Desperate times call for heretical measures. The Greater New Jersey Conference has announced an Advent outreach event designed to share the love of Christ with commuters at busy train stations throughout the Garden State: give the bread and cup to passers-by. Building on a a similar practice increasingly embraced on Ash Wednesday – taking liturgical rites to public places – the Greater NJ Conference hopes to meet people where they are:
As a part of the All Aboard for Advent Campaign, pastors and lay leaders who live near train stations throughout the Greater New Jersey area are being called to bring communion to daily commuters at train station platforms.
“I think it ties in with our belief of having a ministry without doors,” said Rev. Frederick Boyle, the senior pastor at Old First UMC in West Long Branch. “To give communion to commuters will come as quite a surprise to them for sure. But I think spreading God’s blessing is important and we need to do that whenever and wherever we can.”
I hate to rain on the Christmas parade, but this kind of practice is implicitly forbidden by the official (General Conference-certified) document expounding the UM theology and practice of Communion, This Holy Mystery. All throughout, THM presupposes a gathered community for the celebration of the Eucharist. For reasons I explained at length here during the debate over “online communion,” the gathering of a community is essential to the nature of the act (and visiting the sick and homebound is not so much an exception to this rule as it is an extension of the table in proper pastoral circumstances). As THM makes clear throughout, Holy Communion is indeed a communion:
Holy Communion is the communion of the church-the gathered community of the faithful, both local and universal. While deeply meaningful to the individuals participating, the sacrament is much more than a personal event. The first person pronouns throughout the ritual are consistently plural-we, us, our.
Since train communion (unless done as a full, public worship service, which doesn’t seem to be what is proposed) is a bad idea, I don’t want to leave my NJ colleagues hanging. Here are ten ideas (in no particular order) for Advent outreach that are better, and far less offensive to UM theology and practice, than train communion. I owe this idea, in part, to Carol Bloom who proposed several of these alternatives during a recent discussion in the UMC Worship Facebook group – so thanks, Carol!
- Prayer Stations: Pray with and for people. Very few people – even the nonreligious and nominally religious – will punch you in the face if you ask to pray for them.
- Blue Christmas: Sometimes called a Longest Night service, these worship services are a great way to offer hope to the many in our communities who are hurting during the holidays.
- Free Hot Cocoa/Coffee: Who doesn’t love a hot beverage in the dead of winter? Also pairs well with #1.
- Gift Wrapping: Many of us (your humble author included) are terrible at wrapping gifts. Offer a free gift wrapping station at a local shopping center.
- Advent Calendars/Devotionals: Advent gets too easily run over by the commercialism of the holiday season. Hand out Advent calendars or devotionals to help people remember Jesus in the midst of the hustle and bustle.
- Parents’ Night Out: Sponsor a parents’ night out for the community; get some Doritos and board games, throw on Elf, and let the parents drop off their kids so they can have a date night and do their shopping.
- Free Bibles: If you give out whole Bibles you’ll already be doubling the effort of the Gideons.
- Christmas Meal: Odds are there are people in your community who either can’t afford a Christmas meal or don’t have family to celebrate it with, or both. Reach out to them in with Christian love…and mashed potatoes.
- Go Caroling: Pick a neighborhood, a nursing home, or a homeless shelter and spread some Christmas cheer. Against such things there is no law.
- Thank the Train Employees: Okay, this one is specific to Jersey, and other places with lots of public transportation. The idea is very transferable, though. Pick some public servants in thankless jobs and show them some appreciation and holiday cheer. Take care packages to the local police station. Send cards to the neighborhood fire house. Do something for the nurses that will be working while the rest of us celebrate. You get the idea.
There. Ten ideas for Advent outreach that do not run afoul of This Holy Mystery, many of which could even be done in and around train stations. How about it, GNJUMC? Are you #allaboardumc with a slight change in plans?
I close with the words of Brian Wren from one of my favorite Communion hymns, I Come With Joy. He reminds us that the sacrament, for which we gather and by which we are united, sends us out to fulfill the Missio Dei in a variety of ways – but hopefully none which deny the nature and dignity of the Eucharist itself.
Together met, together bound,
by all that God has done,
we’ll go with joy, to give the world,
the love that makes us one.