Communion with Youth

Maybe you’ve seen the controversial Doritos add depicting pastors wooing people into church with Doritos and Pepsi. Deemed offensive, It’s been pulled from a Super Bowl commercial contest. You can see it here:

Is this video as offensive as some people make it out to be? And, what exactly is the offense: using junk food for what looks like communion or suggesting that churches would do better (and make budget) by enticing people with tasty bits of empty calories? Admittedly, it takes a lot to offend me, but I think this video was mostly done in good fun and probably speaks more truth about the state of many churches than people want to admit.

It reminds me of a classic and probably apocryphal ordination exam question I heard about when I was in seminary. According to the fictional scenario posed by the question, a pastor on a youth mission trip had planned to celebrate communion with the kids, only to discover that the only elements available were a bag of chips and a bottle of soda. According to Reformed theology and Presbyterian polity, is it permissible to celebrate communion with such elements? (I’d love to know if this was ever a real question, or if it is more of a church legend.)

Presiding over communion is one of the great joys of being a pastor. I love the liturgy and the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving. I love the way communion draws people together and offers a tangible way to connect with the sacred. I love how normal, everyday things are transformed into instruments of grace, and what that says about the potential for God to do the same with us.

This past Sunday, our youth ministry (grades 6-12) moved to an off-site location two blocks south of the church where we will gather during the construction of a much needed addition to our building. To celebrate our new home—and the first time we’ve been able to get all of these youth together in the same space at the same time—we shared communion.

I love communion with youth. It is such a powerful and effective way to communicate so much of the gospel in a concise and engaging way. And, youth gatherings and trips provide unique settings for communion. Usually, I forgo fancy plates and cups and opt for the common plates and cups we happen to have available. The atmosphere is always relaxed. As much as I like putting on a robe and presiding over a formal communion service, it often feels more authentic for me to drop the pretensions of our ceremonies and traditions and break bread in a way more consistent with how we actually share meals today.

On Sunday, the energy of gathering our entire youth ministry into a single room was incredible. We projected the liturgy and prayers up on a screen so that we could all participate in it. We used paper cups and plates. People could see that I was pouring the juice out of a plastic bottle and not a fancy pitcher. The bread was freshly baked in my old bread machine. When it came time to distribute the elements, we didn’t do it in silence, as it is typically done in the sanctuary. There was friendly chatter and conversation. People were smiling at each other and taking turns in line.

The most interesting, and unexpected, thing that happened is that while I was holding the bread for people to come up for intinction, two junior high boys stood nearby telling me Packers jokes in anticipation of the big game later that day. That’s the kind of thing that would never happen in a more formal communion service. And while some people might find it distracting, inappropriate, or even offensive, it didn’t bother me too much because it so perfectly fit the context.

Ultimately, that is what seems most important about communion to me. The sacrament meets us where we are. Communion doesn’t always need to be a rite veiled in mystery and stifled by piety. It began as a regular meal shared by friends, so it makes good sense to replicate that vibe in our observance today. Communion with youth ought to reflect life with youth. Indeed, communion for all of us ought to reflect our actual lives, ordinary lives that are transformed into something extraordinary by the grace of God.

Comments

  1. Jeff Lipschultz says:

    I’ve heard stories of this happening on real youth retreats, though usually as a ploy for perceived relevancy rather than due to the minister forgetting to bring the elements.

    But the Lord’s Supper wasn’t instituted at a regular meal, but rather a Passover seder, of which it is the perfection and fulfillment, albeit in a simpler form and (by my reading of Scripture) commanded for much more frequent celebration. Hence why, like Passover before it, certain requirements for validity (defined theologically) and liceity (defined through church polity) exist, as it is a sacrament with characteristics of a meal, and not a meal with characteristics of a sacrament.

    As far as Presbyterian polity goes, W-2.4005(b) specifies “bread and wine.” W-3.3610 specifies that “bread common to the culture of the community should be provided” for the Lord’s Supper, which may be broken from one loaf or otherwise prepared for distribution; it would appear that the permitted element is what members of the congregation would recognize as falling within the category of bread. W-3.3611 refers to the contents of the Cup as “the fruit of the vine” and mandates the provision and consecration of “unfermented grape juice,” though allowing the Session the option of using wine as long as grape juice is provided and clearly identified. At any rate, forms of the fruit of the vine not authorized by Session are illicit, but using common-sense definitions it would seem that it is contrary to our polity to celebrate Communion in the absence of grape juice. While this clearly precludes the hypothetical bottle of pop (even if it were grape-flavored soda), more pressingly it seems that it may be unlawful to substitute “grape juice cocktail” as many churches often do, as this product is never higher than 50% (and often as low as 15%) grape juice.

    Confessionally, we see references to bread and wine, and the authors of the confessions saw no need to clarify. Therefore it would seem that these are integral and unique parts of the sacrament, like water is with Baptism.

    In summary: Even if the Father did pour out the Holy Spirit on these irregular elements and make them a communion in the body and blood of the Son, in spite of the flagrant sacrilege (ministers of the word and sacrament even managed to procure bread and wine for Communion in Auschwitz, for some perspective — see Maximilian Kolbe for the most memorable example), it would be obviously illicit without permission of Session, and it would be a far-out Session that would adjudicate chips and Coke to be appropriate elements in light of the constitutional language and the entirety of tradition.

    That said, the atmosphere and utensils you describe for Communion with the youth group are entirely appropriate. There is nothing inherently irreverent about casual conversation (provided that, as in this case, it is in the appropriate context), no requirements exist for serving implements in our church except that they hold the elements, and homemade bread is the best of all. Three cheers to you for bringing our youth, of whom I see precious few at 8:00 AM, more fully into the sacramental life of the Church.

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