Margie Hillenbrand keeps a blog titled “Emerging Kids” with the tagline, “Prayerfully, reading and thinking on paper about new designs for kids in our faith community.” We could use more people thinking and writing specifically on children in an emerging church context. Recently she caught my eye with one particular post, on The Communion Table.
It reminded me of our own path with kids and communion over the course of the past year and a half.
See, I came from a pretty traditional church background… back before the charismania when I was just a young’un, that is. Some of my earliest memories of communion involve bits of bread cut into 1/4″ cubes and piled up on a silver plate. I remember once seeing a few of the church ladies pouring the leftover “wine” out of the tiny little glass communion cups into a Tupperware juice jug, and being just a little shocked. When they did that, it looked just like grape juice, what if somebody drank it by accident? Kids didn’t take communion in that church. “Communion Sunday” was the first Sunday of the month, which meant that the service would run ten or fifteen minutes overtime and you wouldn’t get out until after 12:00 Noon.
As I got older, I remember keeping tabs on which which of the pastor’s kids took communion and which didn’t, because whatever age that was, it would be the right one, the one at which point we too could partake. When I got older, it was explained that you couldn’t take communion unless you knew what it meant, and could explain it. Not long after that, I was allowed to join in. I remember once as a young teen sitting in the back row with a couple of friends during a candlelight communion service. We were holding our little candles and our little cube of bread waiting to eat together with the congregation, and… well, if you were 14 or so, sitting in the back row with your friends, and you had a candle, a piece of bread, and 5 minutes too long to wait, what would you do? Of course. Toast. I felt guilty afterward.
Through my charismatic years communion was talked about in a manner that majored on not taking communion “unworthily.” Communion wasn’t to be had like clockwork on the first Sunday of the month — that kind of ritual was thoroughly eschewed, saying that it was less meaningful when it was ritualized. In contrast, we sometimes had communion as much as three times in a single year, whenever the Spirit moved, or moved with enough advance warning to have the elments ready. Apparently when Jesus said, “As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup,” the Holy Spirit must have thought some people were doing it too often. Kids didn’t take communion there either, at least very few did. Sunday School was held concurrently with the sermon and communion, so it was never clear if this nonparticipation by minors was a moral issue or a practical one.
I do remember once before taking communion, everyone was urged to make sure they would take it in a worthy manner, and congregants should first go and “put right” any grievance they had with a brother (or sister) in the church. I didn’t feel I had anything to fix, but I was approached by a girl I’d known for a few years who told me all kinds of things she’d been harbouring toward me for quite some time… things of which I was unaware and which were not really the result of me having done anything wrong. She just wanted to confess it so things would be clear between us and she could take communion. I had nothing against her before this exchange, and I mostly just brushed it off. But only “mostly.” And I got to take communion having been freshly slimed by the saints.
Coming into our postmodern postcongregational postcharismatic days, I had already been thinking about communion for a few years, and had come to some basic realizations. Nonetheless, in one early meeting with our gathering that included the kids, it was announced that we would have communion — and the kids were all served grape juice and some bread. Our kids, at what was it then, 6 and 3? didn’t have a complete understanding of what communion meant, and the whole thing came up so suddenly that It was done before I could talk with them about it. I admit I was annoyed that someone had been presumtuous enough to serve my kids communion without asking me. I don’t know, maybe they asked my wife. Whatever. Didn’t they know that kids should be able to explain the meaning and significance of communion in order to partake?
Well. I had downloaded a couple of sermon MP3s from John Piper, whose preaching I quite like… and he did a sermon or two on just this issue, on what age children should be allowed to partake of communion. He didn’t give a hard-and-fast rule, but left it relatively open to parents, saying not that the kids should be able to explain everything, just that they should be able to identify and feel remorse for their sin. To repent, basically. It was a tidy answer and an improvement on the one I was dealt as a kid, but I still didn’t like it. Nonetheless, I talked with our oldest daughter about what communion means until I was satisfied she understood the symbolism at an acceptable level.
I continued seeking understanding, not by searching the scriptures for a text that gave the rules clearly, and not by researching what professional pastors, preachers, or leaders had to say on the matter, but mostly by starting to take communion myself regularly with our group and with the folk at St. Ben’s, and waiting for a deeper understanding to come to me. Over the past ten years or so, here’s some of the highlights that I’ve come to realize about communion:
- I don’t understand it in anything near clinical “Q&A” terms. If you ask me about its nature, I’ll most likely tell you it’s a sacrament and the most important aspects of it are a mystery. 30 years after being allowed to partake because I fully understood it, if I accept that criteria, I’ll have to stop partaking. But communion is far more powerful now than it was then.
- Partaking regularly doesn’t diminish the significance of the act. I eat supper every evening and I still appreciate food. Same principle. Or air. What if you were only allowed to breathe oxygen on the first Sunday of the month?
- The communion table was made for sinners. Perhaps the most unworthy manner in which you can take communion is to do so believing you’re “clean” enough to have earned the right to be there, to not need forgiveness.
- The form of communion I’ve known and been taught through most of my church experience is anemic. Considering the symbolism involved, this is beyond ironic, and abysmally so.
Our kids, now 8 and almost-5, partake of the communion elements with us at St. Ben’s. And with real wine, too… but they only dip the bread in it. They tell us that this is one of their favorite parts of the way we do church now. Is it merely the novelty of a little snack? No. Well, maybe for our youngest that’s a factor, but that’s not the whole thing. The nearest I can figure is that it has to do with being included, with belonging. When they go up to receive the elements, they are together with us and all the other people. When we’re taking communion, we’re not adults and kids, we’re all on the same level, and they are just as included as my wife or I are included. No difference. This led to an important understanding about communion that is now my guiding principle for what age is appropriate and how much undersanding is required to partake.
- Believers are meant to partake of communion with whatever level of understanding they have at the time… whether it’s that of a 4-year-old, a 10-year-old, or a 50-year-old. There’s always room for your understanding to deepen, and you’ve got to start somewhere.
At larger family gatherings, there’s sometimes a kids’ table at mealtime. Many of us have a memory or two of being stuck at the kids’ table for a year or two after we feel we really would rather be with the adults instead of the kids. Alas, for want of space, we’re stuck at the kids’ table, wishing we were included at the “real” dinner table, wondering if all of the same food made it past the kids’ table, or if there was a dish or two on which we were missing out. It isn’t much different than when I was a kid, watching the elements pass me by as they travelled down the pew so my parents the other adults could take some. No, now when our kids come to the table with us, they belong to Christ’s body just the same as everyone else… and I think this is one of the fundamental points they love, without yet being able to verbalize it.
I guess after all that, the two most profound things that I now know about communion are summarized like this:
- The Lord’s table has room for everyone — and there’s no separate kids’ table.