Not So Churchy, 2021

New York, New York

To deepen the community's experience of the presence of God and of connection with one another across geographic boundaries by exploring how the community and its understanding of worship has changed through the practice of online worship.

Provide a brief summary of the purpose and goal of your grant. 

The pandemic has changed us from a local, NYC-based community that meets in person, to a national community that worships and gathers online. We wanted to explore how our gatherings can continue to include those who are unable, because of their location, illness, or mobility impairments, to attend in-person gatherings. We believe strongly that the call of our community is to be as inclusive and welcoming towards everyone in our community, regardless of whether they live locally or elsewhere. Therefore, our goals were to: deepen our community with relationships across virtual platforms; connect across geographic boundaries, and understand how God is moving among this community. 

What questions have you asked about worship in the past year? 

At the beginning of our project last summer, we conducted deep interview listening sessions. Some of the questions we asked, included: "What are the most important elements of our worship gatherings?" and "What aspects of our community are feeding you/drawing you right now?" Our members answered from the heart, and across all the questions we discerned similar themes. Most shared the importance of music, of consistently being present with each other, and most importantly the desire to keep us accessible to those joining from across the country. These responses and the continued COVID spikes, shifted the leadership team's question of "When should we return to in-persons services?" to "Should we return at all? How have we been made anew?" 

In what ways has your project engaged your congregation so that it impacts the worship life and habits of the congregation? 

Engaging in the deep interviews in the summer, we discovered why the ways we worship matter and are meaningful, as well as the purpose of who we were as a community. Because we listened to each other and were open enough to ask the questions about who we were and could be, our project shifted away from thinking through how we could make in-person worship truly accessible to those online, towards how we could craft our online worship to be richer, more embodied, and more accessible to those in our communities. We experimented with different ways of gathering; making and hearing music online; and to create fulfilling online moments. Our worship has been more creative, more musical, and more welcoming from this work. 

What criteria have you used to evaluate your plan to foster vital worship? 

We used the ten core convictions to evaluate where our community was headed when it came to worship. Come key convictions arose for us. "Full conscious and active participation" was vital to our community as we continue to check in about the desire to stay remote so that all could participate. "Collaboration in planning and evaluation" was used when experimenting with new ways to be embodied and musical while online, from guest speakers to guest musicians, those our members with artistic skills. "Discerning approach to culture" was used when continuing to be adaptable to our world's realities while staying true to our identity. And "deep engagement with scripture" was used to inspire our gatherings and activities together. 

What issues have been your greatest challenges (or challenging opportunities)? 

Covid. It sounds so trite, but it is true. The best laid plans were always shifted due to increasing numbers and confusion around what exactly the right thing is to do. Part of our grant process was to have a national retreat but we didn't want to plan that and have to cancel, for so many reasons. We finally got to a point where we stopped asking if we were going to have the retreat or not--that was the wrong question. The reality is that we have changed so deeply over the past year as a community. People are coming from all over the country (and Canada!) to be part of us and we decided finally to stop asking about the retreat and reallocated the money to dig deeper into the gifts God had given us. 

What would you like to share with other Project Directors? 

Where we thought we would be last summer is vastly different than where we are now. We imagined using this grant to foster rich in-person events as we "returned" to a "post-covid" world. Instead, we continue to live in a world pandemic and with the reality that our community has changed. We are in the middle of transitioning to a fully online community with occasional local in-person events. Yet, this discernment which was so vital to our community would not have been possible without this project. We were able to create deep conversations about how we and why we worship because of this project. All of this helped us name where God was moving in our community, and accept ourselves for who we were and could become together with God.