Christians regularly share in the Sacrament of Holy Communion as nourishment for the challenging road of discipleship.

But in a bid to keep fickle churchgoers happy, Protestant churches increasingly downplay what's expected of Communion's partakers. Consequently, the ritual fails to shape character, as it's supposed to do. Instead, like other religious habits of our time, it merely soothes.

For the past four decades, mainline Protestant denominations with ever-shrinking membership rolls have been widening access to Communion tables by systematically lowering standards. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), for example, no longer expects partakers to make conscious commitments to a life of faith, as the denomination did 40 years ago. Instead, the ELCA joins the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in welcoming all the baptized, regardless of age or commitment to Christ's ways.

Many congregations of the United Methodist Church and United Church of Christ go even further. In these settings, anyone who professes a broadly defined faith in Jesus Christ is welcome to partake. None of this table-widening has stemmed the hemorrhaging of members across mainline Protestantism. All it's done is divorce high expectations from the meaning of discipleship – and leave Christians hungry for more than platitudes.

Denominations and local churches have theological rationales for all this table-widening. They emphasize the lavishness of God's grace in welcoming every last soul – regardless of race, class or other distinctions – to a divine banquet. They insist no one must pass a moral or creedal litmus test before partaking of God's gifts. In symbolically affirming God's love for all humankind, they bear witness to one aspect of God's nature – an aspect that is a particularly easy sell in an age of therapeutic spirituality. 

But Protestant churches, mainline and evangelical alike, fall short of their missions when they imply that nothing is expected of those who receive Communion. By making grace so cheap that it belongs on a bargain rack, churches fail to challenge their people to hone habits that would make them holy, distinct and a blessing to the world. Instead, Christians are made to feel good about themselves even as they cling unrepentant to materialistic and egocentric habits of the heart.

Expectations matter because the church relies on Communion to shape virtue among its people. Scripture summons committed followers of Christ to examine themselves before they partake and make sure there are no “divisions among you” (1 Corinthians 11). In other words, work through your conflicts in preparation for the holy meal.

As a journalist with a religion focus, I've attended dozens of mainline and evangelical Communion services in recent years, and I've never once heard a pastor articulate these expectations. When I led a local church a few years ago, my congregants mightily opposed the notion that partakers should make any faith commitments, and they proved more eager to avoid conflicts than to confront them as growth opportunities.

Putting conflicts to rest en route to Communion isn't easy or comfortable. It can be hard work. Comfort zones get stretched as resolving issues may involve being humble, asking or extending forgiveness, and making amends. Such habits forge virtuous Christian character over time; they systemically make Christians into peacemakers. But none of that happens when churches, fearful that they might alienate “customers” by making grace too costly, falsely pretend that little is expected of those to whom much has been given.

Christians in our time aren't learning through Communion to be peacemakers, and it shows. Conflict in congregations routinely goes unresolved for months or years. Area ministers who oversee local churches in the United Church of Christ have told me they spend 50 to 75 percent of their time working with conflicted congregations. The lives of denominations are marked and marred by never-ending battles between ideologically entrenched camps. It's hardly surprising then to hear coddled Christians get embroiled in acrimony on the airwaves, or agitate for war after war, or profess overwhelming support for torture in survey responses. If churches won't help their people hone virtuous habits of the heart, then it's hardly a shock to find disappointing Christian behavior from one setting to the next.

To be sure, the church's failure to shape virtue in its ranks traces to more factors than just lax Communion practices. Consumer-driven changes in areas from preaching to small groups, counseling and mission have blunted character-shaping tools throughout the church's toolbox. Churchgoers need to muster more tolerance for challenge and for edifying discomfort, much as athletes and musicians expect to be stretched beyond easy comfort in their regimens. Then the church may once again make progress in its mission to shape people for the better.

Though Communion practices aren't solely responsible for ill-formed character among American Protestants, they're nonetheless a critical element. How churches administer the Sacrament speaks volumes about their overall approach to spiritual formation. To recover a tradition of high expectations for those who receive would set a new tone, one that says Christians in America are serious about making progress in character development. Hungry Christians just might stick around for the meal.

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