With a scrap of bagel and a sip of Crystal Light, Beth McDonald gave communion to her husband. Then, after a blessing, he gave communion to her. Music played as the celebrant intoned the ancient words, "Do this in remembrance of me." The experience was among the most spiritually powerful of her life. "I had my eyes closed," McDonald told me. "We were praying ... I got really choked up."
McDonald was not in church; she was in her living room in Minnesota. The celebrant was not at church; he was at home, in Santa Fe, N.M. Other participants logged on from Sri Lanka, Australia and the Netherlands. Through streaming video and the Internet, all were joined in holy communion.
As technology reshapes our world, as our "friends" become the people we know on Facebook as well as the ones we invite home for dinner, the definition of community is taking on radically new meanings. Nowhere is the concept of community more crucial than in religion. In the West, people traditionally worship together, in a group, in one room; that togetherness has theological import. In Christianity, the sacrament of communion underscores the unity of the faithful; consuming the consecrated bread and wine binds Christians with each other, with the saints in heaven and with the Lord. Now, at the farthest corners of the Christian world, a few people are applying new-tech concepts of community to this ancient rite. The example above is among the most avant-garde. The celebrant, Zeph Daniel, is a musician who preaches online to a group of Christians disconnected from the traditional church. One of his slogans is "Leave religion and find God."
The experiment is underway in more mainstream corners of the Christian world as well. Two Methodist ministers have (in unrelated efforts) put communion services online. The Rev. Thomas Madron, pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Nashville, says he was moved to build an interactive communion site (holycommunionontheweb.com) to help people get what he calls "spiritual buttressing" when they need it, regardless of whether they regularly go to church. A former technology-company CEO, Madron is convinced that religious institutions need to rethink the way they deliver their services. "There's a whole long list of people who just simply can't make it regularly to a church—for example, people in the military, or people whose jobs require them to travel a lot, or students." His tenure in the tech world led him to ponder "how we can provide authentic worship experiences through the Web for people who are not part of the institutional church." Unlike Daniel's communion service, which occurred at a specific time—and so gathered people together, in virtual space—Madron's version is do-it-yourself. Simply click on the link and proceed as directed— an approach that allows the communicant to take communion any time, anywhere. Madron says his online service is meant to augment, not replace, a church service. "There's a communal aspect to the eucharist that's difficult to satisfy on the Web," he says.
Can a Christian community be authentically replicated online? For Roman Catholics, especially, who believe the communion wafer is the body of Christ, a disembodied ritual makes no sense. Anne Foerst is a professor of computer science at St. Bonaventure University. She is also a practicing Lutheran who has a doctorate in theology. The whole point of religion, she insists, is embodiment—the being together, physically, with others and with God. The sacrament "cannot be simulated. The experience is not about you and the eucharist … If you can't make the time to experience the community, then why do you need the sacrament?" To those who say they feel alienated from the traditional church, Foerst invokes the message of Jesus. Nobody's perfect, she says. Get over it.