Moving from Incarnational to On-Line Worship: Some suggestions

Church Matters, Covid 19, Current Events, Perspectives, Podcast

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First COVID-19 meant we cancelled gatherings of 500 or more. Then fifty. Then ten. Now some cities are near lockdown. Normally, the church gathers as an expression of our love for God and for one another. But in this moment we must do the opposite—for the same reasons. So, many churches that have never done live streaming are scrambling to offer services online. And while it’s one thing to figure out the technical side, what about pastoral and theological considerations? Here are a few suggestions:

1. Include more than the sermon. In fact consider providing an entire, even if abbreviated, service from invocation to benediction. Worship is two-way communication. So while we need God to speak to us, we also need to speak to Him. Consider some of the things the church needs to say right now:

Adoration (“You are good and sovereign”)
Self-examination/confession (“We’re sorry”—especially as families live in closer quarters than usual)
Lament (“This hurts”)
Prayer for illumination (“Help us understand”)
Petition (“We need you”)
Thanks (“We still have You, and we’re grateful”)
Giving (“We’re called to share”)
Benediction (“Send us forth”)

2. Lament. The lament is the most common form of prayer in the psalms. Yet often, especially in the West, we limit ourselves to the praise sections of the Hebrew prayer book. But life is hard. So now is an especially appropriate time to model how to express to God one’s fears, frustrations, longings, aggravations, and griefs.

3. Read scripture aloud and recite a creed together. Read God’s words to your people slowly. Lovingly. The words themselves feed souls. So include a time of straight-up reading with no commentary. Draw on passages that remind listeners of God’s nearness. Of his sovereignty. Of hope. And together restate what the church has said for more than a thousand years.

4. In the early days go ahead and interrupt the sermon series. Yes, we need a sense of routine, of normality. But this is also an emergency. And the sheep need especially tender shepherding. They may need reminding to sacrifice for others. They may need gentle redirection of their focus. They may need reassurance that God can handle their terror. So consider taking off a week from the regular series in 1 Corinthians or Isaiah to address the felt needs of those in your care. Assure your people that no one in your congregation will starve and that your community will get through this together.

5. Acknowledge the losses in eschewing embodied gathering. In the beginning God created a physical world. And our very God of very God took on flesh and dwelled among us (John 1:14). Consider that these physical realities—the creation, the incarnation, Jesus’s death and burial, the resurrection, and the ascension—are all foundational to our faith. Christianity is not some ethereal philosophy that eschews the physical life. Baptism involves touch. The wine and bread involve taste. The passing of the peace is physical, as is greeting one another with a holy kiss. And withdrawal from matter is part of why we grieve as we must fast from hugging, passing the peace, and sharing the elements. When this is all over, we want our people to know better than to ask, “Why go to church when I can watch on my computer?” Instead, may we use this absence of touch to articulate why inhabiting space together is so necessary.
The elder John two thousand years ago acknowledged, even in a low-tech way, that “distance learning” has its place, but embodied fellowship is better: “Though I have many other things to write to you, I do not want to do so with paper and ink, but I hope to come visit you and speak face to face, so that our joy may be complete” (2 John 1:12). So in the spirit of John, as we shift from face-to-face to “distance” gathering, may we shepherd well from afar those entrusted to us until our joy is once again made complete.

Dr. Sandra Glahn, a professor in Media Arts and Worship at Dallas Theological Seminary, is the author of more than 20 books, including the Coffee Cup Bible Study series.

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