Worship in a Time of Transition

Those who think that the coronavirus is a temporary set-back to business as usual are missing something very basic. It only takes a few weeks for people to change their habits. American religion has been in transition since the late 60s. Our collective journey is taking us further and further away from organized religion and towards a less-centralized spirituality. To be relevant in the post-traumatic world, the Church will need to rethink worship. Can we have community without proximity? Which of the following can only be done in face to face gatherings?

        • Christian witness
        • The sacraments
        • Intercessory prayer
        • The formation of faithful disciples
        • Our compassionate outreach to a world in need

As we attempt to do the above while social distancing, what lessons might we learn? Those of us who are old will go kicking and screaming into this brave, new, world. But the next generation might develop authentic worship and renewed spiritual passion.

Best Practices

1) Plan to maintain an online video presence after the social distancing concerns expire. People will soon come to expect to find worship, study, and prayer support, on your website when they need it. The crisis has forced you to take a crash course in new technology. Why not continue your education so that the church can use these tools for evangelism and pastoral care?

2) Allow people to gather when they want to. Have a routine time for the service to go live, but also archive every service for as long as you can. Email bulletins and sermon notes ahead of each service. Make the service available for as long as possible. Add an archive page to your website and use the “subscribe” and “channel” options on Youtube and Vimeo.

3) Use this time to encourage direct deposit of the offering. Set up multiple options for supporting the church. Actively promote giving as a separate activity from in person worship attendance. This will require you to rethink your theology of worship. For people watching online, the traditional passing of the plates is dead air time, even if the music is pretty. Appeals made on video can lack authenticity and remind people of tele-evangelists, or worse still, pledge break on PBS.

4) Tools such as Facebook Live and Zoom allow you to insert a short two-way communication segment into your designated worship time. Encourage people to email or chat their prayer concerns. Have worship leaders record their scripture readings and special music from their homes. Guest speakers and missionaries from afar may become a regular part of your worship.

cartoon 2 or three worship

5) Check lighting and sound levels. The sanctuary may not be the best place to record. Mixing segments recorded at different locations will make the service more interesting. A static shot of a talking head or a music solo shouldn’t last more than a few minutes. We expect our screens to give us drama and motion. Adding multiple camera angles and powerpoint slides can help.

6) Show the lyrics on screen. Even when people don’t sing along, they want to see the words. The same goes for scripture lessons and the key points of the sermon.

7) Keep it short. 30 to 45 minutes is plenty for online worship. Study events should be kept to an hour. Don’t expect people to passively watch. Post a clear summary of the video contents and timed outline when appropriate so people can skip ahead to what interests them. Add links and tags. Expect people to want to go to additional sources for related content.

The Next Reformation

For local churches, there are two approaches to the current COVID-19 crisis. 1) Hunker down and hope it all blows over. 2) Understand that the pandemic has initiated a transition to a new form of church. Most churches were barely treading water before. Now, its sink or swim. The good news is that we are due for a good reformation.

After our imposed self-isolation ends, people will behave differently. They won’t shake hands; in fact, they will be reluctant to even pass through crowded hallways or sit close to each other. Our faithful will have become accustomed to missing church for weeks in a row. Those who sample online worship will find components that they prefer over the old routines. They may even graze broadly on the internet, fulfilling their religious needs à la carte.

In summary, Bill suggests the following:

  • Improve and expand your current online worship, prayer, and pastoral care, with the expectation that it will become your bread and butter after the crisis.
  • Move towards a safer, less crowded, church facility. Expand the space that the daycare/preschool can use, even if their enrollment falls because of the crisis. Have a wear-a-mask rule for everyone entering the building. Add programs and worship times while reducing the number you expect to attend each event. Add plexiglass shields to the table-tops and counters wherever people will meet face to face. Clean and disinfect regularly.
  • Encourage staff to work from home and help them configure their residence for video chats.
  • Realize that very little of your income will be collected in the building. Weddings and group rentals will fall off. Seek creative ways to replace this income, such as offering one-person office suites for those forced to work from home.
  • Develop partnerships with other congregations. Everyone’s income is falling. Can we share people with the needed tech skills while reducing the number of clergy and paid staff. Can we hire each other’s unemployed?
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