With little preparation, worshipping communities around North America quickly shifted their worship online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While online or streaming worship isn't a new thing, completely virtual worship experiences are unprecedented, and the experience is inviting us to discover new ways (or build on what we already know) to make community.
MMC is especially curious how we make spaces for participation, sung or spoken. How can leaders be present in online spaces in ways that support community engagement and deepening connection?
This week we saw a fantastic Facebook post by pastor, church planter, author, and liturgist Emily Scott (and co-founder of MMC!). Emily’s book, For All Who Hunger, which comes out in May, is about community and connection around tables, even in times of disaster.
So we got through our first Sunday of offering worship online! Woo!
As we put plans in place for future online gatherings, I continue to believe that many of our congregants need spiritual and social CONNECTION more than they need audio/visual PERFECTION.
People need to hear their names. They need to tell their stories and know those stories are heard. They need spiritually grounding practices they can participate in, not just watch. We have highly produced content thrown at us all the time. How can we make our online gatherings personal and loving? (Not knocking high quality here...just saying it might not be all of our first goal, depending on our context.)
Many of us are figuring this out as we go (except for those who've been doing worship online for a long time). Here's some of what we tried at Dreams and Visions (we used Zoom as our gathering space):
- More frequent, smaller gatherings. A Vespers service of 8-10 gives people more chance to be known than "watching" a more formal worship. If you have a formal worship experience live streamed, maybe break into small groups afterward, or have smaller gatherings sprinkled through the week.
- Use people's names as much as you can. Include them in the prayers, weave them into a blessing.
- Short, responsive phases work great as well! Vespers is sprinkled with bits of psalms the officiant and congregation can trade back and forth. We even read a full Psalm responsively, and it worked nicely. After each person shared how they were doing, it also struck me we needed some kind of response. In the moment I went with, "We hear your story," and invited the assembled to respond, "Your story is heard."
- On the recommendation of Brian Hehn from the Center for Congregational Song, we tried singing a simple call and response piece. I sang a line, and then a second singer echoed it back to me. I asked everyone to mute themselves, and sing with the second singer. It felt pretty good! We also sang a short Taizé song, Be Still and Know that I Am God. I lined it out twice, then invited participants to sing with me at home.
- I asked participants to read scripture and lead different bits. More participation! More voices! For this service, I was simply sharing my screen and scrolling through the worship bulletin as we went, but there are many ways to make written text available.
- You can send love and grace straight through the screen. Smile, radiate calm, and make room for laughter. You might ask people to use a hand signal to say "I agree with you," which helps people hear a little more heard, without muddying up the audio. I throw thumbs ups on Zoom an embarrassing amount of times, and do "twinkles" (hands raised with fingers wiggling), which indicates agreement (borrowed from Occupy via the Green Party via ASL).
- Our prayer books really serve us in this moment. Familiar texts said in a new situation ground us and remind us that we're still church. I was struck by how damn *relevant* the words of the prayers were my own prayer book's (the ELW) Vespers service. Return to what we know.
- Give people a ritual act to do at home. This can grow as we go, but this time I simply invited people to light a candle at home. My friend Jodi Bjornstad Houge invited people to color while they prayed. Creating a sense of ritual space that moves us beyond sitting and watching will be tremendously important through this time.
Those are my thoughts. What have you been learning?