What does Open Communion Mean?

Youth Pastors Debate

I’m part of an online community of youth pastors that try to help each other through tough times, wrestle through theological and practical issues within the church and crowd source ideas. With over 7,000 members from a multitude of denominations, things can sometimes get into debates and arguments over theology. Sometimes it’s over an issue the person never even knew would be controversial. 

Recently, one of the members asked how other churches handled kids taking communion. It was a very innocent question, but I inadvertently turned it into an ugly battle. Up until I entered the conversation there were several people who had responded with it’s up to the parents or kids weren’t allowed to take communion. I made the comment that we practice open communion, so everybody is welcome to partake in communion, regardless of age, membership, or even if they believe in Jesus. We believe that it is a means of grace, and so God can work through the act of communion, even in those people that others would deem unworthy, to bring people closer to him. 

Almost immediately someone said “Yikes! Serving it to nonbelievers?”. Because everyone is more bold when they aren’t face to face, I ashamedly replied “Yikes! Trying to judge who’s worthy of communion?” and the debate was on. 

Communion Restrictions

For some of these youth pastors, this was the first time they had ever heard of kids or members of different denominations being invited to communion at a church that wasn’t theirs. They had gone their whole lives under the assumption that closed communion was the only way to do communion. Closed communion is where not everyone is invited to come forward. Sometimes the restrictions are that you have to be a member of that denomination, i.e. the Catholic church, sometimes the restriction is you have to be a member of that specific church and you can only ever take communion at that church, i.e. the baptist church my wife grew up in. To be fair, some United Methodist churches place a qualifier in there that all are welcome who love Jesus, or who are seeking after him, or something similar to that, but none of them ever directly ask the person receiving communion if they really do and it is almost impossible for a Methodist church to turn someone away from communion. 

One person in particular said the act of serving communion to nonbelievers is making a mockery out of Christ’s suffering and sacrifice. His comments lead me to think about serving communion in a completely different way. In Romans 5 Paul said:

“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”

Jesus died for us while we were still sinners. He died for us before we even knew we needed a savior. When we take communion we are doing it in remembrance of him, his life, and his sacrifice. How can we say that Jesus died for us while we were ungodly but refuse to let those very same people take part in the remembrance of his sacrifice?

Obviously the matter wasn’t resolved online, but hopefully we all walked away with a better understanding of what different Christians believe and, more importantly, why we believe those things. For my part, I learned that our belief in prevenient grace, that God is actively reaching out to us before we even acknowledge our need for him, has so many more implications in our theology than I realized. It has made me thankful that it’s not about what we do in communion, but it’s about what God has done for us through his Son. In the simple act of taking a piece of bread and dipping it in some grape juice, even if we don’t fully believe, in that moment we have at least taken a step towards wanting more of Jesus in our lives and opened ourselves up for examination.

Nathan Persell serves as our Youth Director. When he's not leading devotions and playing basketball with teenagers, he enjoys disc golf and bike riding. Learn more about Nathan here.