Children at the Table: Some Thoughts on Communion and Children

I can’t imagine communion without children being present, partaking in the sacrament right alongside adults. I’m always taken aback, then, when I hear of people or churches requiring communion be reserved for children of a certain age, or for children who have completed some “to do” on the checklist, such as a public profession of faith or catechism class. The Lord’s Supper is a community celebration and it is a place where God’s grace is revealed.  If you or your congregation is wrestling with this, I invite you to consider the following:

Communion is the joyful feast of the people of God, and children understand it as such. 

 I recently had the opportunity to serve communion to a group of children, and the joy they had in receiving the elements was palpable. They sprinted up, tore the bread and happily ate, some of them laughing with excitement. Did their joy dilute the sanctity of the moment? Not at all. In fact, it added to the holiness. Many times adults come to the table with sad or somber faces out of the concern that one must be reverent at the table. I agree that the table should be approached with reverence, but reverence and solemnity are not  the same thing at all. There is such a thing as joyful reverence, and children understand this intuitively. Children, if given the opportunity, don’t grab a tiny square of bread, they tear off a large chunk. Where is it written that the communion bread must be consumed in one, tiny, disintegrating bite?

The communion feast is a symbol of our shared unity and faith. Denying children the elements sends the message that they are not a part of our community.

What kind of message does it send to children when the bread and the cup pass them by? I think the thought of those who elect to have children wait until they’re confirmed or older goes something like this: communion is a serious sign of faith that should not be entered into lightly. Those who partake of it must come to the table having examined its true meaning and understanding its significance. Not only do I think this argument is theologically flawed (more on that in a minute), I think those who offer it as a reason for excluding children from the table underestimate the value in passing on faith to very young children through this important ritual.

I often turn to the important work of James Fowler in Stages of Faith as a guide for understanding how children perceive the actions of the faith community. Fowler says that children in the first stage of faith, are in the “fantasy filled, imitative phase in which the child can be powerfully and permanently influenced by examples, moods, actions and stories of the visible faith of primally related adults.”  (Stages of Faith  p. 133). What better way to influence through action than the table?  Furthermore, what connection are children supposed to draw about God’s table if they’re not allowed to eat at it? Is God for them, or not?

I remember one time when my children came to communion when they were very hungry. As they ate the bread and drank the juice and my child said, loudly “I’m still hungry!” What a wonderful theological statement, and a reminder that those who see things literally have a lot to teach us about how we come to the table.

The table is for all, even those who don’t fully understand it. 

The idea that children should wait until they understand what is happening there is very weak. The truth is, none of us fully understands the mystery of the communion table. Not even adults. John Calvin said, “there is something so mysterious and incomprehensible in saying that we have communion with the body and the blood of Jesus Christ, and we on our part are so rude and gross that we cannot understand the least things of God, it was of importance that we should be given to understand it as far as our capacity could admit.” (John Calvin, Short Treatise on the Supper of our Lord) If we were to exclude all those who do not fully understand the mystery of the sacrament, no one would be able to come. It is wrong to single out children when none of us could fully understand

The sacrament of communion sometimes leads people into deeper faith, rather than the other way around 

Sara Miles beautiful book Take This Bread tells many wonderful stories of how the communion table can be a place of conversion and grace, drawing people in to a place of deeper commitment to Christ. The same is true for children who often have a remarkable ability to explain the importance of coming to God’s table and partaking of the bread and juice.

There is strong historical precedent for children, even very young children, participating in communion. 

The very early church encouraged even babies to take bits of the elements as priests dipped their fingers in the juice and placed it in the baby’s mouth. The Eastern Orthodox church still continues this practice today. Far from being some sort of vogue new trend, communion for children has deep historical roots. 

Paul’s words to come to the table “examined” are taken out of context and used to exclude children from the table unnecessarily. 

One scripture that is used in support of keeping children from the communion table is 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 about those who “partake unworthily.” My short response to this is: this isn’t talking at all about children coming to the table. For a fancier exegesis, however, I’d point folks to professor Wiema’s great article which you can read HERE. (The whole edition of that newsletter is devoted to the topic of children and communion. It’s all worth reading, but his piece on this scripture can be found on page 7 of that link.)

Attention Presbyterians: Children are officially invited to the table. 

Our Book of Order says this: The opportunity to eat and drink with Christ is not a right bestowed upon the worthy, but a privilege given to the undeserving who come in faith, repentance, and love. All who come to the table are offered the bread and cup, regardless of their age or understanding. If some of those who come have not yet been baptized, an invitation to baptismal preparation and Baptism should be graciously extended. So grateful to be a part of a denomination that officially welcomes all to the table!

 

What are your thoughts on inviting children to the table? Would love to hear them in the comments!

 

  • Karen Deboer

    Thank you for this wonderful post, Traci! As both a pastor and a parent you may find the Welcoming Children to the Lord’s Supper online toolkit (from the CRC’s Faith Formation Ministries) to be helpful. It’s filled with free resources for churches and families alike. You’ll find it here: http://www.crcna.org/FaithFormation/toolkits/welcoming-children-lords-supper-toolkit

    • Amazing, Karen! Sending you an email about this!

  • Deborah A

    Hi Traci, thanks for the great article. We are members of the church where Dana is the pastor. She attended Princeton with you. We are glad that our young daughter is able to partake in all parts of communion. I was raised a Presbyterian and was able to partake of the bread, but had to complete a communicant’s class at age 13 before I could partake of the wine.