Some churches are modifying their worship practices, including a shared Communion chalice or hugs and handshakes at the sign of peace, in an effort to stem the spread of swine flu. Religion News Service file photo by Lynn Ischay.

Can online Communion be a substitute for the real thing?

(RNS) As online worship becomes more common in some churches, leaders within the United Methodist Church are debating whether the denomination should condone online Communion.

About 30 denominational leaders met last week after Central United Methodist Church in Concord, N.C., announced plans to launch an online campus that potentially would offer online Communion. Some nondenominational churches already offer online Communion, according to United Methodist News Service, but leaders urged the denomination’s bishops to call for a moratorium on the practice and do further study of online ministries.

Some churches are modifying their worship practices, including a shared Communion chalice or hugs and handshakes at the sign of peace, in an effort to stem the spread of swine flu. Religion News Service file photo by Lynn Ischay.

Some churches use a shared Communion chalice in worship services. United Methodist leaders have asked the denomination's bishops to place a moratorium on the practice of online Communion and do further study of online ministries. Religion News Service file photo by Lynn Ischay.

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The majority of the leaders agreed with the statement that Communion “entails the actual tactile sharing of bread and wine in a service that involves people corporeally together in the same place.” Not everyone, however, agreed that congregants must be in the same place.

The debate raises fundamental questions at the heart of the church experience: the definition of community, individual participation, the role of tradition and basic theological understandings of the meaning of Communion.

United Methodists practice open Communion, meaning all who worship are invited to partake. Many churches celebrate Communion once a month, though each church decides how often to serve it.

A move towards accepting online Communion might be inevitable in some quarters, given the denomination’s history, said Mark Tooley, a Methodist who is president of the conservative Institute on Religion and Democracy.

“Methodists have a long history of pragmatism, which might make them a little more susceptible,” Tooley said.

Communion takes on different forms among various Christian denominations, but it generally involves the re-enactment of Jesus’ Last Supper by taking bread and wine (or, as the UMC prefers, unfermented grape juice).

Also called the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper, many Protestants see the rite as an expression of faith rather than the actual body and blood of Jesus, as the Catholic Church teaches.

Many churches have launched online options for church activities, including worship, seminary, ordination counseling and financial giving. Despite the growing availability of church resources online, participating in Communion has mostly remained a part of the physical act of worship in a congregation.

“The Methodist understanding of Communion arguably is more low church and less emphasis on the ‘real presence,’” Tooley said, when compared to denominations like the Episcopal Church.

With Methodists’ history of itinerant evangelism spread through circuit-riding preaching, online Communion fits with the denomination’s populist bent, said Stephen Gunter, associate dean for Methodist studies at Duke Divinity School.

“It’s always been about how we get the gospel to the next person,” he said.

But Methodists also have a history of accountability, checking on one another’s spiritual life, Gunter said. “I can’t see how someone (who's) satisfied to be in front of a TV or computer screen would be interested in being held accountable to anything.”

Some worry that online communication is becoming an alternate form of community for Christians.

“Digital mediation is now preferred to the immediacy of embodied conversation,” wrote Brent Laytham, dean of the Ecumenical Institute of Theology and professor of theology at St. Mary's Seminary and University. “Like a hug or a kiss, like incarnation and resurrection, Communion requires bodies that touch.”

It is difficult to tell how many churches are offering online worship or online Communion as part of their regular services.

A LifeWay Research survey of a thousand Protestant churches found that while 78 percent have a website, less than half of them use their sites for interactive purposes, such as obtaining and distributing prayer requests (43 percent), registering people for events (39 percent) and automating other church processes (30 percent).

Scott Thumma, a sociologist of religion at Hartford Seminary, said that none of the 80-some churches that he has studied that offer online services also offer virtual Communion.

“In many ways this is a parallel discussion to the earlier debate about whether online community is 'real' community,” Thumma said., one of the most innovative online churches in the country, included a blog post in 2010 illustrating how to prepare for online Communion by having elements, such as bread or a cracker and wine or Kool-Aid, on hand. A spokeswoman said that the church currently does online Communion at periodic gatherings for online volunteers rather than as a weekly practice.

Eventually the Methodists’ debate on online Communion could be presented before the General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking body, in 2016 in Portland, Ore.


  1. Awesome idea! I don’t like people anyway. How great that I can be a Christian and get my preaching from the TV, communion from the internet, worship from a iTunes download and serve the less fortunate by making a financial donation online. Who needs other people to be accountable to, or to learn from, or to serve alongside with. I sure hope heaven is this way, cause being in community with people is too troublesome and demanding. Who wants that?

  2. Without embodied, sacramental participation in human community, we are missing the point of the Incarnation (“the Word made flesh” as the bishop above pointed out). Then Christianity becomes simply Gnosticism or a philosophical viewpoint, rather than following a God who became human and dwelt in human community and used matter, ritual, and embodied action to communicate God’s life to others. Online communion can be a sort of religious pornography for some: An attempt to gain the feelings of religion without the commitment. It commodifies the Divine-human relationship into just another lifestyle product to be bought at an online vendor. A discussion group of a community of real, live embodied atheists would be a more authentically Christian worship experience than a virtual communion without community. For an excellent exploration of this, read the sci-fi novel “Noir” by KW Jeter.

  3. Your analysis is spot-on Nate. This issue is pretty transparent and should not be hard to see it for the complete fallacy that it is.

  4. “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” — Mattew 18:20

    Why can’t this happen in front of a computer screen?

  5. Because it doesn’t even meet the threshold of at least Two gathered in a location in Jesus’s name…

  6. Please stop using Mark Tooley of the IRD as a conservative source. He is not a credible commentator on The United Methodist Church — or any Protestant denomination for that matter. No way, no how. Find someone else with some authentic credentials. PLEASE.

  7. OK…..
    So, me and boyfriend are sitting in front of the screen; and your objection is….?

  8. This is crazy. Of course physical presence matters–else we wouldn’t pay to travel. With the internet of course we can see pictures of all that beautiful stuff. But we want to go to Istanbul, to Venice, to Ravenna, to all those beautiful churches. Why would anyone WANT the online communion if they could get the real thing? We would of course rather go to Ravenna, to be in San Vitale and experience it in the round. You simply can’t get that slam-bang experience looking at the various views of the mosaics–you don’t get the experience of that structure, that jewel, or the intense experience. Why would anyone want virtual communion–why would anyone want to forgo the experience?

  9. You have got to be kidding! On-line communion is like cybersex . . . nothing good or productive can come from it. This just gives people another reason not to attend church.

  10. Not that anyone cares, but this would be a violation of Article XVIII of the Methodist Articles of religion (the lifted up, carried about and gazed upon part) and the association with ocular communion.

    And communion with Kool-aid? Surely that’s a typo and they meant grape juice?

    I really thought this was from Lark News when I saw the headline. I wish it was…

  11. Whatever happened to the idea of bringing Holy Communion to shut-ins?

  12. Because Matthew 18:15-20 is about church discipline and accountability not simply being in a room next to one other person and saying “see, we’re doing church together.”

  13. Unbelievable, literally, that so many people can be so agitated about their collective ability to determine what magical actions and words can be used to regulate communion with God and the people of God. They all make the argument for abandoning a liturgical eucharist and encouraging all people to make every meal an agape meal — mindfully reminding ourselves of our interdependency and ultimate dependency on the giver of life.

  14. All of us who are saved, and now saints, have the Holy Spirit indwelling us, so we can pray over the bread and wine to sanctify it. Then with properly discerning that these elements are the body and blood of Christ, partake. The bread represents his body broken for us [our healing] and the wine for the new covenant [grace] both in memory of him. When we properly discern that it is his body, we are no longer, weak, sick, or falling asleep [dying before our time].
    Christ did this with the couple in Emmaus and it so energized them that they walked the 7 miles all the way back to Jerusalem after just walking 7 miles to Emmaus [half marathon]. So when two or more are gathered do it, do it often, do it daily if sick. TV and Internet just help this by providing the gathering.

  15. Is Christ not always with us?
    Sin happens in the heart… Do not forgiveness, submission, obedience, devotion, repentance and contrition also happen in the heart? Why not then Holy Communion? Is ritual a necessity or a formality? Christ fulfilled the ceremonial law in His perfect walk, death and resurrection, and brought the moral law of love, compassion and forgiveness. I submit that Christ lives in each heart, and ceremony can be shared through Him… We carry His love out into the world. When we are with Christ, we are with each other. One body, one spirit, and one church. The intent is to repent unto renewed obedience and revived love, forgiveness and compassion to others. Admittedly, if you are the last person on Earth, it seems impractical, but is it? Would it be? I submit that a tree that falls in the woods makes a sound, even if only Christ (God) hears it. What was Christ doing all that time in isolation in the wilderness? Not wasting His time, I wouldn’t think ( I don’t…

  16. I haven’t always the convenience of daily, church hosted eucharist…. I attend when it’s available and circumstance doesn’t prevent it, but preference is not priority… Sincerity is priority. I appreciate the ability to pray the Eucharist any day, every day, multiple times in a day if needed. I guess it’s just me, but even a video online is an option – when my computer died and it wasn’t “Communion Sunday” I got out my Methodist hymnal and read the service privately, with the host elements… I believe they were blessed because I was earnest and sincere. I believe God hears the voice crying out in the wilderness. Pomp and circumstance, as well as “shared, communal experience” is nice, but the meat of the matter is spiritual, and occurs internally. It will still be manifest in all my dealings afterward. I believe in an omnipresent God Who hears and answers His children, wherever they are, and in whatever company they are, even alone. Christ doesn’t live in Jerusalem, but in…

  17. I prefer steak and lobster, but sometimes have to settle for hot dogs or Ramen noodles… It’s still food and it sustains me.

    “It’s not what goes into the mouth, but what comes out of it that defiles a man, for it was conceived in the heart.”

    Are blessings any different? Just food for thought.

    By the way, my computer is no more… Is there any more or less truth to my words because I’m typing them on my phone? God bless us all, we need all the help we can get.

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