As I was setting up the space within our building for the first onsite worship experience in over six months, I found myself chuckling. This space isn’t our traditional sanctuary. It is a space that has been home to multiple meals, smiles, and different events over the years. It is the only space inside of our building that is visible to those outside our walls thanks to the giant storefront windows.
Why did I chuckle without even thinking about it? This space was what drew me in as I prayer walked the block my church sits on prior to any conversation with them about employment. Back then, I could see worship happening exactly where I was now setting up for worship. I wasn’t sure of exactly what it would look like, but I knew it would be different and it would be clear to those outside of our walls that worship was happening. Fast forward to now and this space is the safest way for us to be onsite.
The Set Up
A third of our current congregation walked through Fresh Expressions training a little over a year and a half ago. During this training, we asked them to think about the elements needed in order for church to happen. We looked at all the things we considered to be church. Things like Sunday School, coffee, choirs, scripture, offering time, prayer, people, sanctuaries…etc. As they learned more about Fresh Expressions, the list of things that became essential shrank with some hesitation. At the end of the day, the list of essentials of what constituted church was: prayer, scriptural message, music/art, connection with others, and from time to time Holy Communion. Those are our basics. The methods used for people to experience those basics may be different, but the basics are always present. These basics are the elements that have been and continue to be a part of our Fresh Expressions that are now primarily digital.
Our traditional church service was online prior to the pandemic. It consisted of streaming the live worship onto Facebook with a camera that was miles away from the front, a soundboard that didn’t connect to the camera and lighting that would make a gray rainy day look bright. When everything shifted into the realm of online worship, we were able to be intentionally different. We made sure the sound and video quality were the best they could be, we were mindful that each person joining was creating their own sacred space at home and we were far from the only option that would be grabbing people’s attention. We learned that all of those essential elements we defined previously could fit into 30 minutes without feeling rushed or empty.
Now, we are heading back onsite for worship and the lessons we learned when thinking about our Fresh Expressions are coming in handy once again. We are in a different space than we normally would be, so the feel is different. To decrease risk, the time we spend in the space is far less than the time we would have typically spent in our building. All of these things mean we have to examine again those essential elements of worship and adapt to our new normal.Now, we are heading back onsite for worship and the lessons we learned when thinking about our Fresh Expressions are coming in handy once again. Click To Tweet
Although our onsite worship experience is focused on those already connected to us for now, our online worship experience was designed for all who may be looking for a safe digital space to explore spirituality and that will continue. Without the hard work of defining those elements of worship that are most sacred to us, neither of these worship experiences would have been able to pivot.
How to Pivot
You may be where we are and looking at how to safely re-engage worship within the walls of your church or maybe you’re trying to figure out how to make your online worship more engaging. Aside from setting up safety protocols, you may want to spend some time defining exactly what is essential for feeling like you’ve had church. The pandemic has proven that many of the elements we may have considered as essential before were not truly essential.The pandemic has proven that many of the elements we may have considered as essential before were not truly essential. Click To Tweet
Look at the basics and determine the most effective way for people to engage them in the context you’re faced with, either online or in person. The methods are going to be completely different, but the basics are the same. Helping people understand this will increase a sense of unity and togetherness as your church continues to gather in a myriad of spaces.
Ann Marie Carley
As a UMC Deacon Ann Marie’s ministry focus is helping churches walk through sacred change. She is currently living out this call by serving as the Executive Pastor (and overseeing Fresh Expressions) at Trinity Church in Chillicothe, Ohio. She and her husband are passionate about sharing Jesus, cycling, cycling to tacos and exploring new ways to connect with others.