Online Holy Communion:
Theological Reflections Regarding
The Internet and The Means of Grace

By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal

Throughout the history of the Church the Means of Grace have been offered and received within the context of the localized, worshiping community. While preaching has sometimes been done in the open fields, prayers offered at home, hymns sung at work, and Holy Communion taken to shut-ins and to those in hospitals, for the most part the Means of Grace have usually been reserved for celebration within the Church as an expression of that particular community's spiritual life. Given such a traditional, safe, and controlled setting for their conduct, it is not at all surprising that many are uncomfortable when the Sacraments and the other sacramental acts of the Church are offered outside what has become their normative realm. This sense of ill-ease is nowhere more acutely felt today than when the Means of Grace are offered through the media of the internet.

  • "Is Virtual Church possible?"
  • "Can Christian Community be established via dial-up?"
  • "Is it possible to offer the Sacrament of Holy Communion over the Internet?"

Questions like these, and many others, have been shot my direction by friends and fellow Christians, by clergy and laity, by interested individuals and by those who are highly skeptical of the Internet as a viable means of communicating the Gospel and conveying God's Grace. Indeed, several pundits have expressed significant disagreement with my theology and practice of offering Holy Communion through the Internet. One of these authors, the clergy blogger at Padre Complex, has offered up some thought-provoking remarks which merit consideration:

I am all for a healthy understanding of the Communion of Saints and the ‘Great Cloud of Witnesses’ but isn't there something lacking in the total absence of a community? Rev. Neal is avoiding the prohibition against “self-service” communion. Rev. Neal appears to have a very individualistic approach to sacraments and worship. Their is something crucial to the experience of communion in a community. To eat with others is to require a set of relationships that an individual does not have to consider. As an individual I can sit in front of the TV and watch The Simpsons while eating dinner. But if my family is home it is better for us to sit at the table so that we can learn of each others day, share in the hopes and dreams of life together. Communion is just not an individualistic experience. Even Jesus encourage community - two or more.

The Covenant Community:

The "complex Padre" is, of course, correct in his observation that Holy Communion should be experienced within community. Indeed, I entirely agree that the Eucharist is most perfectly celebrated within the context of the worshiping Church. As I have clearly stated in sermons and papers that can be found elsewhere on my website, the Sacrament of Holy Communion is a Means of Grace in and through which the believer receives the nourishing, life transforming Real Presence of Jesus. Through faithfully partaking of the Sacrament Christians are brought together within the mystical Body of Christ and are empowered for mission and ministry through our Lord's sanctifying Grace. As such, Holy Communion can never be thought of as an “individualistic” experience, even if one is physically alone when partaking the elements. While perhaps being somewhat unconventional, I certainly do not have a “very individualistic” approach to the Sacraments nor to worship. While one can worship God “by oneself,” as I have done many times during morning and evening prayer, one is never really alone in the worship of God. “Where two or three are gathered together” is, truly, a powerful promise of our Lord’s Real Presence, but it is not in any way a limitation on the ability of Jesus to be present; in other words, there is no physical “quorum” required for Christians to worship or for the Means of Grace to be true and effective in all their marvelous manifestations.

Do I consider it immeasurably better for one to partake of the Means of Grace — and, most especially, Holy Communion — within a physically localized community of believers? Absolutely. I have never encouraged anyone to “forsake the gathering of the saints together.” Indeed, just as my Audio Sermons on the Internet should never be thought of as an alternative to listening to the preached Word within a localized Congregation, so also my offering of the Lord's Supper over the Internet should never be thought of as an alternative to partaking the Sacrament within a localized Congregation. Indeed, I have never intended for anyone to receive any of the Means of Grace through my ministry to the exclusion of receiving them within a Church. Rather, they are being offered in addition to, and in supplementation of, the normative experience of the Means of Grace within a gathered, physically localized, worshiping Congregation. True, there are times and places in which it may be impossible, or at least very difficult, for someone to attend public worship, hear the preached Word, and receive the blessed Sacrament. In such cases my offering the Means of Grace over the Internet serves a useful purpose, standing in the gap that one's circumstances have created. But such are exceptions to the rule. In most cases it is my conviction that the vast majority of those who receive the Means of Grace offered through my ministry do so in order to supplement and amplify that which they are already receiving within their localized community of the faith. Whichever the case may be, in any given circumstance I believe that when one is partaking of the sacrament via the internet, one is actually partaking within the extended ontological community of the Church gathered not just where I am celebrating at the Table of the Lord, but -- indeed -- within the one holy catholic and apostolic Church of which all Christians are a part. Indeed, I can and do make the argument that, even through the Internet, when one partakes of the Means of Grace one is doing so within the mystical Body of Christ ... His Church.

The Sacrament of Holy Communion is the preeminent spiritual expression of the Church; regardless of its size, shape, place, date, name, denomination, or style, all Christian congregations are nevertheless part of the Universal Body of Christ as exemplified in the Eucharist. Thinking of the Church as being bound to a single local congregation or a particular group of people in worship, comes dangerously close to denying not just the doctrine of the "Communion of the Saints" but also the very idea of the "catholic Church" as understood and articulated by Protestant Christians. To put this simply: the worshiping community which I pastor, and within which I preside as celebrant at the Table of the Lord, is metaphysically interlinked with, and ontologically indistinguishable from, the faith-communities within which all other Christians partake of the blessed Sacrament ... we are all part of the One Body of our One Lord Jesus Christ. If this is true -- and, by faith, we do believe that it is so -- then why is it any more difficult for the Holy Spirit to extend the Real Presence of Christ from multitudinous localized congregations to Christian believers who are joining, in faith, with such congregations by means of the internet? Put another way, if the Body of Christ is not limited by temporal or spatial limitations, why do we -- in our human dogmatism -- feel the need to limit the Body of Christ and the Means of Grace to just those who can be, physically, a part of a worshipping community? Are Christians only part of the Body of Christ when they are temporally and spatially present at Church? Of course not! Likewise, I believe that the Community is also present with a lone believer who is worshiping Christ and receiving the Means of Grace even by long-distance, over the internet. Temporal and spatial limitations may limit us, but they do not limit God or the Holy Spirit's ability to convey Grace to a believer.

The Eucharistic Elements:

Another impediment to online Holy Communion is the impossibility of transporting the consecrated elements through the internet. Some day it may well be possible to "beam" the bread and the wine through the internet to communicants but as of today this is still beyond our technological capability. Many critics of "Holy Communion on the Web" have focused upon this deficiency, asserting that it seriously -- if not completely -- undermines the ability of the Eucharist to function through the virtual media; and they are correct ... this is a critical issue. Breaking the bread, smelling the wine, and tasting each is both a physiological and typological experience of God's gracious provision; just as the bread and the wine brings nourishment and refreshment, so also Christ Jesus enters our lives to nourish and refresh us. Hence, the elements, as instruments for conveying the Real Presence of Jesus, are central to the Sacrament of Holy Communion.

While most obvious relative to the Sacraments, the centrality of physical instrumentality is true for all of the Means of Grace. Preaching requires voice and hearing and/or the ability to read and write; prayer requires voice (inner or outer); service requires physical action; the reading of Scripture requires the Bible; fellowship requires interaction with others; ordination requires the laying on of hands ... Etc. This characteristic of instrumentality is not something ancillary to the Means of Grace but, rather, is central to each -- the affirmation of catholic Christianity is that God's Grace comes to us through instruments. Indeed, this is the principle difference between the catholic conception of Sacramentology and the Zwinglian conception of Ordinance Theology: in Ordinance Theology God's Grace is understood as falling directly upon the believer, with no mediation between the person and the deity; in Sacramental Theology God's Grace is understood as being conveyed to the believer through many various instrumentalities. Being a United Methodist -- and, hence, Anglican in my Sacramentology -- I affirm the catholic conception of instrumentality: God's Grace is conveyed via means.

So, how can the Eucharist function through the internet where the bread and the wine cannot be physically conveyed to the communicants? Put another way: if, in the Lord's Supper, the Real Presence (i.e., the Grace) of Jesus is conveyed to the communicant through the instrumentality of the consecrated bread and wine, how can the Sacrament function over the internet where the physical elements cannot be conveyed to the receiver? Audio Preaching requires the communication of sounds, but current technology enables the transmission of sound and, indeed, even of video, hence this means of grace can function in the virtual realm without too much difficulty. The same cannot be said for the Eucharist. Or ... can it? What is to keep the internet-based participant from having the elements prepared and ready for receiving on their end of the world-wide-web? Must the bread and wine be in close spatial and temporal proximity to the celebrant at the Table? If so, how close must it be ...or, stated in reverse, how far away can the bread and the cup be before it is no-longer considered "consecrated?"

As I have considered this issue the most surprising discovery I have made is that we -- the church -- frequently have what amounts to a "magical" understanding of consecration. Yes, I said "magical" ... for that is how many actually treat the process and the elements which have been consecrated. It's a misunderstanding of the Christian conception of holy consecration, but it is nevertheless one which runs rampant within the thinking and acting of many Christians. For example, in the photo which begins the current section of this article I am pictured consecrating the bread and the cup; my hands are held over the elements as I pray the words:

"Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here, and on these gifts of bread and wine: make them be for us the body and blood of Christ, that we may be for the world the Body of Christ, redeemed by his blood."

This epicletical prayer, or one similar to it, has been part of most Eucharistic liturgies throughout the history of the Church. The symbolic acts -- hand motions, the lifting of the elements, the formal breaking of the bread etc. -- are all features of an historic celebratory style which I was taught in Seminary, and from which I draw great personal meaning in my own spiritual walk. However, not being one to take myself too seriously, I will often call this act "zapping the elements." These consecrated (i.e., "zapped") elements are then received by believers as Means of Grace, and are treated with the respect they are due as instruments through which the Real Presence of Jesus is transmitted. But is it just these elements -- just this loaf and just this cup under the hands of the celebrant -- which are consecrated? Is the Eucharistic consecration only a spatially and temporally localized action, or does the prayer consecrate elements which are not present under the celebrant's hands, nor even within close proximity to the celebrant?

Consecration is not a magic act, nor is it superstition, it is a prayerful liturgical act of the Church in which the celebrant calls upon the Holy Spirit to bless the elements, wherever they are. This is true for the elements localized underneath the celebrant's hands, elements resting elsewhere on the Altar, elements placed at stations around a large congregation, and even elements in Fellowship Halls or auxiliary buildings where an overflow congregation is participating in the worship service via large projection screens. While certainly not conventional, nor even normative, I have become convinced that this also holds true even through radio, television, telephone, live streaming internet transmissions, audio and video recordings, and even on-demand streaming downloads. Human conceptions and limitations of time and space are never an impediment to God's ability or desire to grant divine Grace. Every celebration of the Eucharist which has ever occurred or will ever occur, has taken place at the exact same moment for God ... in God's eternal "now." Likewise, every celebration of the Eucharist, held anywhere in the universe, occurs at the exact same place for God ... in God's omnipresence. Hence, it doesn't matter if the bread and the cup are not in close physical or temporal proximity to the celebrant -- God is present, and God knows the intent and the faith of the communicant, even if they are receiving through the internet and with elements that are on their own side of the connection. If the intent is to receive the Body and Blood of our Lord, and if their faith is focused upon Christ Jesus while partaking, then what we have is certainly a Means of Grace and, I am convinced, a true expression and experience of the Sacrament of Holy Communion.

Holy Communion Among the Means of Grace:

I don't believe that it is wise, or even possible, to confine God within a paradigm of our own creation and assume that such is “all that God must be,” or “the only way that God’s Grace can be received.” Indeed, I believe that we must take great care to not limit the functionality of any of the Means of Grace to just the temporal and physical locality of a church sanctuary or immediate congregation. We don't do this with prayer: although the gathered "prayers of the people" are of great value, we don't deny the efficacy of the prayers of a lone person. We don't do it with the reading of Scripture: while public reading is important, personal reading and study is equally a Means of Grace. Likewise, if preaching is a Means of Grace — and it is — and, yet, through preaching God's Grace can be communicated over the internet, why can't the same be said for Holy Communion? I believe that this is a good question, one that is worthy of serious consideration and not just cursory dismissal. Just because people listen to my audio sermons in the privacy of their homes and on their iPods while working out at the Gym or driving in their cars, this doesn't make them any less a Means of Grace. Likewise, just because a believer is partaking the Sacrament via the internet, this doesn't make it any less a Means of Grace. Perhaps the functionality of the Means is different in kind, process, or even quality, but it is not different in its ontological substance; it is not any less the Grace of God because of the setting in which it is received or the means by which it is conveyed to us. If the this is true for preaching, it's true for the other Means of Grace.

In 1998 I began uploading audio sermons to the internet. Long before it was common place, I had a small collection of sermons available for streaming play on my website. My first attempts at this were laughable (by today's standards of quality), but it worked. To this day on my website I have a significant catalog of audio sermons, going all the way back to January 1999, available for streaming play in Real Audio format. In 2005 I added Podcasting via iTunes to my means of serving sermons on the internet. Over the years my weekly listenership has grown from just a small handful to several thousand. It continues to amaze me that such is the case, but it is ... people do listen to sermons, regularly, over the internet. My website statistics demonstrate this fact, as do my bandwidth excess charges. The emails I have received thanking me for providing these messages are such a return blessing to me that I would continue this aspect of my ministry even if not a thin dime came in to help support it. On any given Sunday morning I'll have between 100 and 120 in worship at Church; by the next Friday night more than 3000 additional internet listeners will have heard that same message and, I pray, have been touched by God's Grace in so-hearing. Would it have been better for these people to have been in the service itself and have received all the various Means of Grace that come with being a part of a worshipping community? Yes. But that they were not there doesn't make it impossible for them to receive something from the message. I have seen it happen time and time again; God's Grace is active in many ways ... particularly in ways that are beyond the narrow confines of our myopic expectations. This is certainly true and evident in the scriptural accounts of God's interaction with His people! God often chooses to work through the least likely offspring, the least likely couple, the least likely people, the least likely instrument, and the least likely girl, and frequently in the least likely places and times. God majors in blowing away human conceptions of propriety and human expectations of "how things ought to be done," preferring to use ways and means and vessels that occasion surprise and rejection from the established "religious leaders," and an unexpected response from the last, the least, and the lost. Should we be surprised that God still works this way, still calls those whom the Church would never call, and still functions in ways that defy ecclesiological rules and regulations?

A few years ago -- long before the United Methodist Study Commission report on Holy Communion was published, but long after I had given it my input on the doctrine of Real Presence -- I began asking the question, again, regarding the sacraments. Preaching is a Means of Grace; is it the only Means of Grace that can be communicated to people over the internet? I couldn't accept a "yes" answer to that question. I simply cannot believe that human limitations in any way limit God's Grace and the ability of God's Grace to be communicated. Hence, I began offering sermons on Holy Communion, the text of the Eucharistic rituals, photos of sacramental celebration, and audio and video recordings of Eucharistic services on my website. And, for any who might be interested, I invited them to prayerfully participate via the internet and to receive whatever measure of Grace that God would have them receive through such participation. I was not the first to do this, nor will I be the last. Indeed, our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers have had webcams focused upon the Reserved Sacrament for the adoration of the faithful almost from the very beginning of webcam technology. If God's Grace can somehow be communicated to a faithful believer when they "pray with the Sacrament" via the internet and a webcam, how else might God's Grace be conveyed? I decided to find out.

Since I began offering Holy Communion on my website in 2003 I have received many dozens of e-mails concerning it. Some have been caustic, accusing me of rank disrespect for the Sacrament. Others have thanked me for providing a visual guide to the celebration of the Sacraments, often expressing surprise that Methodists can and do wear vestments, or stand behind the table to celebrate, or even use a Great Thanksgiving that is much like the Catholic Mass. I've had United Methodist clergy write to thank me for demonstrating a celebration-style that is both clean and appealing, and others thank me for my writings, audio sermons, and other teachings which communicate a sound Methodist/Anglican understanding of Sacramental Theology. And, I've had many who have written to thank me for bringing the Eucharist to them over the Internet in a way that has touched their lives and given them a new experience of the Real Presence of Jesus. In most cases they have indicated a renewed interest in attending church and, in more than once case, I have helped them to find a church in their local community to attend. In short, while there have been some who have either not understood or not appreciated the Holy Communion On the Web section of my website, most have been very positive about it in one way or another. And, for this, I give God thanks.

Dr. Gregory S. Neal, Ph.D., is the Senior Pastor of St. Stephen United Methodist Church in Mesquite, Texas, and an Ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity Graduate College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Biblical Studies, Languages, Systematic Theology, Liturgy, and the Sacraments. He has taught New Testament Studies, Biblical Greek, and courses on the Theology of the Sacraments in UM Schools of Mission, Continuing Education Seminars, and in undergraduate courses across the country. As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. He is the author of several books, including Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, both of which are available from Koinonia Press through your local bookstore, on the internet at Amazon.com, and in the Grace Incarnate Store. You are invited to read Dr. Neal's academic papers and theological articles on his website at Writings, and you are encouraged to listen to Dr. Neal's Messages online in Real Player format.

© 2006, Rev. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved