Make room at the table: Congregations and The Lord’s Supper

“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”

John 6:56   

Congregations hungering for spiritual community are finding answers in an ancient tradition: The Lord’s Supper.

Liturgical renewal movements and ecumenical gains lifting up Christian unity have led over the last half-century to more frequent celebrations of Communion.

Nearly four in five U.S. congregations share Communion in their largest worship service at least monthly, according to the 2008-2009 U.S. Congregational Life Survey.

And with good reason.

Next to worshiping or experiencing God, sharing in Holy Communion, the Eucharist or The Lord’s Supper was the most cited reason for why people attend services, the 2001US CLS found.

But there may be a significant cloud on the horizon. Generations of young people who have been less likely to sit in the pews or learn about the faith in Sunday School place less emphasis on the practice.

In the 2008-2009 US CLS survey, 55 percent of respondents ages 70 and over said sharing in Holy Communion, the Eucharist or The Lord’s Supper was one of the top three things they value most about the congregation. Just 31 percent of those younger than 30 placed the same value on The Lord’s Supper.

The roots of the tradition go back to The Last Supper, when Jesus in the Gospel of Luke takes a piece of bread, breaks it, and gives it to his disciples, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in memory of me.”

Reformation-era controversies focusing on the meaning of the ritual extended in many cases to the frequency of celebrations. Some groups separating themselves from the Catholic practice of offering Holy Communion at nearly all services decided to share it quarterly or on even rarer occasions.

In recent decades, with movements to both recapture early worship practices and to emphasize Christian unity despite differing beliefs over whether the Communion host represents the real presence of Christ, several Protestant communities have moved to monthly and in some cases weekly celebrations of Communion.

Two-thirds of congregations share The Lord’s Supper often or always, the 2010 Faith Communities Today study found. Seventy percent of respondents to the February 2013 Evangelical Leaders Survey said their church serves Communion once a month.

While younger people do not appear to be embracing the practice with as much fervor, there are also reasons to believe celebrating The Lord’s Supper may be particularly appealing to newer generations. Many seek to experience a sense of wonder in worship as opposed to being passive recipients in liturgies.

“It brings in a more experiential, touch-feel, symbolic dimension,” said David Roozen, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.

Overall, many of the essential features of the Lord’s Supper, a shared experience evoking a connection to the deity, also are associated with more spiritually vital congregations.

And, in a world where secular and religious demands compete for the limited time of their followers, Communion stands out.

The majority of people who go to church on Sunday want something that feels like religion, Roozen said.

“The Lord’s Supper is uniquely religious,” Roozen said. “You don’t get this at the Lion’s Club.”