You might think that people who do something repeatedly over a period of years would come to know its practice and meaning intimately. In the case of the celebration of Holy Communion, you would be wrong. Each month (the preferred schedule for the institution of the Lord’s Supper in United Methodism) millions of worshipers in our congregations participate in one of the two seminal sacraments of our faith. But what exactly does this “holy mystery” mean to those who partake? For most, apparently, it remains a mystery.
From December 2005 through July 2006, 1,200 United Methodists (200 clergy, 1,000 laity) were surveyed to better understand the perceptions, attitudes, beliefs, and understanding held by those who celebrate communion. 961 surveys were completed (163 clergy, 798 laity) and a series of phone interviews followed with 95 pastors and 247 lay people from the survey sample. What follows is a brief summary of our findings and a series of questions yet to be explored.
All participants were asked to rate the importance of participation in the Lord’s Supper as a spiritual discipline/means of grace. They were given five options: essential, important, not very important, unimportant, and don’t know. Twenty-one (13%) clergy said it is “essential,” with one hundred eleven (68%) saying it is “very important.” Two troubling results were the eighteen clergy (11%) saying “not very important,” and the thirteen clergy (8%) who responded “don’t know.” At least none said, “unimportant.” This is not so for laity. The celebration of the Lord’s Supper is much less important to laity than to clergy. Communion is “essential” for 72 of the laity (9%), “very important” for 141 (18%), “not very important” for 219 (27%), “unimportant” for 135 (17%), and 231 (29%) responded “don’t know.” For 2-out-of 5 of our lay people, communion simply isn’t important, and almost another third don’t know if it’s important or not.
An open ended question asked repondents to explain the meaning of communion. Clergy articulated answers both historically accurate and theologically defensible 91% of the time, but as to its significance in the lives of Christian believers, things get a little fuzzier. About ten percent of our clergy (16) are closet Catholics, believing that the elements of bread and juice are transformed into the very body and blood of Jesus Christ. Thirty-one pastors (19%) explain that communion is not something we do for God, but something God does in us. What that something is varies from “uniting us as Christ’s body” to “forgiving our sins,” to “connecting us to the Gospel story,” to “transforming us from believers to disciples.” Eighty-five (52%) describe the practice as a “sacrament,” and explain it as a ritual of the church that gives us our identity. Another forty-four (27%) say it is a symbolic act, done in “remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice for us.” (Some pastors gave dual answers – so the total is larger than 100%). Ultimately, the answers given are reminiscent of the blind men and the elephant – each describing that part of the whole that is most meaningful to them personally. One note: This Holy Mystery, adopted by the 2004 General Conference has yet to make much of an impact on our understanding of Holy Communion in United Methodism. Most of the clergy are aware of the resource, two-thirds have a copy, but fewer than one-in-twelve (8%) have read it.
On the laity side, “a ritual of the church” is the answer of choice to describe the meaning of communion – 347 of the 798 (43%) offered some variation of this answer. Another 19% (152) take the Roman Catholic option, believing that bread and grape juice become the actual body and blood of Jesus. About ten percent of respondents choose “an act of remembrance,” and another ten percent say it is “an act of solidarity.” The remaining nineteen percent are all over the theological map – from “a monthly practice of church members,” to “a Christian vitamin pill,” to “an outdated, ancient, and irrelevant holdover from a pre-modern form of the Christian faith.”
We asked people if they “look forward to Holy Communion.” On the clergy side, 40% look forward to it, 26% do not look forward to it, and 34% have no feelings one way or another. Of the 1-in-4 who do not look forward to it, the primary reasons given are that it is a hassle, it makes the service run too long, it causes a drop in attendance, and too many people just go through the motions. The laity are equally divided in thirds: 31% look forward to it, 35% do not, and 34% do not care either way. Seventeen percent of laity respondents report that they often choose to stay home when communion is being served. The number one laity complaint about communion is that it makes the worship service too long.
We asked if the overall church experience would be diminished if the church stopped serving communion. Seventy-one percent of clergy said yes, but an additional sixteen percent said there were so many other important and meaningful practices in the church that communion wouldn’t be missed. Thirteen percent report that overall, people’s experience of church wouldn’t suffer due to the elimination of the Lord’s Supper. On the laity side of the question, only a handful – 14% — believe that the fundamental nature of the Christian church would suffer if we stopped offering communion. For eighty-one percent of the sample, it would make no real difference to their faith were they to stop celebrating communion.
One other question posed to all respondents was “does celebrating communion make you feel closer to God?” For clergy, 86% say yes and 14% said it makes no difference. For laity, 62% feel closer, while 38% feel no different.
This summary reports a very cursory survey of United Methodist’s attitudes and understandings of Holy Communion. We did not cultivate a representative or statistically significant sample. It was decided that this was not a fruitful avenue for further exploration at this time. However, I believe it raises some important questions, and while it may reflect my own personal bias, I believe it points to a theological identity crisis that does indeed invite further study.
Some of the questions I believe need answers:
- How do we teach church members and visitors about Holy Communion?
- Why does the Lord’s Supper hold such low significance for our communities of faith?
- What is the basic understanding of “sacrament” in The United Methodist Church? (see my companion report on Baptism in The UMC.)
- What is the role and responsibility of the ordained leader to communicate the importance and significance of Communion?
- How has our understanding and practice of Holy Communion arrived at the state it is in?