Thoughts from a Virtual Church Visitor: Welcoming and Gathering

background-20870_1920So far on my mini-May-sabbatical I’ve engaged with about twenty different church worship services: emailed services, live-streamed services, pre-recorded services, Zoom services. Lots of them have been Mennonite, but I’ve also hung out with some Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Disciples of Christ, and non-denominational folks.

In my first post about this experience, I suggested some ways to effectively get people to your virtual services. I anticipated doing a follow-up post in which I could enlighten you about the best ways to actually conduct the services. But that’s not quite what this post is. Because in visiting so many churches, I’ve discovered that there is really no wrong way to do this!*  Every worship service I’ve attended has been different and every one has been lovely and God-honoring.

So, I’m done giving advice about virtual church. This post–and probably the next two or three posts–will just share some of the great things I’ve experienced as I worship with different churches.

These lists are in NO WAY intended to suggest that all churches should start doing all of these things. Rather, I share as a way to celebrate the movement of the Holy Spirit and the creativity and insight of God’s people who are working to fashion meaningful worship in a difficult time.

Cool Stuff for Gathering

  • Welcome Screens: I love the welcome screens that some churches have. These may be more helpful for visitors than regular attenders. But, yes, please, tell me who you are and what is going on–and let me know I’m in the right place.
  • Welcome Videos: A couple of “at home” orders of worship I’ve seen include links to brief welcome videos with a friendly person (pastor or not) in a lovely outdoor setting inviting everyone into worship. It’s nice to see a smiling face at the beginning of worship.
  • Greeting by Name: In some Zoom services, the pastor or a greeter has welcomed people by name as they come onto the call—usually aloud, but also once via private chat. I imagine this can get tricky with larger groups, but it feels good to me to be acknowledged as I enter worship.
  • Lighting a Candle: Many congregations begin worship by lighting a peace lamp or a candle. Sometimes this is paired with mention of a particular peace/justice organization or effort. Other times the candle-lighting is part of the opening prayer. And sometimes the leader invites people at home to also light a candle as a sign of entering into worship.
  • Introduction to the Congregation: One church included a brief intro to the church and their denomination at the very beginning of the service. I originally thought this was mostly helpful for visitors, but I’m thinking now that this basic concrete statement of identity could be a comfort to regular attenders as well–since the normal trappings that remind us “where” we are are no longer present.
  • Photos of People!: It is so nice to see each other’s faces. I appreciated a slideshow of pictures people had sent in of themselves that scrolled through during prelude. This seems especially important for pre-recorded services where people can’t see each other’s faces on Zoom.
  • Land Acknowledgments: A few churches I visited included land acknowledgments toward the beginning of their worship, naming the indigenous people groups who originally lived in the area where the church building is located. One worship leader invited those “attending” from other places to name whose land we were on, and I appreciated that opportunity.
  • Passing of the Peace: This is done in different ways by different communities. Some have a “moment of chaos” where everyone is unmuted, others have a simple response (The Lord be with you. And also with you.) One of my favorites was a congregation where they had learned to say “Peace be with you” in sign language and all signed to each other.
  • “The Reveal”: In Bruce Reyes Chow‘s Zoom Worship Lab, he mentions doing a “reveal” part-way into the service. As people come on, they just see the prepared worship screen. Then they are switched to the gallery view where they can all see each other.

Please feel free to share in the comments about ways that your faith community seeks to welcome people into worship and help them gather remotely. In my next post, I’ll share some things I’ve experienced in other parts of the worship service.


*I mean, of course there ARE wrong ways to do this—racist ways, homophobic ways, ways that monger fear and invoke shame, ways that spread COVID-19 to vulnerable populations. But you all aren’t doing worship in those ways.

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