Peppermints, Mentos, and Communion With Children

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Awhile back some church planters were gathered together in the hospitality house of a New York monastery. The conversation, like the people gathered, was lively and stimulating. Most participants arrived knowing each other only tangentially. We were only beginning to get acquainted. Even so, joyful banter and word play bounced gracefully from one subject to another. And then the dialog turned to communion.

One missional leader, in her 50s, remembered that as a child she looked longingly at communion. Growing up, her church celebrated communion only four Sundays each year. Each occasion was full of sober formality and serious reflection. The Sunday before communion was celebrated, her pastor read a form of preparation outlining steps to be taken that week so each congregant could ready themselves. Even so, she said, that as a child she deeply wanted to participate. She longed to be fully on the “inside,” to join her parents and uncles and aunts and family friends who when the pastor invited, “take and eat” could actually “take and eat.”

In fact, she said, she created her own path to participation. At the exact moment the adults in her congregation ate the communion bread, she popped a white peppermint into her mouth. When they were bidden, “take and drink,” she popped a pink peppermint in her mouth. She believed in Jesus. She trusted Jesus. She loved and belonged to his family. So she deeply wanted to follow his instructions “Do this in remembrance of me.”

As she finished her story another missional leader, in his mid-thirties told his. He grew up twenty years later and almost 2000 miles away from our communing by peppermint friend. But without skipping a beat he told how he regularly brought Mentos to church each week to keep his ADD self from squirming or sleeping. But communion services were special. He, too, designed his own participation path. He saved a white Mentos to eat the exact moment adults in his church received the bread. And he also ate a pink Mentos when adults drank the cup. He reflected, “As a kid we weren’t allowed to participate. But I wanted to. So, I found a way.”

Those stories, of course, beg the question: Why not allow children to fully participate in communion?

Our network of churches, the Christian Reformed Church, spent several years studying this very question. As is our style, the wider church formed a team of accomplished biblical and educational experts who spent five years searching the bible and the best of church history for guidance. This wasn’t just a “study committee” whose goal would be to write a thoughtful position paper on this subject. No, in a burst of pastoral wisdom this team asked for input and participation along the way—they listened carefully to local churches and heard how their varied contexts affected each congregation and its communion practices. At the end of their study and conversation, they heartily recommended “children participate fully in communion.” That was eight years ago. Now Granite Springs is joining in.

The thinking goes like this: since we invite people of all ages—even the very youngest among us—to receive baptism as a sign of God’s never ending grace-filled love for them, why not also let people of all ages—even the youngest among us—also receive communion as a sign of God’s never ending grace-filled love for them? After all, if communion (also called eucharist or the Lord’s Supper) is spiritual food for our soul, don’t kindergarteners and pre-adolescents need that as much as any adult? To put it another way, we celebrate baptism as a covenant promise. In it we receive God’s love and grace. So why not celebrate communion as another covenant promise, in which we (weekly) receive God’s love and grace?

So, starting this month, our congregation’s grade schoolers will join us each week for communion. They will still leave the main sanctuary to get age-appropriate teaching in their classrooms. But then they’ll re-join their families as we come forward for communion as an entire church. This will take a few logistical tweaks, and we want to thank our stellar children’s ministry team for their help in making this as seamless a transition as possible. But the big hope is that children will become, even at their age, grace connoisseurs.

One wise eight-year-old in our church, on hearing that he and his friends would participate in communion each week told his mom, “It’s great to be part of communion at a few special services (Good Friday and New Year), but I’m excited to receive communion every week. It will be really special.”

Yes. Exactly.

We could give him Mentos, or peppermints, but why not help him today on his way to becoming a thoughtful, grace-full person of faith?

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Community Builder

The function of communion and baptism are different.  They are both sacraments but they do not have the same participation requirements.  Baptism is administered even to infants on the basis that they should receive the sign of covenant inclusion as was the pattern in the old testament.  There is no cognitive requirements for receiving baptism.  However, participation in communion requires that one "discern the body" (1. Cor. 11).  Certainly someone must be able to do that.  People can tell horror stories about how they spent the whole week in fear "examining themselves", but the fact is that the Bible says that this must be done.  Communion is a sign of participation in the body and shed blood of Christ, and someone who cannot examine themselves and who does not comprehend the atoning work of Christ is someone who cannot partake in the Lord's supper.  Baptism marks inclusion in the visible church.  Communion is a sign of personal participation in the atoning work of Christ.  There is a big difference.  

Izaak: The "body" to be discerned isn't Jesus'...it's the church/congregation. The apostle isn't chastising the Corinthians for failure to know Jesus as lord and savior. He is upset because the wealthy left out the poor. They created a division in the "body" where isn't supposed to be one. We do the exact same thing when we leave out the children of believers from celebrating the sacrament of the covenant that is ours in Christ. Our congregation has had children at the Lord's table for more than 14 years already. The sacrament is all about what the Lord says to us, not what we say to him. What we say in response is our "profession-of-faith" and it marks our entry into confessing member status in the body of Christ as "believers". 

Community Builder

Lambert,

I appreciate your response.  Since the apostle exhorts that a person must examine him or herself before partaking, that must be done.  An infant cannot do this.  A toddler cannot do this.  Maybe an exceptional 8 year old can do this.  It is probably to be assessed on a case-by-case basis.  Some 8 year olds have a good understanding of the work of Christ and wish to serve Him.  I would have a hard time saying that such a child cannot partake just because they are only 8.  What I am against is the idea of babies and toddlers who have no conception of faith being given the elements basically in some superstition that they work ex opere operato.  Of course, baptists would say that we do the same thing with baptism - but then of course we must realize that the two sacraments serve different functions.  One is a sacrament of admission, the other of participation.  I agree with you that taking communion is essence a profession of faith.  But we have to ensure that we don't simply administer it to someone on the basis of the fact that they are baptised - they must also profess faith.  How that profession looks is another matter.

Izaak:

The two sacraments do not function differently. They function the same way. Also, I didn't say that taking communion is a profession of faith. Both sacraments are means of grace. According to the Heidelberg Catechism they are signs and seals of the covenant presented in the O.T. and N.T. which combined have their "yes" in Jesus Christ. They are by definition lesser than the word of God preached. These two covenantal sacraments are intended to supplement the gospel of God. Communion doesn't supersede the preaching ministry. We bring covenant children to church to be placed under the Word of God preached, ipso facto they ought to be participating in the sacraments. 

With regard to Paul's admonition that "people" examine themselves I take it to mean that adult believers are the intended recipients of that caution. It is unthinkable that children in the N.T. era would have been excluded from the communion table. It was the leadership of the church that was tolerating the fracturing of the body. We do the exact same thing when we suddenly render children, who were participants in worship, into spectators of a sacred right that suddenly doesn't included them. We should never have allowed this custom to take hold in the first place. 

Community Builder

This deeply disturbs me.

We celebrate communion on the first Sunday of every month. It's a time to reflect upon the great gift that God had given his people: the death of His son.

As the elements are handed out, the pastor regularly reminds us that "this is only for Christians; for those who profess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. If you don't share in that profession of faith, don't take part. As Scripture says, you are eating and drinking judgment unto yourself."

We regularly have five busloads of university students attending our morning worship services. But the biblical warning is as much for us pew-sitters as it is for those who have come to check out the worship service.

When it comes to children at communion, I would hope that parents -- at minimum -- have had that conversation with their children beforehand to determine if they indeed do profess their faith in Christ. I would also hope that a parent has enough spiritual maturity to tell one child that he or she isn't quite ready to take that step.

We seem to equate communion with a church potluck; enjoy the feast because we're all part of one happy family.  So, whose responsibility is it when a child, or a teenager, or a mature adult takes communion without truly professing Christ as lord and Saviour? What does it mean to eat and drink judgment to one's self?