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Transitional Worship During COVID-19

A safe return to familiar forms of Sunday worship services is still a long way off. But the historic church offers a way to frame in-person worship in the meantime.

Churches contemplating how and when to return to holding in-person services are having to think “outside the box.” But which box?

Most of us Protestants operate in the “Sunday worship service” box. That box may feature “Word and sacrament” or “praise songs and teaching time” or “singing, sermon, altar call.” Every tradition starts with a slightly different set of nonnegotiables, though an offering and announcements are likely on everyone’s list. But the box is still “Sunday worship service.” It assumes people will be physically present, and all the major elements of worship will unfold over one or two hours—or more—depending on the cultural context.

Providentially, historic Christian traditions have other boxes we can think about using. The one that intrigues me in our current context is corporate daily prayer. You can find this today in some cathedrals that have not only Sunday services of Word and sacrament, but also evensong every day at 5 p.m. Or think of college chapels that have a twenty-minute service each weekday. Monasteries have multiple times of corporate prayer each day. There is no reason every congregation or parish couldn’t consider it.

In many places, it could be nobly simple. Imagine offering a short daily prayer service several times a week at 5:30 p.m.—or at both 8:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. A small church might offer something twice a week with a single, bivocational pastoral leader. A large church might organize twice-daily services with a team of leaders who each lead one or two services each week.

The services themselves could be simple:

  • Read a psalm or two or three, each followed by a brief prayer that connects the psalm with contemporary experience
  • Read a compelling scripture passage and a brief pastoral meditation, if desired
  • Offer intercessory prayer for the needs of the world, intentionally including people and concerns that often are neglected or forgotten
  • Close with a benediction

Move the offering online and keep the announcements brief or only online.

If needed, churches could rotate which members or small groups attend on any given day. All of it could be done outdoors, weather permitting. Churches could start (after it is legal and safe) by offering services in a parking lot while people remain in their cars. Eventually, people could gather in seats duly separated.

Best of all, this practice could be used to invite entire congregations into the beautiful discipline of praying the daily office—a habit that could far outlive COVID-19.