Creating Communal Worship
In years to come, worship leaders may divide time into BP (Before Pandemic) and AP (After Pandemic). The gatherings that we had taken for granted BP were impossible AP. Improvisation became the order of the day. Many of us gained a whole new appreciation for what we could do with a smartphone, a movie-maker program, and YouTube or Facebook.
A few weeks after the shutdown began, I was interviewed by our local newspaper about the experience of creating and delivering virtual worship services. I said what I thought were the expected things: the whole point of worship was to gather, and now we had to gather in a different way. But talking to a reporter who really didn’t know what the purpose of worship was gave me pause as well. What is it we’re doing in worship, and why is it so important to do it together?
Six months later, our congregation is still doing virtual worship, though we’ve been fortunate to gather a number of times for socially distanced concerts and worship on our lawn. Our congregation has made the transition to online worship very successfully, and I often hear how much people enjoy being able to view the service from the comfort of their own space. Our study groups have picked up new participants from across Canada and the United States, an unexpected benefit of being online. When we recently surveyed the congregation about reopening, no one was in a hurry to get back to what was normal until safe to do so.
The longer social distancing lasts, the more important the question about worshipping together becomes. What’s so important about being physically present with one another? A few years ago, a member of our congregation spent some time studying ethnomusicology with the Ewe people of Ghana. He noted how the Ewe consider a person’s dancing, singing, or composing skills a gift from God. Having any of these gifts implies a responsibility to develop them for the benefit of the community. When the community develops strong levels of synchronicity, everyone feels that much closer to God. “Sunday worship at St. Andrew’s is not so different,” our congregant noted, “as we integrate song, instrumental music, and stories. The most significant difference is how I thought about my religious practice [as] focusing on textual messages, rather than paying careful attention to my role in contributing to the artistry of the communal experience.”
Creating and leading worship in the pandemic has given my colleague’s words a new resonance. As worship leaders, we create the space and opportunities for people to listen—not just to the music and texts but to each other. That ability to listen creates a communal experience that brings us all closer to God.
The pandemic has been a test of our ability to listen, not only in worship but in pastoral care and outreach. I’ve been greatly heartened hearing the stories of the creative ways that this listening, and hearing, is happening across our church. So we continue to train ourselves to listen to and for each other in our worship in new ways. We continue to create those communal experiences that are the heart of our church experiences using the resources at hand. We find new ways to listen for each person in worship. When we do that, God only knows what we will hear in the other places of our lives.
Geoffrey Wilfong-Pritchard, Chair of the Gathering Advisory Board, is from Edmonton, Alta.