Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think that I would agree to canceling worship in the sanctuary for even one Sunday, never mind 12 weeks (this Sunday will be 12 weeks). Remember the year not so long ago when we had a snow and ice storm on Christmas Eve? I was almost to the church I served when it hit. Numbers were down that year, but I participated in five worship services that day and night, finishing at midnight. I didn’t arrive home until about 3:00 a.m. because I drove much of the way home on a sheet of ice. I remember another Sunday when an ice storm was expected during the early morning hours. That Saturday night I spent in a hotel close to the church to be sure I would be able to get to worship on Sunday. Soon after that we moved much closer to the church and jokes were made that we were guaranteed that the church would always be open for Sunday morning worship because I was now close enough to crawl to get there if I had to.
Until twelve weeks ago, I have always maintained that everyone should do what they needed to do to be safe…but I would be at the church to receive those who came…no matter how bad the weather…no matter what…. And now we all know that “no matter what” happened. We started doing Facebook live worship from the sanctuary with just a cell phone and a few staff and volunteers. The next week we had more volunteers, increased social distancing, and I frankly started to become concerned about how we were going to maintain worship with a cell phone and what was rapidly becoming more volunteers than we knew we could safely accommodate, though I was very grateful that so many wanted to continue to be a part of our worship. The next week, I woke up on Sunday morning with a very sore throat and a fairly deep cough. That’s the week that I led worship alone in my home office with my cell phone. By the next week, we had not only made great progress in figuring out such technology as Zoom, but Barbara Reed was on a fast track learning of Streamyard for our worship services so that we could have multiple participants all from separate locations.
Never in my wildest dreams did I envision that we would come such a long way in these twelve weeks into places that we might never have gone if we weren’t forced into it. We now have weekly worship live streamed on our church Facebook page. Live worship can be accessed through our church website as well. And both formats allow for later viewing. I have moved into the sanctuary where Jeff Browning films my portion of the service and last week Cathy Wheeler joined me for the prelude and postlude for greatly improved sound quality. In a few weeks, Sarah Reed will join us to further enhance our online worship experience. For a while yet, all others participating in leading worship, reading scripture, and sacred circle (our children’s time) will continue to come to us from individual homes. Before we fall into a pit of despair, let’s celebrate what we have gained.
We are able to track our “views” on Facebook. Tracking these last eleven weeks, we have ranged from a low of 226 early on to an Easter Sunday high of 466. Not counting last week (which will continue to grow until next Sunday), our most recent week recorded 403 views. This is 4+ times our previous average worship attendance. Every single week, our views have been more than double our previous worship attendance. You are correct if you point out that some of these are folks are only with us for a few minutes. However, this does not include those who have accessed worship though our website, or the numbers that view in watch groups, or multiple people watching from one source. Your responses to our recent survey indicate that half of you are viewing through the church website and not even included in the views count.
I have continued to offer a daily live stream devotional time at 3 p.m. Views for this time is highly variable, as you might expect. The lowest count has been 29 with a high of 151…you liked watching me make bread. Most recently, there are typically between 35 and 60 views with 72 checking in a couple of days ago.
We have also started online (Zoom) bible study. And, yes, even some of our older folks have become quite proficient in accessing bible study. It never ceases to amaze me what we can do if it’s important to us! Some of our usual bible study folks are not in attendance. Yet there are a few others from our church attending for perhaps the first time. We also have a couple of guests in attendance…from outside of our community and those who have moved away.
Additionally, we now have online giving available which I hope more of you will begin to explore. By the way, anyone know what happen to last week’s mail? We only have one day of mail. If you sent in a check that we should have received last week, please be on the lookout. We’ve had a number of folks pick up the mail and deliver it to Barbara’s desk…but no mail this week. Please call one of us if you’ve moved it to a secret, safe place.
But none of this answers your biggest question: when will be go back to “normal?” And the answer to that question is: I don’t know. So here’s what I do know…. Churches in the outlying districts will open before we do. Some of these are preparing to submit their plans for staying within the CDC guidelines and will be allowed to open in June. I also know that some of their pastors are deeply concerned about this move as they watch COVID-19 numbers in their counties. As painful as it is to not come together again just yet, how much worse would it be to face new shelter-in-place orders due to an increase in loss of life? The two most heavily populated districts (we are in one of those) will not be allowed to gather in June. For us, this means that the earliest will be July. Read that: not in June and we don’t yet know when.
In the meantime, a small group begins this week to process and think theologically about the many questions that are before us, including questions about the “new normal.” We will be exploring how we live within the Three General Rules of our church (do no harm, do all the good you can, and stay in love with God) in our new context. Before we get down to specifics, we will need to consider: (1) how do we provide a worship experience of the holy/divine while doing no harm; (2) how do we provide an experience of community in the confines of social distancing, no touching, and mask usage; (3) what is our greatest responsibility? Do we potentially place people at risk or risk appearing unfriendly and unwelcoming by requiring that guidelines (like social distancing and masks) be adhered to; (4) to whom do we owe the greatest responsibility, the most vulnerable among us, those who want to gather again AND how much of our congregation needs to feel safe returning to in person worship for us to gather as an inclusive community?
Each person among us likely thinks they have an answer to each of these questions. Simple, right? Yet many of our answers will differ. How do we come together? We think and process theologically as Christian people who adhere to those Three General Rules. We consider beyond our intended message to honestly look at what message is received by others. You may have heard me say before that I would like nothing better (and nothing would make my life easier) than to wave a magic wand and give everyone what they want while also keeping everyone safe. But we all know that’s just not possible. So we will move slowly, striving to get this right and do no harm. We will continue to strive to provide the most meaningful worship possible, tweaking as we go. We will continue to reach out to one another using all the tools available to us…by phone, Facetime, Zoom, etc. Some of you may begin to gather in small groups to view worship together with mutually agreed upon guidelines to keep everyone safe. I pray daily that we will continue to recognize that the needs are different among us and to reach out to those who are hurting the most. I pray that we will continue to recognize that each of us is doing the best we can in the midst of something we have never dealt with before…offering love and grace each step of the way. And when we start to get frustrated, remember “the Jesus in me, sees the Jesus in you” as we find our way forward to celebrate our wildest dreams!
Peace be with you, my family and friends,