Shaping Worship During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Offering Hope at Grace and Peace Christian Reformed Church, Chicago, Illinois
Chantel Varnado, worship arts director at Grace and Peace CRC, shares her insights for leading worship in the time of COVID-19, drawing wisdom and her own experience from her multicultural worshiping context.
Current city: Chicago, Illinois
Denominational context: Christian Reformed Church in North America
Worship roles: Varnado directs worship arts teams, an online prayer ministry, and worship education at Grace and Peace CRC.
COVID-19 situation: In 2018, our church moved one neighborhood west, from Humboldt Park to Chicago’s Austin neighborhood. We moved into an old paint factory with room to expand our worship and community center spaces. God was really doing some things. It was still a fight to make budget each week, but our attendance was growing and diversifying. We’re between two neighborhoods, and our hearts’ desire is to see Latino and African American cultures come together. Each week we had newcomers, including groups coming to see how we do urban community ministry.
“As churches, we need to stay focused on relationships that bring light, hope, and continued encouragement. Whether we are seen as essential depends on how we respond to people.”
Our church has always been rooted in community, and our senior pastor, John Zayas, has been with us for twenty years. When stay-at-home orders began in Illinois during Lent, we moved worship, small groups, and everything else online. Our senior leadership immediately repurposed our facility; now the worship space looks like a grocery store. Weeks later the City of Chicago was looking for a food distribution site. They heard of the work that we were already doing and decided to partner with us by making us an official city site.
We run the food distribution with staff, ten volunteers a day, and two drivers, because we don’t want elderly neighbors to have to leave their homes. We wear masks and gloves and quickly amped up to serve at least 50 to 75 families a day, mostly black and brown people without food and jobs. To date we have served 6,825 families with 233,000 pounds of food.
Prayer is the key to enduring these turbulent times, so our Kingdom Prayer Connection ministry lets people constantly receive prayer and hope. We commissioned two people as intercessors to go live each morning at 6 a.m. on Facebook to pray, share Scripture, and take prayer requests. In the first four weeks, more than 600 people participated.
What’s working well—or not: The first stay-at-home order allowed up to ten people to gather at a time. So our worship team did a full six-hour day of production. We’re still using pre-recorded segments from that session in our online worship services. Because of the ten-person limit and because some worship team members are essential workers, not every worship team member could participate in the recording session.
Grace and Peace Church now livestreams weekly worship on Facebook, YouTube, and our church website. Most of our elderly folks live with people who have technology. A few folks needed access, so our church gave them older laptops. Our two-person preaching team takes turns doing sermons. The hand of the Lord is on our efforts because attendance has drastically increased. A lot of us invite friends while we’re online. Via our virtual services, we’ve had people give their lives to the Lord and ask about church membership.
Because our building is large and our staff is small, we sometimes meet—staying six feet apart—at the office. Any sense of normality is welcome. Although I sometimes wonder whether we’re too far past normal to ever hug each other again when we pass the peace.
Most helpful worship resources: Our denomination sends COVID-19 worship resources, and we use what fits our context. Also, we’re forever surveying our congregation because our senior pastor believes in leadership done from the bottom up. We serve the parish with what they say they need.
It also helps that our church has always had three pillars: prayer, word, and worship. These pillars help guide what we do. When COVID-19 happened, our pastor asked each ministry leader, “Should this situation last, even through the end of 2020, how will you maintain your group?” So far we haven’t lost anyone in our small groups.
Last year our pastor asked me to start a school of worship, sort of like a worshipers small group. You have to take a series of classes to be on the worship team. One class was about church DNA because people had a lot of questions about why we do things the way we do in worship. There was so much interest that it became a more public class. We offered four-week intensives with a certificate at the end, but people have asked to keep going. Believe it or not, many people aren’t familiar with the arc of Scripture (a.k.a. God’s Big Story) or don’t realize that the Word can come in oral, written, or embodied forms.
Needs, questions, or insights to share: We’ve always made sure that the children’s ministry studies the same things that the adults do. This creates space for families to talk about what they’re learning in church. While we could still meet together, our children’s ministry staff did prerecorded lessons. So now on Sundays, my husband and I can set up our kids on one device while we’re on another for virtual worship.
The biggest need we’re finding in this season of crisis is that people are looking to us for hope. I’m a bit of a character, so recently I started dancing while waiting in line at the grocery store. The cashier was almost crying. She said, “Thank you! We need joy!” As churches, we need to stay focused on relationships that bring light, hope, and continued encouragement. Whether we are seen as essential depends on how we respond to people. For example, it means a lot if you text or call a nurse to say, “I know you see death all around you. You are doing such important work. And I am praying for you.”
Read a story about how moving to a different building and neighborhood deepened Grace and Peace CRC's ministry. Grace and Peace used a 2018 Vital Worship Grant to write songs that fit their congregation’s diverse cultures, generations, and socioeconomics. Preaching and Worship has curated resources for preachers on COVID-19, such as Thomas G. Bandy’s article “Positive Trends, Social Realities, and the Future of the Post-COVID-19 Church.”