By Ed Thompson
The pandemic has brought us a number of challenges. In the beginning, it was whether to suspend in-person worship. Then it quickly became about how we put our worship services online. That segued into how to do session meetings online. It was one thing after another. In some ways, it still is.
Although we seem to have turned a corner in the last few weeks, there are still some unsolved quandaries. As churches resume in-person worship, which brings its own set of challenges, it seems one of the biggest questions facing us is how to present meaningful hybrid worship services. Or is that even possible?
Many churches report that they have had more people watching their worship services online than they ever had present for in-person worship. When we resume in-person worship, do we just leave those people behind? It occurs to me that would be like the people of Israel traveling through the wilderness and when they get to the Jordan River and are about to enter the Promised Land, they say to the people that have been travelling with them, “Well, thanks for being with us during our journey. We don’t really care if you continue on with us or not. To be honest, we’ll do just fine by ourselves. Good luck.” To me, that just seems mean. Yet, if we abandon our online options, we’re essentially turning our backs on the people who have joined us during these past 15 months.
If we simply use a single camera that focuses on the pulpit to present a livestream of the worship service in the sanctuary, we’re not treating our audience much better than that. It is as if we consider them second class citizens. They might as well be looking through the window or listening from outside the front door or maybe even listening from the back door or from the basement.
So, how can we make worship an opportunity for people to experience the presence of God whether they are in the sanctuary or watching us on Zoom, Facebook, or our own YouTube channel? Maybe it will take doing two worship services – one in-person and one available online. Maybe it will take getting better equipment. Maybe it will take putting up screens – screens of significant size and not just the size of a computer screen – so that people in the sanctuary can actually see the people who are watching online.
In addition, how can we help the folks who have joined us virtually during the pandemic feel like they are an important and valued part of our community in ways that go beyond worship? How can we help people who have been with us prior to the pandemic recognize that the people who may have never set foot in the building are an important and valued part of our community? How can we blend these two groups? Or is that even possible? Maybe we should think of it as two yoked congregations – one meeting in-person, the other existing online. I’m not sure if that analogy is even helpful.
I think moving back into the building also raises questions of how a church can partner with other community groups so that our building buzzes with energy during the week, rather than sitting empty most of the time. Doing that might also help our neighbors recognize the positive impact we have on the community instead of wondering whether our church is still open or not. I probably hear or see that question about one of our churches at least once a month.
A third question that I’ve been thinking about is how do we teach/train/prepare our ruling elders so that they 1) know the basics of the Book of Order, 2) understand the essential tenets of the Reformed tradition and what distinguishes us from other Christian groups, and 3) can articulate in their own words what Jesus Christ means to them? That question certainly predates the current pandemic, but the longer we put off doing something about it, the weaker our theology and the weaker our faith is going to be.
We can react with fear to these challenges. We can react with sadness. Or we can see them as opportunities. No one asked for this pandemic. It is simply the hand we have been dealt. However, the God who can bring life out of death and who has defeated both sin and evil can use this time to help us grow in a variety of ways. God’s people have always faced challenges. Maybe this one is different, but God created us with brains and has called us to use our imaginations. There may not be easy or obvious answers. However, if we can start facing these problems instead of giving into the temptation of just going back to normal, then I believe that God will show us a way forward.