Most of the United States are, by God’s grace, opening up and loosening restrictions on large gatherings, both of which have significant ramifications for corporate worship. Though church leaders will want to discard and remember no more many of the COVID concessions they’ve had to make over the past months, what aspects of our pandemic-worship modus operandi should worship leaders seek to maintain moving forward? Or is it really in everyone’s best interest to return as quickly as possible to what we considered normal for years prior to March of 2020 without expending any energy assessing what good has come from the Church’s response to the coronavirus?
I’ll put my cards on the table; I think an uncritical return to business-as-usual would be a shame. If we subscribe to the notion that God never wastes our time, there are, without question, lessons we should have learned (or be in the process of learning) from the past 15 months of corporate worship, ways of “doing church” we should strongly consider retaining–in some capacity, at least–as we continue to retool for mitigated-pandemic and post-pandemic worship.
Yesterday, my wife and I attended First Baptist Church in Elgin, IL, where one of my former students, Joshua Hoegh, serves as the Worship & Creative Arts Pastor. Of the numerous excellent worship leaders Judson University has trained over the past 20+ years, Joshua is one of the most aesthetically minded, season in and season out creating beautiful, meaningful sacred spaces to enhance his congregation’s worship. As is my wont, I took some notes on the ways Joshua facilitated the worship, items I shared with him after the service (#ProudProf). As I did, I realized that much of what transpired yesterday serves as a good model for the future in light of eased restrictions. Specifically, the leadership at FBC made several intentional decisions during COVID that might be worth retaining, in some capacity, after COVID. I list a few of them for your consideration.
Bring the worship to the people. Physical distancing, a proper response to gathering prior to the arrival of vaccines, militates against worship. We simply are not made to worship, congregationally, while spaced out so drastically. Hence, FBC made the decision several months ago to bring the worship space off the stage and onto the sanctuary floor (see picture) and to add a third service–in order to conform to state regulations for capacity limits, since they lost some seating in the process. Communication theory asserts the best communication takes place when the distance between the sender and the receiver is reduced, so this move enhances the fundamental dialogue (revelation and response) of worship. It also militates against idolatry. Countless folks have written about the dangers associated with celebrity pastors (my contributions, via Mark Galli, are found here), but it’s hard to put your pastor on a pedestal when s/he purposely steps off the raised platform and delivers the sermon right smack dab in the midst of the congregation.
Provide a substantive call to worship. If there ever were a time when we need to call people to worship, this is it. The emotional rollercoaster we have been on the past year and a half has often left us whiplashed between hope and despair, so we do well to be reminded why we gather. Joshua’s call to worship yesterday came from Psalm 100, and he gave a brief exegesis as he read, providing helpful context by highlighting all the strong action verbs in the psalm and contrasting them with the passivity to which we are all prone in our worship. Joshua’s taking a few minutes to provide some structure for what followed–to invite us to enter into the worship dialogue with something more than “Hi, Church! Let’s stand and sing”–filled my soul.
Scale back the band now and again. FBC’s moving the focus to the sanctuary floor necessitated scaling back the band; today’s praise team featured keys, bass, drums, and three vocalists. Though the oldest of songs we sang this morning debuted in 2013 (i.e., well within the timeframe of cwm and electric guitars), the lack of instrumental firepower didn’t hurt the worship at all, especially in that setting, where more would definitely have been less. Indeed, the quality of the congregational singing (Aaron Niequist: “The purpose of congregational singing is . . . congregational singing!”) was superior to that which I hear routinely in churches where much more is happening, musically speaking, on stage. To wit, hearing the last chorus of “10,000 Reasons” sung a cappella was breathtakingly beautiful, the voices of the people, not just of the praise band vocalists, ringing throughout the sanctuary. (For more on this dynamic, consider these thoughts here.)
FBC is returning to the stage next week, but Joshua told me the FBC leadership is thinking long and hard about how to retain the spirit of the worship they’ve experienced the past several months as they transition back. I hope many other churches will ponder the same, even if the way forward isn’t yet completely crystal clear. Though we need not be thankful for the coronavirus, of course, seeking how we might adjust our worship practices in the months ahead in light of what we’ve learned during the pandemic might be a way of being thankful in all circumstances (1 Thes. 5:18), which would be very redemptive, indeed.
The Lord be with you!