What are we learning from six months of online worship?

The liturgy we practice on Sunday is intended to be a glimpse of and a rehearsal for God’s Kingdom. In that liturgy, we catch moments of God happening in us when we practice praising, despite the circumstances. When we practice telling the stories of God’s people together, and speaking Good News. When we publicly confess our wrongs, and hear that God has put away our sins. When we receive sustenance at God’s table next to folks we might never have otherwise dined with. That liturgy, in communities were vulnerability is welcomed, can be life-changing, healing, and surprising. That liturgy can be a defiant voice of human dignity and hope in places of oppression and violence.

Now, six months into an experiment in online worship few of us would have ever willingly chosen, we get to ask ourselves: What’s ‘working’ in this online worship experiment? What parts of eucharistic worship can translate over a screen? What conditions make for that experience of rehearsing for and encountering God’s Kingdom? What evidence do you see in your own faith community that the ways you’ve adapted worship have been meeting the spiritual needs of parishioners and neighbors? And what evidence might point to the contrary? In a denomination grounded on tradition, this is a rare chance to evaluate such a massive experiment. So I offer you some questions for reflection and evaluation.

What signs of the Holy Spirit’s work have you seen in your faith community since March? I wonder about indicators like these:

  • Finding fresh energy for relationship and pastoral care
  • People discerning new roles prayerfully – stepping into or out of roles that aren’t lifegiving right now
  • Increased desire to know the neighborhood and partner to meet needs
  • Increased desire and tolerance for hard conversations about race, power, privilege, and politics
  • Newcomers are making their way into the life of the faith community
  • Creative solutions are emerging for faith formation

What indicators have you seen that might suggest it’s time to take some time to rest or re-evaluate your faith community’s approach? Here are a few you might consider:

  • Volunteers for doing the tech or liturgical leadership required for worship are increasingly burned out or hard to find.
  • Your bench of preachers is slim, and they haven’t had a break since March.
  • Newcomers haven’t found a way in to deeper relationship.
  • Participation stats are waning beyond what you’d expect in August.
  • Tolerance for conversation around tender topics seems slim.

These indicators are what come to mind for me; surely you will have wise additions or edits to that list.

At some unknown time in the future, we will begin gathering for worship in person again. In the recently released ECMN guidelines for regathering, you’ll find a great deal of detail meant to help our faith communities attend to health and safety as we find our way back to each other and to our sanctuaries. But God will have been with us all along, friends. Until then, I hope we will also attend to the unwanted gift of this extraordinary disruption in community practice.

Pre-pandemic, most congregations put the majority of their energy into weekly Sunday morning worship as the hub of Christian discipleship. And there has always been an argument to be made (perhaps a devil’s-advocate argument) that the way we worship might be keeping us from connecting to God, to each other, and to our neighbors. When so much energy goes into worship, the argument might go, what’s left for the day-in, day-out Christian life? Have we made Sunday morning into an idol that protects us from the vulnerable work of sharing life together and working for justice and peace?

Because of COVID-19, we now have an opportunity to ask that difficult question: Is our previous model of being church helping us receive and share Good News in our neighborhood? What might we be able to receive and share if we could step away from a pattern of all-consuming Sunday morning production?

If your faith community’s allocation of energy and resources is life-giving, wonderful. But if worship by Zoom isn’t seeming to connect in your faith community or for your family, you have the opportunity to shift your practice of common prayer. Worship is discipleship—and, it might be a good time to let discipleship lead. Discipleship—daily practices that form us as followers of Jesus – is the primary work of the local church. You have permission to shift your practice and try a new experiment now.

What might that look like? Here’s one model that might be good for small congregations or small groups. Right now, we have the opportunity and the permission to simply gather by videoconference, with a simple service of prayer. It might be this basic:

  • Check in: Highs and lows of the week. Where did you experience God, where did you long for the holy, how were you blessed?
  • Read Scripture together. Models like Gospel-Based Discipleship and Dwelling in the Word are easy to use and share leadership for.
  • Pray together. The Daily Devotions for Individuals and Families (pp. 136 in the Book of Common Prayer) are a simple place to start. Other spiritual and contemplative practices can work here too.
  • Learn together. There is no shortage of ways that crisis is being revealed to us in the news. Share a reading, listen to a short segment of a podcast, and reflect together on how God might be at work in that situation together, and how you might be called to join in.

This kind of practice emphasizes presence, vulnerability, and relationship. Online eucharistic worship practice can do that too, if we’re willing to let go of some control.  It isn’t a matter of either-or, but a matter of balance. I wonder what would shift in our faith communities if we spent the coming months making space for God and space for each other in the midst of the space we make for worship.

A few resources you might want to lean on for this effort:

  • Priya Parker’s book The Art of Gathering and podcast Together Apart – both have been great resources for the School for Formation’s spring Skills Accelerator workshop, where we ask what assumptions and decisions can be made before we gather that will create a generative experience.
  • This whitepaper from Renewalworks reveals the ways Episcopal faith communities could lean more intentionally into discipleship.
  • The SFF’s course Missional Lab which invites lay and ordained Christians to learn simple, centuries old and time-tried spiritual practices to notice what God invites them to pay attention to (as disciples) and to join Jesus in the work of God’s reign that is happening all around us (as apostles). This course is a community of practice, to learn and live the simple ways of getting to know God better in scripture and, through mutual storytelling, share how God is showing up in the participant’s life. Then, as a community of practice, to stretch out into the practitioner’s unique context (parish, institution, neighborhood, community gathered from the four points of the globe) and develop their own community of practitioners, gathering regularly with the original core group of lab participants to share how God is moving through our lives as we continue to practice together by reflecting on the stories of our various teams.

The pandemic has pulled back the curtain on the suffering in our country: the economic inequity that has some of us eating takeout every night and others facing eviction or choosing between parenting and work. The scale of a climate crisis paired with a political divide in which action seems impossible. And the deep-seated violence of a racialized caste system that has been revealed, yet again, in the cell phone footage from Kenosha, WI. There is plenty of ministry for us to do, friends. The Holy Spirit is alive and moving. This is the time to ask: What are the practices that will keep us listening to her voice and following the way of Jesus?