Communion in the City

Post Author: Catherine Neelly Burton

Take-Out Neon Sign in a New York deli

Sign in a New York deli

There’s a story, a myth perhaps, about a congregation that stopped all activities during Lent. That season they gathered for Sunday worship, and then the pastor and elders visited the homes of everyone in the congregation to serve communion. They held no meetings and no rehearsals – only worship on Sundays and in homes.

Anytime I complained to a former colleague about how busy my church was she would tell me this story. The idea is wonderful, but one that would take tremendous planning and congregational buy-in. Neither I nor the congregation I now serve was ready for this kind of endeavor, but the story got me thinking about communion and Lent in new ways.

During Lent in 2014, I invited the congregation I serve to join me for “Communion in the City.” Each Wednesday evening we gathered in a public space for fellowship and to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. During the five weeks that we met, we broke bread at two different Panera Bread restaurants, the mall food court, a McDonald’s, and a downtown outdoor space.

We tried not to make a big show about what we were doing. We simply read scripture, talked, shared our holy meal, and – often – shared meals off the menus of the places we gathered. The only place anyone approached us was at the McDonald’s. After walking by several times, an employee said, “You’re having church; good for you.” We invited her to join us, but she declined. Our congregants often shy away from the word evangelism, but living our faith outside of our church walls appealed to them. We were a public witness: quietly bringing the church out of the building and into the community.

One of the few vocal evangelists in our group took the opportunity to invite people around her in the line at a Panera Bread to join us. That particular Panera Bread was located across the street from a large hospital. No one from the line joined us, but two people asked us to pray for their loved ones; and we did.

Along with serving as a quiet public witness, we were all able to hear scripture and experience the Lord’s Supper in new ways. My seminary professor, Chuck Campbell, encouraged us to read scripture in lots of settings: “dislocated exegesis,” he called it. The idea is that we hear and see new things when we’re in new places. Communion is a much different experience in a mall food court than in a church sanctuary – a different kind of holy amidst all the noise and excess. Sharing the holy meal in a variety of different settings heightened our senses and provided opportunities for us to experience communion, and locations common to us, with fresh eyes.

Our congregation has around 400 members. Each week that we gathered for Communion in the City, our groups included between 10-20 participants. Each week, the Spirit broke into our gathering in a different and surprising way. We took the church and the sacrament out into the city, bearing witness to God in unexpected places.

Catherine Neelly Burton is the pastor at Grace Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) in Wichita, KS. She is married to John, and they have a daughter Alice and dog Dolly. She is a graduate of Rhodes College and Columbia Theological Seminary.

Image by: Steven Feather
Used with permission
1 reply
  1. Tim Yau says:

    Interesting, however it only feels like you have gone halfway on the missional journey. Practising your rituals in an unfamiliar surroundings may stretch you and your congregation, but how is it engaging with the non-church people in the different contexts? If you met regularly in one place outside of your church building you would eventually build a relationship with the people who frequent that place, but moving to different locations each time woould mean that you were, at best a curiosity, and at at worst a dislocated historical re-enactment.


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