In 1869, Methodist minister Thomas Bramwell Welch introduced Dr. Welch's Unfermented Wine, later Welch's Grape Juice, and replaced forever the "cup of devils" at many Protestant communion tables.

In 1996, entrepreneur Jim Johnson introduced a germ-free communion package consisting of a small plastic container of juice with a foil lid and a wafer sealed to the lid with plastic wrap.

The Celebration Cup's potential has just begun to be tested, but more than 20 million of them have been used at evangelical gatherings and churches throughout the world, Johnson said by telephone from Guangzhou, China, where he was drumming up business for Compak Corp., the Chicago-based packaging company he founded in 1991.

The Celebration Cup, which looks like the jelly containers in roadside diners, is one of several modern adaptations to the sacrament of Communion -- also called Divine Liturgy, Eucharist, the Lord's Supper and Mass. The ritual is central to both Protestant and Roman Catholic worship, although Catholics believe that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ during Communion, and Protestants do not.

In the spirit of adjusting to the times, various denominations have been encouraging younger children to "come to the table," increasing options for how one receives the bread or wine and, with the exception of Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, welcoming believers from other denominations.

The Presbyterian Church (USA), whose membership has declined in recent years, now encourages children who have not been confirmed -- generally, those younger than 14 -- to take Communion with their parents. "I guess more and more we are aware we're losing our children," said spokesman Jerry Van Marter, adding that services have become "more family-oriented and kid-friendly."

The United Methodist Church voted at its quadrennial conference in Denver last week to resume its practice of listing baptized infants as church members. While this move helps boost declining membership figures, it underscores the church's belief that baptism initiates members into Christianity, according to a church study. As for Communion, the "table at which we gather belongs to the Lord" and should be "open to all . . . regardless of age," it said.

The Roman Catholic Church is changing its practice more slowly. For 700 years, from the Middle Ages through the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, communicants were not allowed to take wine, only bread, said Sister Ann Rehrauer, associate director of the office of liturgy at the National Conference of Bishops. Fear of plague and problems with procuring wine contributed to the ban on the common cup, she said.

In the decade after the council, the Vatican called for the restoration of the cup in the Eucharist, first for weddings and other special occasions but gradually broadening its use and giving discretion to the parish priest. Now, either or both elements can be used: Communicants can take the wafer on their tongues or in their hands, and they can sip from a common chalice or receive a wafer dipped in the wine by the priest or a communion assistant.

Many Catholic parishes have hesitated to include wine in the Eucharist, partly from habit and partly from concern about disease, Rehrauer said. She added that she is unaware of any proven cases of someone getting ill from sharing the chalice.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta has concluded that the practice "is not gravely hazardous" but that "risks" might be involved.

"We are not aware of any specific episodes or outbreaks of illness that have been associated with use of a common communion cup," said a 1993 statement, the latest on the issue. The CDC acknowledged that bacteria and viruses "can contaminate a silver chalice and survive despite the alcohol content of the wine and wiping or rotating the cup" and that "viral respiratory diseases {such as colds} might be transmitted frequently by a common cup."

CDC spokesman Bob Howard said he was "not surprised someone created a market" for a hermetically sealed communion product. Increasingly large numbers of people are "at risk of infection" because of weakened immune systems and are "taking additional steps to protect themselves," he said.

What Rehrauer has heard more are questions about people with celiac disease, which affects young children but often becomes latent and resurfaces when sufferers are in their forties or fifties. Celiacs have no tolerance for gluten, an ingredient in wheat flour, and may have reactions to the smallest amount of gluten in a communion wafer.

The Catholic Church always has used bread or wafers made of wheat flour and has ruled "against hosts that are totally free of gluten." Last year, concerned about the incidence of celiac disease and alcoholism among priests, the Vatican issued another "norm," that candidates for the priesthood who are affected by either one -- or by "similar conditions" -- may not be admitted to Holy Orders.

Laypeople with celiac disease have the option of taking only the wine, since the full body and blood of Christ is present in either element, Rehrauer said. If the parish usually does not offer wine, the member has the right to ask the priest for it, she said. Celiacs say that "low-gluten" wafers approved by the Vatican do not help.

The Rev. Ronald Okrasinski, 54, a former Catholic deacon who is now an Episcopal priest, was diagnosed last year with celiac disease. Shortly afterward, Peggy Johnston, his Sunday school superintendent at St. Mary's Church, also found out she had it -- a rare occurrence in their small community of Colonial Beach on Virginia's Northern Neck, he said.

"It was very painful for me as a priest, because the doctors flat-out told me I couldn't take the bread in Communion anymore," he said. But his wife found a rice cracker that he and Johnston share during Communion, and Okrasinski's mother is experimenting with breads made from non-gluten rice, tapioca and garbanzo flour.

"Jesus didn't say bread had to be wheat," Okrasinski said. More churches are using "bread that is identifiable as bread," not a "little wafer that looks like cardboard," he said.

But the Celebration Cup is the novelty people are talking about. Since its introduction at a special Promise Keepers' gathering of 33,000 members of the clergy three months ago in Atlanta, the product has captured the interest of evangelicals looking for sanitary convenience and the disdain of traditionalists who say it destroys the powerful symbolism of the cup.

"The symbol of the common cup we share is devastated with the prepackaged cup," said the Rev. Theodore F. Schneider, bishop of the Washington, D.C., Synod of Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Many Lutheran churches use individual cups but fill them from a common chalice or flagon, he said. Plastic packages make it difficult to teach the significance of the Last Supper, he said.

Others see the convenience pack differently.

"It's been a great thing to do," the Rev. J.L. Ashby said of his church's decision to use the Celebration Cup. Ashby said the 600-member First Baptist Church Westmunden in Chesapeake, Va., now spends less time preparing Communion and more time partaking in it.

First Baptist celebrates the Lord's Supper on the first Sunday of the month. In the past, the deaconess board spent hours washing hundreds of small glasses and filling them with grape juice. Now the board members can spend more time in fellowship, just being together, Ashby said. And combining the juice and wafer means one pass down the pews rather than two, making the service short enough for the 25 to 30 members of the congregation who used to leave before Communion.

Johnson said missionaries using the Celebration Cup have been able to offer Communion in the Amazon jungle and other remote regions where the lack of juice and other conditions made Communion impossible.

Whatever the advantages, Rehrauer said she doubts that the Vatican will ever sanction the use of the Celebration Cup. "I do not see the Catholic Church using that kind of thing," she said. WHO CAN COME TO THE LORD'S TABLE' Communion varies widely among the more than 50 Protestant denominations, less so in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox faiths. This is a sampling of practices, which can differ from church to church and parish to parish, depending on local tradition and ecclesiastical law. BAPTIST Any baptized believer, inside or outside the denomination, may participate. Called the Lord's Supper, Communion involves passing separate trays of bread and grape juice through the pews. CATHOLIC Only Catholics who are not guilty of "serious sin," such as murder or adultery, and have fasted an hour beforehand may receive the Eucharist. Children usually do not partake until the "age of reason," about 7. Communicants approach the altar or a "station" in the aisle to receive a wafer in their hands or on their tongues. If the wine is offered (depending on the parish), communicants may drink from a common cup or receive a wafer by intinction -- which means dipped in the wine -- from the priest. EPISCOPAL Open to all baptized believers. Children are encouraged to participate, infants if the parents desire. The bread most often used is the wheat-flour wafer, but it might be a homemade loaf of bread broken into pieces. Communicants may drink from the cup or dip the wafer into it. LUTHERAN All baptized believers may share Communion; nonbelievers are invited to the altar railing to receive a blessing. Giving Communion to infants is discouraged, but children under the confirmation age of 10 or 11 may participate if the church and the parents agree. Communicants may take wine from a common cup or individual containers filled from a chalice. METHODIST Open to anyone who wants to partake, including children. Baptism is not required. Most often, communicants kneel at the altar railing to receive the bread and grape juice. If intinction is preferred, the communicant, not the minister, dips the bread into the chalice. Some churches distribute the bread and juice in the pews. ORTHODOX Called Divine Liturgy. Only baptized Orthodox Christians, including infants, who have fasted beforehand may receive Communion. Communicants approach the altar one by one, stand before the priest and make the sign of the cross. The priest then dips a long-handled spoon into a chalice and takes out a wine-soaked piece of bread, which he places in the communicant's mouth. PRESBYTERIAN Open to all baptized believers and baptized children and infants "being nurtured" in the faith. Typically, trays of bread and individual glasses of grape juice and bread pieces are passed through the pews. Some churches use the common cup filled with wine or juice on Sundays or special occasions. CAPTION: The Rev. Braur offers traditional communion at Church of the Resurrection in Howard County. The Celebration Cup, shown in its actual size at left, is a germ-free package of water and juice that some churches are using.