by Rev. Michael Woolf
Many churches had to scramble to figure out how to do church online in the wake of COVID-19, and congregations have learned myriad new skills and ways of reaching their members in a time of crisis. As communities of faith figure out how to re-open, following the advice of public health professionals, there may be an impulse to abandon these lessons in favor of doing church how we’ve always done it. However, just because your church is meeting in person again, does not mean that it has to diminish its digital footprint.
If scientists are right, most churches are in for a long period of readjustment before everyone can worship together. Depending on where congregations are located and their average Sunday attendance, it could be well into 2021 before vulnerable people are able to gather in worship, and even then, some may feel that it would be better for their health to stay home. Churches owe it to those who are discerning what is right for them to guarantee accessibility to worship experiences and to not generate a fear of missing out on church events. Such fear could hasten people to attend in person before they are ready. Congregants should be affirmed in their efforts to make choices that are right for them, as churches have always been in the business of supporting individual discernment. The present crisis is no different.
As I think about how to open my own congregation in a healthy way, I am focused on hybrid worship experiences that embrace participation from those physically present as well as those who are worshipping with us from home. One key way to do this is to continue to offer a live stream of worship, if you currently offer this. If not, it is time to think about how to implement such a worship experience.
One easy way to include those at home is to ask congregants to share their prayer requests through the chat function of whatever platform you’re using, and then access that chat from the pulpit, reading those prayers of concern and celebration during the worship service. This may require a leap of faith for some, especially those like myself who always make sure to turn off their cellphone before entering the sanctuary. However, clergy and leaders alike should be certain that enabling participation from home is more important than the risk of accidentally receiving a buzz from your cellphone. My prayer and belief is that everyone will be willing to forgive a potential hiccup of this nature.
Opportunities for virtual communion also open up avenues for those at home to participate in worship. For those not able to gather physically, communion may play an important role in sustaining spiritual connection to their worshipping community. If your congregation’s theology permits celebrations of virtual communion, then encouraging congregants to assemble what elements are available to them, without regards to strict adherence to grape juice or wine and your type of bread, will bring much needed spiritual succor to your homebound community. While those present may be receiving pre-packaged communion in order to stay safe, those at home may be celebrating with what they have available, giving life to a mosaic of meaning and symbol.
Finally, churches should offer the opportunity to be virtually present for any in-person committee meetings, Bible studies, or social gatherings. Offering the opportunity to connect outside of Sunday worship is imperative because much of the meaning that is made for active participants in communities happens outside of worship. Indeed, it may be fruitful to think about holding all such meetings and gatherings virtually so that everyone can feel invited to participate.
Figuring out how to reopen safely will require agile practical and theological reasoning in these difficult times. Leaders of congregations may be tempted to dive right in to worshipping in person when the opportunity arises, but it will be imperative to strive to include those who wish to worship at home through hybrid worship services that strive to be inclusive to all. The lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic should not be forgotten. Indeed, those lessons should fundamentally change how we do church, making us more creative. If we are assured of anything, it is that church can and should change so that it can meet the needs of others. After all, church was made for times like these, fostering connection when we so desperately need it.
The Rev. Michael Woolf is senior minister, Lake Street Church of Evanston, Illinois and a ThD candidate at Harvard University.
Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash