Coming to the Table
Guidelines and Resources for Elders, Families, and Congregations to Encourage the Participation of Baptized Children in the Lord’s Supper
The Lord’s Supper, like baptism, is a means of grace for nourishing and strengthening disciples of Christ. In the Reformed Church in America baptized children are welcome at the Lord’s Table because they are members of the church, recipients of God’s grace, and able to offer their love and thankfulness to Jesus. Thus, baptized children should be encouraged to participate in the Supper of grace. The Lord’s Supper is a means of grace that nourishes faith. Children can experience the richness of the Lord’s Supper long before they can verbalize its meaning. (See “Baptized Children and the Lord’s Table,” RCA Commission on Theology Report to General Synod, 1990).
This study is adapted for use in Reformed Church in America congregations by Phyllis Palsma and edited by Willa Brown and Jane Schuyler. Adapted from A Family Meal: A Guide to Help Sessions Prepare to Welcome Children to the Lord’s Supper, by June Holohan and Glenn Cooper, The Presbyterian Church in Canada, 1997. Used by permission.
COMING TO THE TABLE
A Workshop to Help Boards of Elders Prepare to Welcome Children to the Lord’s Table
I. OUR COMMON EXPERIENCE OF COMMUNION (Discussion)
What does Communion mean to you? Is it a time of thanksgiving for God’s grace? A time to come together with the church family? A time of repentance? A time of sorrowful remembering that Jesus died? A time of celebration, remembering that Jesus was raised from the dead? A comfortable and comforting ritual? A time to anticipate a joyous meeting with Christ in the coming realm of God? It can be all these things and more.
Share what Communion means to you.
- What do you think about when you see the Lord’s Table?
- What feelings does the Communion setting evoke in you?
- What does the Lord’s Table mean to you?
- How do you prepare for the Lord’s Table?
Share your stories of Communion.
- What is your earliest memory of Communion?
- How old were you when you first took Communion?
- What are some of the different ways you have participated in Communion?
- What is your most memorable experience of celebrating the Lord’s Table?
II. COMMUNION MEANS MANY THINGS (Present the main ideas)
Those who grew up in the Reformed tradition have probably heard the following words at Communion: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26). The result is that we have generally seen Communion as a very solemn event that directs our attention to the death of Jesus and his sacrifice on the cross. It has also been seen as an “adult thing.” We have thought that something so serious could not be understood or appreciated by children.
In recent years, the liturgy for the Lord’s Table has been revised so we begin with “Beloved in the Lord Jesus Christ, the holy Supper which we are about to celebrate is a feast of remembrance, of Communion, and of hope.” This has allowed us to recover some other aspects of communion that have been neglected by many churches.
Communion is a celebration of Jesus’ resurrection.
- Read Luke 24:13–35. It describes the experience of two disciples who are joined by a stranger as they travel to Emmaus. As evening falls, they invite the stranger to stay with them. They recognize that the stranger is Jesus when “he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.” Note the characteristic gestures we associate with Communion: taking the bread, blessing (God), breaking the bread, and giving the bread.
- Luke 24:41–43 speaks of the risen Christ eating with the disciples.
- John 21:1–14 tells of the risen Christ preparing a meal for the disciples.
Communion is a reminder of the story of the feeding of the multitude.
- The feeding of the multitude shows the same characteristic gestures of Jesus taking the bread, blessing it, breaking it, and distributing it (Matthew 14:19, Mark 6:41; Luke 9:16).
- Notice that the John account of the feeding of the multitude has a child playing a most significant role—providing the five loaves and two fish (John 6:9).
- Another account clearly indicates that children participated in the meal (Matthew 14:21).
Communion is, in the words of the Reformed Church in America liturgy, “a pledge and foretaste of the feast of love.”
Isaiah 25:6–10 gives a picture of the last days as a great feast, a celebration of the victory of God over all that can hurt or harm. This, too, is reflected in our celebration of Communion.
Communion is a celebration.
In 1 Corinthians 11 we read that the meals of the early church, including the breaking of bread and sharing the cup, were happy celebrations of the risen Christ that looked forward to Christ’s return. But in at least one church, the note of celebration seemed to be carried to excess. The familiar words of 1 Corinthians 11:26 that talk about “proclaiming the Lord’s death” were written to a church that was sharing Communion in a way that dishonored Christ—“When you come together it is not really to eat the Lord’s Supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk” (1 Corinthians 11:20–21). Paul reminded the Corinthian Christians of the connection between their meal and the death of Christ to correct that situation.
III. HISTORICAL OVERVIEW OF CHILDREN AT THE LORD’S TABLE (Review Resources)
Our Reformed statements of faith—the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and Our Song of Hope—all speak about the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Begin this overview with a look at those statements. What do they say about baptism and the Lord’s Table?
Next look together at “The Toughest Issue,” an article by James I. Cook from Reformed Worship that describes and summarizes the Reformed Church in America’s General Synod debates, papers, and discussions on welcoming children to the Lord’s Table, and synod’s decision to permit boards of elders to welcome children to the Lord’s Table. Allow time for reflections, comments, and questions about the article.
Other resources that may be helpful include:
- “Baptized Children and the Lord’s Table,” a 1990 statement from the RCA’s Commission on Theology. This document is a basic resource for elders because it presents the church’s position on the relationship between baptized children and the Lord’s Table.
- “Baptized Non-Communicants and the Celebration of the Lord’s Supper,” from the 1977 report of the Commission on Christian Theology Series of the Reformed Church in America, The Church Speaks, edited by James I. Cook (Eerdmans, 1985), pp. 74–90.
- “Baptized Non–Communicants and the Celebration of the Lord’s Supper,” from the 1984 report of the Commission on Theology. This report can be found in the fifteenth volume of the Historical Series of the Reformed Church in America, The Church Speaks, edited by James I. Cook (Eerdmans, 1985), pages 90–101.
- “Children at the Lord’s Table,” from the 1988 report of the Commission on Theology.
IV. COMMUNION AS A FAMILY MEAL (Storyteller; Bible Study)
Read aloud the story “Communion for Kevin”. Perhaps teens or an intergenerational group might dramatize the story.
One of the special things about seasonal celebrations is the opportunity to have a big family meal where grandparents, children, aunts, uncles, and cousins may all join at the same table. In many families this time is spent recounting family stories: “Remember when Ryan was ring bearer and decided to use the kneeling bench for his afternoon nap...” or “Remember when we went to Grandma’s house and she’d make chocolate chip cookies and we ate them when they were still warm...” or “When I was a child, I had to walk five miles through the snow to school...” Repetition of family stories helps bind the family together and tell new members about the family.
The church, too, has many stories.
- Read Deuteronomy 6:20–25. Moses tells the people that in the future, when their children ask about the meaning of the laws of God, the parents are to tell the story of having been slaves in Egypt, of the miracles and plagues, of God’s bringing them out of Egypt. In other words, they were to tell their story to their children.
- Read Deuteronomy 26:1–9. When the people of God entered the promised land and were to make an offering of their harvest, they were again instructed to tell the story: Their ancestor was a wandering Aramean who went down into Egypt and settled there, and was ancestor to a great nation.
In modern-day Jewish homes, children are an important part of the Passover meal (Seder celebration), with the youngest child present asking, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” The head of the household then tells the story of the Exodus from Egypt.
We need to tell the story of our faith to our children. Because the Lord’s Table is such an important part of our faith, we consider how we might include our children in this sacrament. We do not wait until our children are ten or twelve to allow them to eat because they do not know how the digestive system works. Nor do we withhold love from an infant because the baby cannot yet understand what love is.
But how do we know when our children are ready to celebrate Communion? There is no faith thermometer that beeps when our faith maturity reaches an acceptable level.
Communion is a family meal. It is not really a declaration of our love or faith in God; it is a declaration of God’s love for us. Communion is not a reward for good behavior, biblical knowledge, or deep theological understanding. It is a declaration of God’s grace, giving us an undeserved favor or love. Communion is a time of celebration, remembering God’s covenant with a whole people.
V. COMMUNION AND THE BAPTISMAL COVENANT (Bible Study)
The baptismal liturgy of the Reformed Church in America states: “Baptism is the sign and seal of God’s promises to this covenant people.” The declaration in the baptism liturgy says: “In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, the only King and Head of the Church, this child/these children of God is/are now received into the visible membership of the holy catholic Church, engaged to confess the faith of Christ, and to be God’s faithful servant/s until life’s end.”
Review the following Scripture passages that record stories of God’s covenant.
God’s Covenant with Noah: Genesis 6:18; Genesis 9:8–17
Genesis 6:18 tells that God told Noah to go into the ark, and Genesis 9:8–17 describes how God gave the sign of the rainbow and promised that never again would a flood destroy all living things.
God’s Covenant with Abraham: Genesis 15 and 17
These two chapters in Genesis share the story of God’s promise about many descendants and the inheritance of the promised land.
God’s Covenant with Moses (the Sinai Covenant): Exodus 19:5; Exodus 20; Exodus 21–23; Exodus 24
Exodus 19:5 records God’s promise that if the people of Israel obey God and keep God’s covenant, they will be God’s chosen people. Exodus 20 includes the Ten Commandments. Exodus 21–23 stipulates laws and responsibilities. Exodus 24 describes the rite of the covenant.
God’s Covenant with David: 2 Samuel 7
This chapter records the prophet Nathan’s discussion with King David, telling him of the Lord’s promises to David.
A New Covenant in Christ: Matthew 26:26–29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:14–20; I Corinthians 11:23–32
The four biblical accounts of the Lord’s Supper are found in these passages. Each of these passages refers to a new covenant that God establishes. The Lord’s Supper is a celebration of that covenant. We become part of the covenant family when we are baptized. Communion is a time to nourish our faith and remind us of the covenant.
Pentecost Covenant Reminder: Acts 2:39
In this verse, Peter reminds people that all who believe in Jesus Christ and who are baptized are recipients of God’s promises.
There will still be time for a formal public statement of faith. Until that happens we are called “baptized members” of the church. After a formal, public profession the term is “confessing members” of the church, and it usually follows a time of study and preparation. Confessing members participate fully in the life of the congregation including, for instance, voting to call a minister and to elect elders and deacons, and being eligible for election to consistory.
VI. OUR CHILDREN AND COMMUNION (Discussion—What is most significant in participants’ faith? Other points?)
What Can Children Understand about Communion?
- Communion is a family meal. Think of special meals where you might go to visit a relative where the white tablecloth is spread and the good china, silverware, and crystal are used. You know it’s special and you practice your “company manners.” You don’t sit down at the table just to eat, but because you have been invited to that person’s house to visit.
- Communion is the church’s thanksgiving to God. It is a special time to thank God for Jesus.
- Communion shows that we belong to the church family.
- Communion is a way to remember. Some families have photo albums, videos, craft projects made by the children, and other keepsakes that remind them of who they are. When we celebrate Communion, we do the same things Jesus and the disciples did at the Last Supper, and we remember God’s promises. We remember who we are—and whose we are.
- Christ is the host at Communion. He invites us, welcomes us, give us food. At Communion, we are all guests. We show respect.
- During Communion we think of the future realm with Christ. We don’t just look back at Jesus’ death, but also ahead to the future. An important feature of the covenant is promise and expectation.
Explaining the Pattern of Communion to Children
Children and adults will be more comfortable in the Communion service if the pattern of Communion is explained prior to the service. This may need to happen each time the Lord’s Table is celebrated.
Each congregation may have a slight variation in the Communion service, but the following practice is customary in most Reformed churches. The bread and wine (or grape juice) are on the Communion table at the front of the church. Some churches use a common cup or a whole loaf of bread, while others use individual cups and pieces of bread. In some churches, people come forward to receive the bread and wine. In others, people dip the bread in the wine and then eat it. Some churches use different ways at different worship services.
It is usually the elders—though it does not need to be—who go to the front of the church to receive the plates of bread and wine from the celebrant and serve them to the other people. Adults may need to assist children in passing the plates. As the plates are passed, members may say a brief statement (“The bread of life for you,” “The cup of blessing for you,” “Remember that Jesus loves you,” etc.).
Adults don’t need a complete understanding of the covenant and grace to come to the Lord’s Table. Neither do our children. It is beyond understanding. The sacrament is a mystery in which the bread and wine are visible signs of God’s invisible grace. We come to celebrate, to thank, to anticipate.
C. S. Lewis, a well-known Christian and author of many books about the Christian faith, was once asked why he had never written about Holy Communion. He replied that Jesus said “Take and eat.” Jesus did not say “Take and explain.” It is enough, as a beginning, to know that Jesus told his followers and friends to eat the bread and drink from the cup. Whatever our age, there is always more to learn.
VII. SUGGESTIONS FOR WELCOMING CHILDREN TO THE LORD’S TABLE
The Book of Church Order gives the elders of the church responsibility for the spiritual care of its members and responsibility to see that all of its members are making faithful use of the means of grace. In furtherance of these responsibilities, boards of elders are encouraged to participate in formal and informal ways in the meaningful preparation for welcoming children to the Lord’s Table.
- Formal ways: Implement the various resources for this purpose supplied on the RCA website (www.rca.org). Volunteer to be a leader at various teaching/learning opportunities.
- Informally: Engage children in conversation at church activities. Extend a smile and spirit of welcome. Know them by name, inquire about their favorite toy or activity, and ask them about the best part of today’s worship service or church school session.
By James I. Cook
Should children be permitted at the Lord’s Table?
Thirty years ago that question would not have come up in most evangelical churches. But today many churches have studied that question seriously. And many members of these churches believe baptized children should be allowed to participate in the Lord’s Supper.
Why this shift in thinking? What has prompted the discussion? What issues are at stake?
We have asked James Cook, professor of New Testament at Western Theological Seminary, Holland, Michigan, to reflect on this issue. Cook was a member of the Theological Commission of the Reformed Church in America (RCA), a group that dealt carefully with the question of children at the Lord’s Table. He will discuss the issue from the vantage point of that commission, but the shift of focus that he witnessed in the RCA may well be paralleled in other denominations.
In June 1988 the General Synod of the Reformed Church in America voted “to encourage boards of elders of RCA congregations to include baptized children at the Lord’s Table.” Thus ended a discussion begun in 1972 when the Classis of Albany (New York) overtured the General Synod to study the possibility of allowing “baptized members of the church to partake of the Lord’s Supper before making a public profession of faith.” During the sixteen intervening years the denomination, like Matthew’s householder (13:52), brought out of its treasure “what is new and what is old” to reach the decision of 1988.
To the category “old” belong the rediscovery of the church year and a return to the Reformed theology of baptism.
The rediscovery of the Christian calendar came with liturgical renewal. Congregations began to celebrate the Lord’s Supper on Maundy Thursday, and many preceded it with a Seder meal. Parents discovered the awkwardness of moving from the parish hall to sanctuary, from the Jewish celebration that had included the children to the Christian sacrament that did not. Why should covenant children, welcomed to the meal of the old covenant, be excluded from the meal of the new and better covenant?
The pain of excluding children became more pronounced as many congregations moved from quarterly to monthly celebrations of the supper. Increased frequency magnified the place of the table, making the exclusion of children all the more obvious.
Renewed attention to the one sacrament inevitably drew attention to the other. A review of the Reformed doctrine of baptism placed even more question marks over the exclusion of covenant children from the Lord’s Table. Clearly underlining the parallel between circumcision and baptism, the Belgic Confession (Article 34) speaks of the children of believers whom “we believe ought to be baptized and sealed with the sign of the covenant, as little children were circumcised in Israel on the basis of the same promises made to our children.” To the question Should infants, too be baptized? (Q&A 74) the Heidelberg Catechism responds:
Yes. Infants as well as adults are in God’s covenant and are his people.
The truth in these doctrinal statements led naturally to a liturgical declaration such as the following, used in many RCA congregations after baptism:
In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, the only King and Head of his Church, I declare that this child is now received into the visible membership of the Holy Catholic Church.
To many this language suggested inclusion, not exclusion, and moved the discussion to issues of theological consistency. Was it theologically consistent to encourage young people—who had been declared members when they were baptized—to “join” the church through profession of faith? Was it theologically consistent for the church to argue (against those Baptists who opposed infant baptism) that an inclusive circumcision translated into an inclusive baptism while at the same time maintaining that although Passover had been inclusive, the Lord’s Supper should be exclusive? Was it theologically consistent to offer the unrepeatable sacrament of initiation to children while reserving the repeated sacrament of nourishment and growth for adults? Do not John Calvin’s beautiful and eloquent words in favor of including children in baptism apply equally to the Lord’s Table?
For we must not lightly pass over the fact that Christ commands that infants be presented to him, adding the reason, “for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matt. 19:14). And thereupon he attests his will by his act when, embracing them, he commends them with his prayer and blessing to his Father. If it is right for infants to be brought to Christ, why not also to be received into baptism, the symbol of our communion and fellowship with Christ?
--Institutes 4, xvi, 7
If, as Calvin concluded, “infants are baptized into future repentance and faith, and even though these have not yet been found in them, the seed of both lies hidden within them by the secret working of the Spirit” (Institutes 4, xvi. 20), it is difficult to avoid the same conclusion about children at the Lord’s Table.
To the category “new” belongs the contribution of faith development and the clarification of 1 Corinthians 11.
The behavioral sciences have taught us that Christian learning begins at birth. In the first year of a child’s life, loving care, freely received, elicits a response of trust and instills a sense of the reality of grace. Recipients of such nurture readily sense the ring of reality in the gospel, since it resonates with their deepest experiences and understandings.
At the age of four, children demonstrate remarkable understanding of the stories of Scripture and of symbols in worship and sacraments. The awareness of love for Jesus, the feeling of belonging to the Christian family, and the desire to participate in the Lord’s Supper are likely to emerge at this time. So it makes sense that this is also the age at which we should introduce the Lord’s Supper, the third means of grace, to move baptized children toward a personal affirmation of the baptismal covenant and a joyful participation in the full faith and life of the people of God.
When members of our denomination were struggling with this issue, we found the faith-development argument very convincing. But even to the almost persuaded there remained the traditional biblical barrier of 1 Corinthians 11, with its sobering call to self-examination and its grim warning that those who eat and drink “without discerning the body” eat and drink judgment upon themselves. This passage appeared to establish an informed, adult faith in Christ as a necessary precondition for coming to the Lord’s Table.
More recent expositions of 1 Corinthians 11, which keep the crucial verses in their context, have brought clarification. In verse 22 Paul reveals that many of the Corinthians despised the church of God. Paul then recalls Jesus’ words of institution at the first supper to remind his readers of the One who offered not only food and drink but also himself. The attitude of Jesus at the institution and the act of Jesus on the cross were in starkest contrast to the attitude of the Corinthians, described in verses 18–21.
The creation and preservation of the church of God—and the communion in it of those who have much and those who have nothing—are rooted in Jesus’ death. Once we grasp that, the connection between the words of institution and the words of warning is clear. For whoever eats the bread and drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner (that is, with the factionalism and lovelessness that marked the Corinthian assembly) is indeed guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.
However, the sins that made the Corinthians unworthy partakers—schisms, insensitivity, drunkenness—are the sins not of children but of adults. If discerning the body means having a proper sense of Christian community, children, with their quick responses of love and trust, their experience with family, and their natural sense of dependence on others, might indeed be judged worthy partakers—more readily than many adults.
Thus, our commission concluded that 1 Corinthians 11 does not address the issue of covenant children and the Lord’s Supper. Convinced of that truth, the 1988 General Synod of the RCA encouraged elders to include baptized children at the Lord’s Table.
The late James I. Cook was professor emeritus of New Testament at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. This article first appeared in Reformed Worship and is used here with permission.
By June Holohan
Kevin looked around the church at all the people. He wondered why there always seemed to be more people when they had Communion. Must be because it’s special. This morning the ushers even had to put extra chairs in the aisles.
The table at the front was ready for Communion, with special things on it. There were two stacks of trays that had little glasses of wine or grape juice, and there was a lid on the top of the stack. There were also several plates filled with little pieces of bread, and the plates were covered with white glasses. There was also a big wine glass. Kevin remembered the other name for it—a chalice.
When he was little, Kevin didn’t know what Communion was all about. A couple of years ago his church had started to invite children to participate in Communion. Now he ate the bread and drank the grape juice just like the older people.
Kevin’s parents had talked with him about Communion. They told him that Communion is a special meal. He knew that already. They also said it’s a family meal, kind of like going to Grandma and Grandpa’s for dinner, except this is the church family. When they go to Grandma and Grandpa’s, his mom always tells him to be extra polite, not to interrupt when someone else is talking, to try to sit quietly. That’s sort of how he tries to behave during Communion.
Kevin’s mom and dad said that Communion is a time when we can thank God for Jesus. We can remember all the things that Jesus does for us. Kevin knew that Jesus and his disciples did the very same thing at the Last Supper. It’s kind of hard to understand when the minister holds up the bread and says, “This is my body.” But Kevin thinks about the time he saw a very old picture and his dad had said, “That’s my grandfather. He died long before you were born.” Kevin knew that the picture was just a piece of paper with some markings on it. But his dad was also right when he said that the picture was his grandfather.
Uh oh, here he was thinking about old pictures, and his mother was passing him the plate of bread. She said, “Remember that Jesus loves you.” Kevin took a piece of bread and held it in his hand for a moment. Then he ate it.
He knew that in some churches everyone would wait until the minister held up the piece of bread and said, “My body, which is broken for you.” Then they all ate the bread at the same time.
His father said that after he gets the bread he closes his eyes and thinks about all the good things that Jesus has done. Just as he is eating his bread, he says to himself, “Thank you, God.”
Just then the wine and grape juice were passed. Kevin knew that the purple was the wine and the clear was the grape juice. His mother took the wine and his father took the juice. Kevin took the juice and his father said, “This is the new covenant.” That was another big word he had just learned: covenant. His parents said that it’s a promise that God will always love us. Kevin had asked, “Even when we do bad things?” His dad said, “Even then.”
His mom and dad told him stories about other covenants in the Bible. He remembered the story of Noah because he thought of it every time he saw a rainbow, but he hadn’t known it was called a covenant. God promised Abraham he would have children even though he was an old man. That was a covenant.
Kevin remembered that just a moment ago the minister had lifted up the chalice and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.”
Kevin drank his juice and prayed, “Thank you, God, for Jesus.”
This story first appeared in A Family Meal: A Guide to Help Sessions Prepare to Welcome Children to the Lord’s Supper, by June Holohan and Glenn Cooper, The Presbyterian Church in Canada, 1997, and is used with permission.