Pandemic Worship Changes Worth Keeping
So much has changed about church worship since the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, soared, waned, and resurges. Those pandemic-forced pivots have created worship opportunities that have helped congregations adapt, find unity amid division, and pursue justice.
During the last few years, almost every project funded by Calvin Institute of Christian Worship’s Vital Worship Grant program has been changed by the pandemic. Many people left churches, some because they thought in-person worship was too restrictive or no longer safe. Others said virtual worship was not satisfying.
Meanwhile, countless congregations found that being forced into virtual worship opened opportunities to be more flexible and creative, involve more people, highlight justice issues, and reach people far beyond their church’s geographic boundaries.
Vital Worship grantees and other worshiping communities often said they experienced these changes as digital blessings that deepened worship and a sense of community even while not being able to gather for in-person worship—so much so that many church leaders committed to maintaining a virtual presence even after most worshipers returned to indoor services.
“We began to identify as people worshiping as Grace Baptist Church rather than at Grace Baptist Church,” says Suzanne L. Vinson, who led the Richmond, Virginia, congregation’s Vital Worship Grant to cocreate liturgical language with all ages, enliven worship, and connect with each other and God.
She and other church leaders highlighted five worship changes worth keeping: creating tangible displays, kits, and outdoor contacts; inviting people to contribute words and images; using outdoor assets; involving youth; and archiving digital creations.
Creating tangible displays, kits, and outdoor contacts
Grace Baptist Church in Richmond (VA), 2020 World Communion Sunday
Architects Lynnette Postuma and Karen Zwart Hielema planned a Vital Worship Grant project at First Christian Reformed Church (CRC) of Toronto in Canada. Their Seasons of Being project involved all ages in learning about how colors express emotion and how liturgical seasons help people place themselves in God's big story. When pandemic restrictions prevented the congregation from worshiping in the church building, Postuma and Zwart Hielema designed Seasons of Being home kits for congregation members. Each kit included a set of ten plexiglass tiles in the colors of the liturgical seasons and a base of reclaimed wood cut with grooves to hold tiles. (The congregation also created a permanent installation in the church sanctuary.)
"The communications committee helped us distribute the kits,” Zwart Hielema said. “Because we have a value of connecting, we did porch visits while dropping off kits. Some people even delivered the kits by bicycle."
Historic First Church in Windsor, a United Church of Christ congregation in Connecticut, created a new tradition of receiving Epiphany star gifts. Senior pastor Nicole S. Grant Yonkman mailed stars, cut from recycled Christmas cards, with a special word or phrase and Scripture reference on the back. “Our star gifts give us a chance to reflect on how God encourages us, gives us light for our journey, and leads us to something we might not have imagined,” said Laurel Pepin, a photographer who co-led the church’s Vital Worship Grant.
Grace Baptist Church (GBC) in Richmond, Virginia, displayed an outdoor sign that said: “You are loved. You are not alone. God is with us.” They repeated this message on artful yard signs and “backpack blessing buttons” distributed at a Blessing of the Learners & Church Recovenanting drive-through event, with back-to-school learning kits for children and youth and “mug hugs” for educators.
They distributed cardmaking kits before doing a Zoom class on making cards. “The class bolstered those who attended,” Vinson said. “They reported ‘creativity I didn’t know I had . . . relaxation, connection, and a deeper sense of being the church together,’” Vinson said. On World Communion Sunday, GBC hosted drive-through communion and outdoor small-group circles of support. Their Jazz Advent online concert crossed geographic boundaries to feature musicians from several states.
Contributing words and images
The grantees in Toronto, Windsor, and Richmond found ways for virtual worshipers to contribute words and images so worshipers felt like participants, not viewers.
At First CRC of Toronto, grant project directors invited people to photograph and upload scenes of how they arranged their Seasons of Being tiles, and then, to maintain interest, created a fifteen-minute photo challenge during Ordinary Time. “We asked people to add found objects to their display, take photos, and upload them,” Postuma said. “The photos got used during mini-reflections in virtual worship. Contributing images helped people feel connected, in part by offering glimpses of their homes.”
First Church of Windsor (FCW) has gained many virtual worshipers. “Some people, especially [those] with underlying health issues, may never return to in-person worship,” Pepin said. “We find that using videos can be a bridge between in-person and online worshipers.” For example, she made short videos of people who volunteered to explain what they’d learned from reflecting on Scripture and their Epiphany star gift words, such as “completion,” “deliver,” “do not fear,” “glorify,” “healing,” “hope,” “love,” “radiance,” or “rejoice.” The videos were used during worship.
Each September, FCW celebrates Water Communion Sunday, a unity-in-diversity ritual marking summer’s end and a return to church programs. They ask people to collect small bottles of water over the summer and bring it to church to be combined, blessed, boiled, and used for baptisms. Now they also ask virtual and onsite worshipers to contribute water-collecting photos with six-word captions. FCW uses this slideshow on Water Communion Sunday and again on the Baptism of Christ Sunday in Epiphany.
Vinson invited all ages to cocreate liturgical language used in GBC’s calls to worship and stewardship, prayers, psalm paraphrases, songs, and more. Youth and adults also contributed their recorded voices for lectionary readings and liturgical language. “We try to use all members' voices in worship because we believe all are ministers, and we want everyone to have a voice,” Vinson says.
Using outdoor assets
As COVID-19 restrictions eased enough to allow larger outdoor gatherings, many churches held their first-ever outdoor worship services. They noticed how hearing birds and rustling leaves, smelling flowers, and feeling sunlit breezes helped them more deeply experience themselves as part of God’s created world.
They also began considering worship possibilities in previously overlooked portions of exterior church property. First African Methodist Episcopal (AME), a Vital Worship Grant recipient in Grand Rapids, Michigan, turned its parking lot into worship space. People could experience worship through open car windows or sit on chairs in the parking lot.
Another Grand Rapids congregation, Church of the Servant Christian Reformed Church, began using the cement patio and lawn of its courtyard area for Sunday worship, funerals, baptisms, and (with portable heaters) autumn outdoor hymn sings. They moved playground equipment into the courtyard so families could keep an eye on children while drinking coffee outdoors with people of many ages. The old playground became home to a firepit and seating areas used for youth activities and (very cold) Christmas caroling. The congregation’s creation care committee improved the nature trail around the twenty-acre campus. During Lent they put up large wooden crosses for guided prayer walks.
St. Elizabeth Episcopal Church in Dahlonega, Georgia, had planned to use its Vital Worship Grant to develop a monthly Sunday evening Celtic worship service. Dahlonega, a college town in the Blue Ridge Mountain foothills, has many local musicians who play Celtic, bluegrass, and old-time Appalachian music. Project director Lara Lowman had hoped the nontraditional worship service would draw college students, retirees, church members, and others indoors to connect through contemplative worship.
Continued pandemic restrictions kiboshed plans for indoor Celtic worship. Lowman explained in the grant poster and grant reports, “When outdoor worship became our best option, we found a flat space, brought in plants, candles, small tables, a cross and altar, and transformed it into a lovely worship experience that we now use each month, weather permitting. The environment complements the Celtic vespers service beautifully, which we might never have known had it not been forced on us.”
Creating visual art, videos, language, and more for virtual and hybrid worship opens options for youth to participate. Church youth helped assemble 125 at-home kits for First CRC Toronto’s Seasons of Being grant project. Vinson used youth group Facebook chats to gather ideas and language for Advent liturgies at GBC.
For almost four hundred years, First Church in Windsor has increasingly gotten involved in justice issues. Social justice, based on Christ’s call to love one another, is one of FCW’s six core values. Youth helped live this out through transformational worship during Epiphany by reading portions of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” The compiled video became part of a virtual Sunday worship service held during Epiphany 2021. Some FCW youth also helped create videos for worship.
First AME’s grant focused on prayer, servant leadership, and praise and worship. Project director Lisa B. Taylor reports that it was difficult moving from an in-person worship service to digital or conference-call platforms. “The majority of our church members are 65 years or older and technologically challenged,” she wrote.
But the older members’ digital struggles presented an opportunity for youth to show servant leadership. “Our youth and millennial members have untapped spiritual gifts and talents that they are waiting to use,” Taylor reported. Some helped older members master conference calls and connect to virtual worship. Other youth and millennials used Zoom and Facebook Live to welcome people to worship, teach church school, lead book studies, and participate in prayer conferences.
Archiving digital creations
When congregations put effort into creating elements for virtual, hybrid, and in-person worship, it makes sense to archive the elements.
"First Church in Windsor decided never to repeat a visual installation,” Pepin said. “You can't repeat the surprise and awe of the first moments of the experience." Yet the church archives many of its short videos on its FCW Facebook page and FCW YouTube channel.
"When we returned to in-person worship, we realized we could be relegated again at any time to online worship and that we were reaching possibly more people online than in person anyway. Our short, artistic videos connected to people online. We made them shareable because online worship has become a first step to invite people into deeper connection, perhaps by coming to in-person worship or events," Grant Yonkman adds.
Because the GBC staff plans worship cooperatively, they help each other remember what the congregation has already created. “We have a Google Doc folder with the scanned poetry, literature, hymns, and congregation-written material (hymnkus, song and psalm paraphrases, etc.) that we've used in worship, [and] we archive services on our YouTube channel,” ” Vinson said. “Eventually we hope to create a resource library on our church website with short clips of prayers, lectionary readings, videos, congregation-created material, and more. We have found that scripture and liturgy recorded by those who have died is so meaningful and treasured. What a gift to have their presence remain with us in these ways—these beautiful souls whom we love and miss and who are now in the great cloud of witnesses.”
Use or adapt ideas from 2020 and 2021 Vital Worship Grant projects. Whether they had worshiping communities or teacher/scholar grants, almost all project directors had to adapt their grants to new realities of the pandemic, online worship, and hybrid worship.
Get some context on these new worship realities from interdenominational surveys and studies such as “Worship in a Time of a Pandemic,” “Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations,” “Tech in Churches,” and “When Pastors Put On the ‘Tech Hat’: How Churches Digitized during COVID-19.”
Plan integrated outdoor worship services with Calvin Institute of Christian Worship’s creation resources, such as worship resources for creation care and worship songs for care for creation. Tune in to the weekly Sunday evening Celtic service at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia.
Just as communion and Eucharist celebrations use “wine made from many grapes gathered into one cup” and “bread made from grain gathered from many fields into one loaf,” Water Communion Sunday uses water gathered from many places into one bowl. The water is often boiled, saved, and used for baptisms, wedding blessings, and home baptisms. The idea comes from Universalist Unitarian congregations, has been adapted by some United Church of Christ churches, and can be tweaked to many denominational and nondenominational settings.
Listen to Epiphany star gift testimonies given by members of First Church in Windsor (UCC) in Connecticut. Use this Epiphany resource guide to help worshipers better understand the progression from Advent and Christmas to Lent and Eastertide.
START A DISCUSSION
Feel free to print and distribute this story at a meeting of your staff, board, or worship, education, or youth ministry committee. These questions will help people start a conversation about creative opportunities to involve and reach people in virtual, in-person, and hybrid worship:
- What changes your congregation made for pandemic worship turned out to be blessings? How can you continue and build on this blessing?
- What is the best way you have found to integrate and more deeply involve both online and onsite worshipers?
- Which first steps might you take to identify untapped resources (artists, writers, outdoor spaces, youth, or tech savvy people, e.g.) for worship?