How Does World Communion Sunday Actually Achieve World Communion?

One of the benefits of being an Associate Pastor in my context is getting to watch a skilled colleague plan worship in a way that honors the Reformed tradition and promotes vibrant interaction. This is true of worship she designs, say, in the middle of summer, just as it is of services that are more prescribed, like World Communion Sunday.

Yesterday my colleague knocked out not one but two terrific liturgies to lead us into the experience of world communion, one for our congregation and one in collaboration with the Indonesian congregation that shares our worship space. Everything was thoughtfully and deliberately put together, and both liturgies did all the things you want World Communion Worship to do: speak several languages, trace the history of the occasion, and call for the church’s involvement in the most God-forsaken corners of the globe. My colleague is a pro, you guys.

How is it, though, that this particular tradition, embraced by the majority of Protestant denominations in the middle of the last century, actually achieves its stated aim? Does it?

My colleague very helpfully explained to the congregation yesterday that this particular practice of urging Christians of every denomination to share communion on the same Sunday arose during the dark days of the Great Depression, and that it really found its footing within the protestant ecclesiastical establishment during World War II, when the exercise felt like the church’s way of “holding the world together.” No doubt that was powerful: American churches whose European fore-bearers in the faith were killing each other coming together to witness to Christian unity.

Two things about this practice today, though. 1) We don’t live in that Euro-centric world anymore. The parts of the world that most urgently need held together are places like Syria and Umpqua, Oregon. The forces tearing humanity apart are no longer European super powers heaving bombs at one another’s capitals but random gun violence, human trafficking, and mass migration.

2) Christians of different traditions showing their unity (“And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love . . . “) is not the witness to the gospel that it once was. It feels to me like the non-Christian world has made its peace with denominationalism, so Methodists and Presbyterians and Lutherans breaking bread together hardly registers. I mean, these are fine distinctions, aren’t they? Most people who aren’t in church can’t parse the Catholic/Protestant distinction, and many more see no reason to distinguish between Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism.

The American cultural landscape today features organized religion on one hand and individual spirituality (or not) on the other, not necessarily in conflict with one another, and with neither proving particularly effective at stopping mass shootings or sheltering the huddled masses. In that game, you don’t get points for hugging your own teammates.

How might World Communion Sunday, then, but transformed into something that pushed the church to share communion (and not only as a sacrament) with people who most desperately need it, and not, as the tradition’s originators intended, with other Christians?

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