Streaming the Lord’s Supper?

by | Apr 2, 2020

It seems each week spent in seclusion raises new questions for pastors as they recalibrate their pastoral care to the demands of this season. It was inevitable, especially as churches went on-line, that the question of the Lord’s Supper would emerge. Can we live-stream the Lord’s Supper?

It’s easy to sympathize with that impulse. Pastors are looking for ways to maintain continuity in the midst of so much upheaval, especially with things so central, and so precious, to the worship of God’s people. But however well-intentioned those desires are, we must always allow God’s Word to direct how we relate to him and to each other; especially in a crisis, a pastor must always have his hand on his Bible.

In another post I argued that, while much pastoral work can get done through a Sunday live stream—and we continue to marvel at the effects this mechanism has had on our congregation—it is not the same as our Sunday gathering. That distinction is even more important when it comes to the Lord’s Supper. While I’m grateful that we are able to serve our congregation in numerous ways through our live stream, we would not even consider observing the Lord’s Supper in this context; I believe to do so appropriately would be impossible.

Signaling Our Unity

The Lord’s Supper is by its very nature a corporate event. From the very beginning of the church’s history, the Supper was observed when the church was gathered for worship (Acts 2:42; 20:7; note the repetition of the word synerchomai—“gather together,” widely recognized by commentators as something of a technical term for the gathering of the church for worship—in 1 Cor 11:17, 18, 20, 33, and 34). As precious as the Lord’s Supper is to the heart of a believer, it was not given as an individualistic means of grace, but as an ordinance of the church which requires the corporate worship of the church.

The Lord’s Supper is not, then, merely a silent and solitary observance where a Christian privately ponders Christ’s death. Rather, it’s a meal—the family meal of the new covenant people of God where we commune together with our Savior. As with a normal meal, we gather physically and share together (not merely simultaneously) common elements—tactile elements, passed hand to hand—remembering Jesus’ life given for us and communing with him and each other. As we do, our observance of the Supper not only proclaims Christ’s death, but it also vividly depicts those who have been joined to him and bears profound witness to our unity in Christ’s body. Every time the gathered church celebrates the Lord’s Supper, we are reminded of, and give expression to, our identity as a family, rescued and adopted by our heavenly Father. This is simply impossible when people are scattered, linked only by a common video feed.

Paul’s instructions to the Corinthian church in 1 Cor 11 soberly illustrate the importance of our observance of the Lord’s Supper honoring its nature. When Paul diagnosed the neglect of poorer members of the church by wealthier members in 1 Cor 11, he perceived far more than a relational slight. This neglect created “divisions” (v. 18) that belied their unity in the one body of Christ. Their observance of the Supper was to reflect and reinforce this unity, not damage or deny it. In Paul’s eyes, this behavior did not merely undermine the sacrament—it invalidated it completely: “When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat!” (1 Cor 11:20).

Now, it may seem a stretch to compare this situation to a well-meaning, on-line observance of communion. There is, however, an important principle that applies to both: the Lord’s Supper communicates something about the nature of the church—many members joined together in one body (1 Cor 10:17). To honor this—to embody this—we gather together and “all partake of the one bread,” giving vivid testimony to our common participation in the drama of Christ’s saving work. With the Lord’s Supper, the manner of our observation must be consistent with its character and reinforce its meaning.

Marking Out the Church

In testifying of those who have been joined to Christ, the Lord’s Supper also serves the very important function of visibly distinguishing the church from the world around us. Those who partake of the Supper participate, by the Holy Spirit and through faith, in Christ’s body and blood (1 Cor 10:16)—we embrace afresh and enjoy the benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection on our behalf. Never is the line between the believer and the world more starkly drawn than at the Lord’s table.

In marking out who is a member of Christ’s church and who is not, the Lord’s Supper has a “structuring” function among God’s people. In his excellent book The Church, Edmund Clowney speaks of this aspect of the sacraments:

“These outward signs mark out a visible fellowship; they structure Christ’s church as a community with membership. Baptism requires a decision about admission to the community.  The Supper, a sign of continuing fellowship, implies the exclusion of those who have turned away from the Lord. . . . the sacraments testify that the church must have organized form as well as organic life.” (The Church, 272).                                               

This implies a critical role for the pastor. If the Lord’s Supper is for those continuing in the fellowship of the body of Christ, we are to do all we can to ensure that only Christians are participating—a physical impossibility in a live-streamed moment.

Hungering and Thirsting for Now

It’s easy to understand the desire to bring the Lord’s Supper into this season of separation. Just as we long to be together in our churches, we long to share the Lord’s Supper with all the blessings it bestows. Although God in his wisdom has separated us from his table for now, we can be assured that he has not separated us from his love (Rom 8:38-39), nor from the grace we desperately need to be faithful in this moment (2 Cor 9:8). In the meantime, let’s view this season of waiting as a unique opportunity to stir our longings and awaken our appetites for the moment when we will again feast together at the Lord’s table.