As the pandemic is forcing all churches to re-imagine what being the worshiping body of Christ means. Maxwell Street is no different. Committing to a hybrid model of ministry means that life together as the church will be different from it has been in the past. We have to ask what fellowship, youth and family ministry, and supporting the sick and suffering will mean and look like going forward for the foreseeable future. Everything is on the table, including worship.
Worship is among the most challenging things to reimagine. I think that’s why churches worldwide are deciding that worshiping together in one place is worth the risk; they cannot imagine church without corporate worship.
The challenge is obvious: church is participatory and relational. You can’t have a relationship with a YouTube video or a Facebook Live feed. And although I am convinced platforms like Zoom can foster new, meaningful relationships, I do not find the platform lends itself to transformative worship experiences in the same way in-person experiences do. I’ll admit that might be a generational difference or merely a matter of personal preference. Still, as someone who believes worship is necessarily participatory, I don’t feel as though the experience of worship would be at stake if I (imagining myself as a worshiping member of the body and not a worship leader) were to decide not to participate.
Worship doesn’t need to include the best sermon ever. The choir doesn’t need to sound like the Mormon Tabernacle. The architecture doesn’t necessarily have to be emotionally evocative. However, there is something to Jesus’ statement that “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” Worship requires a gathering of people who are committed to engaging in the practice, committed to the act of seeking to encounter the living God.
It’s surprising to discover how important it is to hear that person who always sings a little flat a couple of rows behind you. The hug from the person that you only know as “the hugger” is part of worship! Seeing the person who doesn’t say that one part of the prayer because they can’t believe it reminds you that faith is diverse and alive. It’s important to walk together to the front of the church to receive grace and offer thanks in return in the hopes that it might transform the world. I miss these things. I know you do too.
We know that we cannot worship together in the way we did before and keep people safe. No, worship is never safe; you’re always at risk when you encounter the God who wrestled and wounded Jacob, who called David to face the giant Goliath, who turned the tables on the way of life of the money-changers, who knocked Paul down off his high-horse. Knowing it’s risky doesn’t mean, though, that the church should jeopardize our community’s well-being for itself. We’d be worshiping worship if it were to come to that! By finding ways to adapt and thrive amid the pandemic, we can model for others how beautiful life in this dark valley can be if one has faith in God and one another.
To continue to thrive as a congregation, not only do we need you to participate, but others need to know you do, too. When you worship, whatever that looks like these days, think of your Maxwell Street community and find ways to share it with someone else. If a song in the worship service moves you, share that feeling with someone else you think it might move. If you find yourself in your garden praying for your pew-mate you haven’t seen in far too long, give that person a call and tell them you were watching worship and missed being able to look over and see them. Remember how it used to bug you when your friend hadn’t shown up to worship in a month, and you thought to yourself, I should call them; that’s all of us now.
If this pandemic has done anything, it has clarified how important the body is to the church’s worshiping life. Worship is communal. The hybrid part of worship in this time of pandemic is finding ways to create that without the gift of being able to gather physically, and we need your help. Even though we’re apart, we’re all still a part of worship!
Re-Opening Policies and Procedures
At it’s August 10, 2020 meeting, the Session of Maxwell Street Presbyterian Church approved the follow policies and procedures related to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Committing to a Hybrid Model of Ministry
By Tom Berlin
Are you barraged by a cacophony of voices with conflicting advice on what your church should do next? Open immediately. Stay closed. Make it safe. Don’t wait too long. Get back to normal. Embrace the new normal. Consider present health risks and offer what you did in the past. And all of this as quickly as possible! It’s easy to feel like the double-minded person plagued by doubt and blown this way and that by conflicting opinions and the siren’s song of urgency. (James 1:8)
Although the talk of in-person worship overshadows every other ministry in the current debate, worship is not the first step.
You recognize that even as quarantine orders are lifted, the global pandemic is not going away. And a hybrid ministry with a mix of in-person and online offerings is likely to be in place for some time. So how can you help your congregation and leadership embrace this approach? And how best can you focus your limited time, energy, and resources in the midst of this sea of change?
1. State your values clearly.
Clearly stated, shared values serve us well in such a time. They serve as deep pilings to moor your ministry in a time of rough weather. When Floris United Methodist Church moved to online ministry, we stated that our decisions would flow out of three values: keep people healthy; create vital community; and care for the vulnerable. Last week our Church Council (governing body) added a new value: continue to adapt and innovate ministry.
Clearly communicating these values has taken the pressure off reopening in-person worship, allowing us to focus our work on the needs of our community and church. These values reflect the sentiments of our members, but clearly articulating them gives members an anchor to hold to as they form their opinions. When we affirmed the additional value of continue to adapt and innovate ministry, it gave church staff and volunteers the green light to take risks, to be creative and innovative, within the bounds of the first value, keep people healthy.
2. Set a realistic timeframe.
When this started, I hoped it would last two to three months. I miss my naïve self. Last week our Church Council agreed that we would be in a hybrid form of ministry, fully sustaining online ministry for at least 18 months. We chose an 18-month timeframe because it is the most hopeful timeline for a vaccination to be delivered for the general public. (A congregational survey showed that 28 percent of those responding said they would not return to in-person worship until a vaccination was available.) But more importantly, many said that online worship was something they would do more of in the future. I hope it won’t be 18 months until a vaccine is available. But affirming this timeline allows us to commit fully to developing a hybrid approach. And the great news is that the online portion of this work engages the digital natives, the generations we so desperately need to reach.
3. Resume in-person ministry before in-person worship.
Think of a simple Venn diagram with two overlapping circles. The left circle represents “Safe In-Person Ministry” and the right “Vital Online Ministry.” In this unusual time, clergy and lay leaders should prioritize ministries in the area of overlap. Begin by asking what it means to return to in-person ministry. Notice that I did not say in-person worship. Although the talk of in-person worship overshadows every other ministry in the current debate, worship is not the first step.
Start small. How can you begin to improve pastoral care? One pastor is offering “front yard/local park visits” while wearing a mask. Another pastor talked on the phone to an older member sitting on the inside of a glass patio door. It was safe but felt more personal than a Zoom meeting. How could small groups meet outside? How could Alcoholics Anonymous safely meet in a large room? What you learn from these gatherings will help you safely resume in-person worship when the time is right.
As you think through the left side of the diagram, consider broad areas of ministry like worship, discipleship, congregational care, and service to others, and ask: What forms of community service are the most important at this time? What ministries are easier to resume in-person and would be helpful to the emotional and spiritual health of your members? What safety boundaries must be maintained?
4. Make a long-term commitment to online ministry.
Online ministry may feel strange, frustrating, and alien to those who see it as a concession needed to survive the weird world of the COVID-19 quarantine. But in truth, many effective churches have offered online worship for years. And, if they are serious about their stated desire to share Christ with their community and minister to members, churches that have adopted online worship in this period should continue. Don’t avoid the important work of extending your online worship presence while pining to get everyone back inside a building as soon as possible.
Consider the Vital Online Ministry on the right side of your diagram. Start by asking what aspects you would continue if COVID-19 miraculously disappeared tomorrow. Churches of all sizes have rapidly and admirably offered basic online ministry. Children’s ministries have provided materials and activities so families can equip children in Christian discipleship. Student ministry leaders are meeting with teenagers online, offering Bible studies and social activities. Virtual small groups are appealing to many. Pastors and musicians have gained new skills as they offer online worship, devotional resources, and concerts. Make a list of every aspect of your current online ministry and congratulate yourself! Then take stock of what you have learned. What has worked well? What can be improved or expanded? What should be dropped? And what further investments are needed?
This is Church!
When Floris UMC first offered online worship years ago, the associate pastor hosting the live chat went through a lengthy process to trademark her favorite statement — This is Church™. It reminded her that online worship and ministry really was worship and really was church. Your church has never been closed. But its ministry has been fundamentally changed. Now is the time to consider thoughtfully a hybrid approach to ministry for at least another 18 months, if not forever.
This article first appeared in on the Lewis Center for Church Leadership Website
The author, Tom Berlin, is senior pastor of Floris United Methodist Church in Herndon, Virginia. His books include Defying Gravity: Break Free from the Culture of More, The Generous Church: A Guide for Pastors, and Restored: Finding Redemption in Our Mess.