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Reviving Communion
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Think Outside the Bowl
By Jason Decena

I love Communion.  The ritual that Jesus passed down to us is pregnant with symbolism, and immerses us in an encounter that engages us through every sense: sight, sound, taste, touch and smell.  This event has the potential to really take us deeper in our personal encounter with Jesus as well as bind a community together.  There is a perennial problem in most churches regarding communion, though: most of our church members avoid it if they can help it. 
 
There is an unfortunate assumption in many churches that attendance will drop on Communion Sabbath and depending on how the service is structured, you can accurately predict when the mass-exodus will occur.  It seems to hinge around the feetwashing aspect (At New Hope Seventh-day Adventist Church, my current church, we refer to the Ordinance of Humility as “feetwashing” rather than “footwashing.”  Last time I checked, both feet get treated equally, so it makes sense to me, even though it rolls off the tongue differently).  When people are dismissed to participate they must suffer from temporary amnesia, because they never turn into the feetwashing room, but head straight out to their cars.
 
Every church has its own particular challenges when it comes to Communion.  The rest of this account is highly personalized for New Hope Seventh-day Adventist Church, because that’s my church context.  It’s not a one-size fits all scenario.  It never is.  But hopefully, there will be something in this article to trigger an idea or thought that could be relevant and poignant for your own context.
 
Sole Strategy
 
Three of the pastors on our church staff, Pastor Ann Roda, Pastor Dave Gemmell, and myself met on a Wednesday afternoon in a conference room with the purpose of discussing the current challenges of the Communion service and what our approach would be.  The biggest issue at New Hope regarding Communion was that we have poor participation with feetwashing.  Historically, we’ve had a different format for feetwashing: a station was set up in our second floor hallway and people could come and go as they chose during the service to participate.  The two main reasons for this approach was to mitigate the crowd and to offer flexibility.  The problem was that numbers were down for feetwashing.  We were averaging about 50 participants on any given Communion Sabbath.  New Hope is anomalous, however, in the fact that attendance historically hasn’t decreased on Communion Sabbath.  We still expect normal attendance on those days which is between 600-700 weekly.  Offering flexibility helped to control the logistic space issues, but too much so.  It inadvertently sabotaged our intention for them to enter into the full experience of Communion.
 
We asked God for guidance and inspiration as we sought to address this challenge and yet remain open to where God might want to take us as a church family.  We turned to the foundational texts[1] for guidance.  Prayer and being immersed in Scripture cannot be overemphasized in any preparation process for a worship service. 
 
The ideas flowed fast and free between the three of us, and we put the ideas on paper as quickly as we could.  Nothing was out of bounds.  There would be time to filter later, but in the initial stages of brainstorming, keeping all options on the table can help spur other viable options through association that you wouldn't be able to get through a normal train of thought.  Also, cross-pollination of ideas between people can help you overcome obstacles creatively.  If you are alone in ministry, find people who have a passion for the kingdom and for ministry to be fellow idea-generators and sounding boards.  There is wisdom in a multitude of counselors.[2]
 
We decided to break up the teaching part of the service into three parts and to each take a section: Experience Holiness, Experience Hope, and Experience Humility.  Each section would lead into the next and take us further into the Communion experience so that continuity was preserved.
 
To tackle the challenge of feetwashing, we thought through the logistic challenges and came up with the idea of providing options.  The feetwashing portion of the communion service is the most anachronistic.  We eat and drink daily.  Feetwashing was a common practice back in the first century because of the combination of ubiquitous dusty roads and open-toed footwear.  Not so much in the modern era.  One of the biggest hurdles with feetwashing is that we really don't have a modern-day equivalent.  When I was in Northern California, one of the best uses I've seen for feetwashing bowls was pedicures for the homeless.  Perhaps that would be an equivalent application.  But in the context of a modern communion service, we have people who will cut their toenails and scrub extra well BECAUSE they know that someone else will be washing their feet.  Full disclosure: that's what I typically do on the morning of communion.  But doesn't that go against the meaning of the symbol?  Am I trying to do Jesus' job for him?  Am I trying to scrub myself clean instead of allowing Christ to clean me?  The act of submitting is a difficult one; perhaps the most difficult piece.  I'd much rather wash than be washed.  It's a pride issue.
 
Do This In Remembrance
 
When planning creative services, remember these key points:
1) Be sure that you have the pulse of the congregation
 
The role of the pastor is to know and study his/her congregation for the purpose of calling them further and deeper into God's kingdom (which, paradoxically, takes them back out into the world). 
 
2) Don't limit ideas prematurely
 
Let an idea have a chance to either become something, lead to something more fruitful, or die gracefully when it's supposed to.  By destroying an idea too early, you could be limiting your opportunities to connect your people the gospel.
 
3) Prayer and scripture cannot be overstated
 
We stopped multiple times during our planning session to read and reread our foundational texts.  When we would go off-track, the text always brought us back to the essential purpose.  If you feel lost or overwhelmed, get anchored by marinating in the text.
 
4) Seek input from key leadership, especially the team that will help you implement the vision. 
 
Once you have the perfect solution you need people to pull it off.  Talk through the logistics with your deacons or whichever team will help implement your vision.  They may foresee things that you hadn't planned on and save you heartache and pain.
 
Enter the Experience
 
To Experience Holiness, Ann preached through the account of Moses in Exodus 3.  While facing a burning bush that wasn’t consumed God spoke to him and said “Do not come near here; remove your sandals from your feet for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”[3]  Moses was asked to remove his shoes in God’s presence.  It was an act of acknowledgement.  Moses recognized who he was and where he was in relation to God.  In today's culture, shoes take on another meaning: status.  Shoes have become a status symbol for material wealth among our congregations.  Brand names such as Manolo Blahnik or Jimmy Choo speak just as loudly as Mercedes Benz or BMW in today's culture.  Removing our shoes in God's presence is not a new practice nor is it a novel idea; many of you have experimented with this already.  What we want to do is not derive our value from our material possessions but find our value at the level ground of the cross.  The act of removing shoes means that we place our trust in God and recognize that our value comes from Him alone.  This became a crucial step in the overall arc of the Communion experience.  Pastor Ann, during her homily, took her shoes off, and invited the congregation to do the same. Most did.
 
We transitioned from Holiness to Hope, and I taught the church about the hope that we have made available to us through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.  At New Hope, we dismiss the congregation row-by-row to come to front to receive the emblems.  This walk to the front of the worship center was even more tactile since our shoes were off.  The shoeless walk helped people be vulnerable while approaching Christ.  We prayed over the emblems and partook together.
 
You’ll notice that we ate the bread and drank the wine before the feetwashing.  This was by design.  In most Communion services that I’ve experienced, feetwashing precedes the partaking of the emblems.  Instead of following that model, we wanted to mirror the narrative as described in John 13.  This allowed us to put feetwashing at the end of the service.  This helped because we had another opportunity to make the case for people to participate in feetwashing, and, frankly,  by ending the experience with feetwashing the exodus of the non-participants wouldn’t be as noticeable.  Experience Humility was the section where Dave really set the stage for feetwashing.  He drew out the key point that Jesus showed us a template for service, “For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you.”[4]  This became the launching pad for a reimagining of feetwashing.
 
Since there is no modern-day equivalent and because this is typically when most people would check out, we attempted to draw more interest to this process by capturing the spirit of service with options.  Here are the five we offered:
 
1) Feet Washing - a traditional feetwashing experience
2) Feet Caring - a foot revitalizing experience with fragrance and lotions
3) Feet Shining - a shoe shine experience with brush and polish
4) Feet Comfort - an opportunity to give (and get) a relaxing foot massage
5) Feet Cleaning - for those wanting to travel through time, we had an outdoor setup with mud, so you could REALLY get your feet dirty before having the cleaned with cool, clean water
 
Dave invited people into the different options while highlighting the essence of these acts of service toward each other.  We formally dismissed at this point, and people either found a station to participate at, and of course, some left for the day.  This is an incredibly important point.  If there’s a part of your creative service that potentially could be confusing, it WILL be.  Do your best to explain logistic procedures to mitigate confusion.  Your people will thank you.
 
Denouement
 
Our goal was to have a higher percentage of our people participating with feetwashing.  As I mentioned previously, our average number of participants for feetwashing was about 50 people, typically.  The deacons estimated that between our two services and between the 5 stations, we had about 400 participants.  The traditional feetwashing drew the same number that it usually had, about 50.  But the other options did really well, drawing 350 between the other four options.  The Feet Cleaning option, which was very tactile, was a big hit with families.  That was the option that my family and I chose.  Among the adults, the Feet Caring and the Feet Comfort were well attended.  Some people chose to participate in more than one option.  My own children shined some shoes before we had a chance to stomp through the mud together and do some serious Feet Cleaning as a family. 
 
After the service, one of the comments that we heard from several families was that they wanted to know when we were having the next communion service!  When has THAT happened before?  There was positive buzz with regards to the options for feetwashing among the congregation and we’re looking forward to our next opportunity to experience communion together again.  Of course, many people still left when they had the chance, but the percentage of participation in feetwashing dramatically increased.
 
It’s worth it to try to find new ways to present the rich, timeless truths that Christ left us with.  We’ve all tasted and seen that God is good.  Why not use some creativity to craft encounters that lead our congregations to ask, “When can we do that again?!?”
 
[1] Exodus 3, Matt 26, 1 Cor. 11, John 13
[2] Prov. 15:22
[3] Exodus 3:5, NASB
[4] John 13:15, NASB