After all, if a contemporary-style worshiper wants to praise a song by Bethel Music, I assume that he will praise it because he finds it beautiful, not because he finds it ugly. Instead of assuming some ornate medieval aesthetic as my standard, I am simply asking the reader to grant that God wants us to honor him with beauty.
Once we have agreed to this modest premise, can anyone really say there is any beauty whatsoever in fast food communion? The most we can say is that it has not been engineered to be as ugly as possible, as we might do by painting the shot glasses a putrid yellow and dying the bread black. The problem is that there is no positive presence of beauty. How could we in any way further diminish its positive beauty except by affirmatively making it ugly? If you can imagine no answer to this question, then we are not honoring God with beauty of any kind.
The resistant and slippery reader might respond that all obedience to God is sufficiently and equally beautiful. But, if he earlier conceded that you should aspire to worship God in a beautiful way, then he has now reneged on that premise. If all obedience is sufficiently and equally beautiful, then no two kinds of worship can in any way vary in their degree of beauty—and it is therefore meaningless to say that we should worship God beautifully. Why don’t our praise bands simply pluck one string, long enough to recite a haiku, and then sit down? So long as they are meeting the skeletal requirements of the form of worship, this should be just as beautiful as singing a whole song.
The beauty of communion also points to a timely pragmatic argument. Millions of secular people listen with fascination to Jordan Peterson talk about the deep meaning of religious symbolism. In his bestselling book 12 Rules for Life, Peterson often fixates on the biblical motif of temple sacrifice. In packed lecture halls, large audiences of unchurched people listen to Peterson speak about religious images that have persisted from Jonah to Pinocchio. To Christians, Peterson’s success in this area should be a rebuke. Christianity offers everything that Peterson points to, including a tangible enactment of transcendence. And, while there are over 300,000 churches in America, Peterson is one man with a booking agent. If so many secular people are fascinated with religious archetypes—we should ask—why don’t they simply go to church?
Although the answer to this question is complex, consider the possibility that the problem of communion could be one aspect of it. Secular people who are fascinated when Peterson speaks about religion are interested in rich representations of capital-o “Order”—of the Logos. The communion chalice is one such representation: that is why it features prominently in Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, and other famous stories. Yet if secular people were to come looking for this archetype in evangelical churches, they would not find it. Contemporary communion offers a stripped-down, economized, desacralized pantomime of the biblical and historic practice. While working in Christian retail, I once had the misfortune of seeing individual, sealed plastic packages containing communion wine and crackers. I am grateful that I never encountered anything like this before I came to Christ. It is hard to imagine myself seeing something so kitschy and thinking that it could have possibly come from a wellspring of living water.
Biblical communion is a powerful testament to God’s glory: a fact attested to on every page of church history. From ancient Christians to the Reformers, communion has been used by the church to capture the attention of the culture. Although this topic could be the subject of a whole book on church history, I will limit myself to a handful of examples of communion’s power.
After perpetrating the Massacre at Thessalonica in 390 AD, the Emperor Theodosius was blocked from receiving communion by Ambrose, the bishop of Milan and mentor of Augustine. In part because of his desire to regain access to the tangible body of Christ, Theodosius allowed Ambrose to indignantly rebuke him to his face. The Emperor was then forced to suspend capital punishment for 30 days and to prostrate himself on the ground.
Bernard of Clairvaux, admired by the Reformers as their precursor, once bloodlessly diffused a schism through the power of his preaching. When the duke of Aquitane had joined the schismatic faction, Bernard traveled to Aquitane and celebrated communion there. When the time had come to share the communion wafer, however, Bernard paused. Brandishing the wafer like a blazing torch, he advanced directly on the duke, looking fiercely into his eyes. Bernard then delivered a sharp rebuke, emphasizing that the duke was in the presence of the body of Christ. “He is your judge, at whose name every knee bows, in Heaven, in Earth, and in Hell,” said Bernard. “Into His hands your obstinate soul will one day fall. Will you despise Him? Will you scorn Him as you have done His servants?” The duke repented of the schism.
In a case more well-known among Protestants, John Calvin barred a group of unrepentant libertines from his communion table. In response, the libertines attempted to swarm the table and steal the elements during communion. Physically shielding the elements from them, Calvin shouted “My blood is yours, you may shed it; but you shall never force me to give holy things to the profane, and dishonor the table of my God.” A witness wrote that communion was then celebrated “under a solemn awe in all present, as if the Deity himself had been visible among them.”
What power did these three preachers have that contemporary evangelicals do not? You might point out that that all three men lived in times in which there was less hostility to Christianity than in our own. While this is one part of the answer, all three men did live in times of tremendous religious conflict. It was by no means a given that the opponents of Ambrose, Bernard, or Calvin would recognize their ministerial authority or agree with their theologies of communion, but God worked through them, and through the awe inspired by communion, nonetheless.
If there is any hope of our honoring communion like these men, how can we possibly do so with fast food communion? The sacrament has been so sidelined that many of us would not even notice if our church skipped it for two months. We also have no chalice to withhold, no wafer to brandish, and often no table to protect. Instead, a hole-filled tray is passed around the room like the gear of a machine. We take hold of the tray and autonomously serve the tiny elements to ourselves.
I have reviewed the history of communion, in part, because I suspect that some of my fellow Protestants will incorrectly think I am making an argument that is distinctly Catholic—or at least more Catholic than Protestant. Yet my argument in this essay in no way assumes even a pre-Reformation liturgy or aesthetic. Most of the Reformers—including Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Knox—practiced what we would now consider traditional communion, and ascribed great significance to the sacrament. You may think that some of the communion images adorning this essay look Catholic; in fact, they are exclusively Protestant. The recent fast foodification and almost complete erasure of communion is therefore an extremely new phenomenon unique to contemporary evangelicalism.
Some practical concerns should be addressed. Some objections to the arguments presented here will likely stem from vested economic interests. Churches have already accustomed themselves to purchasing trays designed specifically for use in fast food communion. This is ultimately of no concern if our current practice is, in fact, passive-aggressively disobedient and dishonorable: these implements should be thrown away.
Some will object that churches of thousands of people cannot practicably do anything other than fast food communion. Even if I were to concede that this excuses them—and I do not—this objection is irrelevant to the vast majority of churches, which seat hundreds of people, and are not much larger than most churches that have existed throughout Christian history. As for vast megachurches, my own inclination is that elders should administer communion in small groups, but I don’t claim that any church must follow any very specific formula. My claim is not that we must all go back to some arbitrary point in the past: I am simply arguing that that what we are doing in the present is abhorrent and must change.
There is room within the universal church for a wide variety of visual, liturgical, and musical styles and preferences. There should be no room for fast food communion. Allowing it to metastasize to the extent it already has was a horrendous mistake—and we should not be wedded to a mistake out of inertia. If the biblical arguments in this essay are even plausibly correct, then each of us should work to undo this mistake the moment we have the slightest opportunity to do so, lest we eat and drink judgment on ourselves.
Paul wrote that, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord.” The servant who buried his gold did so unworthily because he did the minimum he felt was required. The woman who anointed Jesus was thought wasteful by the disciples, but Jesus promised that she would be remembered throughout the world. If her gift was unbidden, how much more fully and unsparingly should we follow Jesus' direct commands? What is receiving unworthily? Augustine had an answer to this question: “Receiving with contempt, receiving with derision. Don't let yourselves think that what you can see is of no account." The answer to the problem of communion is this: the servant buried his gold because he accounted it as a mere obligation, whereas the woman at Bethany anointed Jesus because she accounted him Lord.