Thoughts from a Virtual Church Visitor: Third and Final Installment

IMG_6570This is my final week of sabbatical, which means my time of (intense) virtual church visits is coming to an end soon. I’m excited to share with you some more cool things I’ve experienced in worship around the internet. This post is a bit longer than usual because I decided to go ahead and finish out this series.

You can read my thoughts about “Getting People to Worship” and “Welcoming and Gathering” in these earlier posts.

OK. Here we go with some more cool stuff I’ve seen:

Ways of Praying

  • A little chaos is OK. While it sounds a bit wonky, I like it when everyone is unmuted for some simple prayer response (“God, hear our prayer”) or even for speaking a familiar liturgical element such as the Apostle’s Creed or the Lord’s Prayer.
  • Sharing joys and concerns seems really important right now, and there are a few ways I’ve seen that work well: people email or text concerns to the pastor ahead of time; people are invited to “raise their hand” and unmute to share verbally; people type requests into the Zoom chat function or in the chat on YouTube or Facebook—these are often then read aloud by someone.
  • Sung prayer response: In one service, there was a simple song sung after every few prayer requests were read.
  • Spoken prayer response: One congregation has people end their sharing by asking: “Who will hold this prayer with me?” and others hold out their hands and respond: “I will hold this with you.”
  • Typed prayer response: Another congregation that has people share in the chat also invites people to respond in the chat and name a particular prayer that they will commit to praying throughout the week—so each person who shares a prayer request knows at least one other person will be praying for them in the coming days.
  • Consider confidentiality. Finally, many congregations that record their Zoom gatherings turn off the recording for this time of sharing joys and concerns. I personally appreciate this as it feels more like sharing with those present rather than sharing with (potentially) the whole world.

Elements of Preaching/Teaching

  • Scripture on the screen. I know this is something many churches did even for in-person worship; I like having the scripture text on the screen as it is read.
  • Congregational sermon prep. One pastor sent out an email to the congregation earlier in the week that led people through a guided encounter with that week’s scripture: reading, prayer, reflection, journaling . . .
  • Hearing many voices. One church I visited has a couple of households share each week about how they are getting through this time of physical distancing (one boy is very thankful for his cat!). Another church played brief videos of a few people from the congregation answering a simple question that related to the topic of the sermon.
  • Adding visual images to sermons. Some sermons I’ve heard have been enhanced by relevant visual images; for example, a video of sheep grazing as the preacher talked about Jesus as the good shepherd and old photos of a preacher’s family while she talked about something that happened when she was a child.
  • Discussion after the sermon. My church has a practice of inviting congregational response after the sermon, so I appreciated being put into a breakout room after the sermon and given a question related to the sermon to discuss in that small group.

Music—The consensus seems to be that there’s no good way to do congregational singing remotely, which means that there’s really no wrong way to do congregational singing. Here are some different things I’ve seen:

  • One-person choir: One (amazing) singer had pre-recorded all four parts to the hymns that were sung; that recording was played as the page from the hymnal was shown on screen.
  • Song leader/accompanist: For several services, one person accompanied on guitar, piano, or organ and sang, inviting others to mute themselves and sing along. Often words were provided on the screen or in an earlier-emailed order of service. In a few cases the song leader had another household member that also sang along, which was nice.
  • A Capella: There is something to be said for the simplicity and enthusiasm of one person just singing their heart out, with others invited to sing along at home (muted).
  • YouTube videos can be used really effectively to lead congregational singing—especially ones with lyrics on the screen. There’s lots of good stuff out there.
  • Your own congregation: If you are fortunate enough to have audio or video recordings of your congregation singing hymns, I encourage you to use these. It is comforting to hear the familiar sound of your people and pick out the voices of beloved individuals.
  • Music as background: Not all music in a service has to be sing-along. I’ve seen musical pieces (from congregation members or other sources) used as background for visual announcements or offering time, for a time of meditation, and for setting a prayerful tone as people type prayer requests into the chat.

Including Children—Children can be invited to participate in many different aspects of the service. Here are some I’ve seen that worked well.

  • Children’s Time: Many churches have a children’s time with an adult reading a story or sharing a thought. One children’s time leader invited the children to “Come and sit closer to the computer” which made it feel a little more like “regular” children’s time. One pastor invited the children to do a project with her.
  • Pre-Sunday preparation: One (possibly over-achieving) pastor hid coins in kids’ yards in preparation for a sermon on the parable of the widow finding the lost coin.
  • Prelude music from children in the congregation is lovely.
  • Scripture reading is also a good place to include children. I loved a video composite of several children from the congregation reading different parts of 1 Corinthians 13—complete with younger children banging pots and pans to demonstrate that without love I am just “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”

Miscellaneous Worship Elements

  • Offering: In addition to providing information on how to give money to the church, some congregations also share about other organizations that need support as well as non-financial ways to support the church during this time.
  • Include slideshows of photos people have sent in. One church showcased pictures of people from the congregation wearing their masks.
  • Observing Communion: I realize that not all theologies and liturgical traditions allow for “virtual” communion. It is acceptable in my tradition and I have found it very moving.
  • Announcements: Congregations do announcements in different ways. I tend to like the announcement slides running before worship itself begins.
  • Identifying worship participants: With Zoom, I appreciate people having their actual names on their video; with pre-recorded or live stream videos, it is nice when the name (and role, if applicable) are printed on the screen when a participant first comes on.
  • Zoom instructions: It is helpful when someone gives some basic Zoom directions at the beginning of worship: how to mute/unmute, gallery vs. speaker view, chat functions. One pastor offers a “random Zoom tip” at the beginning of each service.
  • Body movement: Most of us are doing a lot of sitting these days. Finding ways to include movement in worship can help people stay engaged. Not all congregations will be up for liturgical dance or full-body prayers, but most will be willing to stand to sing a hymn or wave or clap if requested.
  • Multi-lingual worship: A deaf worship service I attended on Zoom provided closed captioning for those of us who don’t speak ASL. Such closed captioning would also be helpful for hearing impaired people to more fully participate in hearing-centered Zoom worship. A live-streamed worship I watched had a split screen between the preacher and an ASL interpreter. And one multi-lingual congregation worshiped primarily in English with Spanish and Swahili “channels” on Zoom; you could click on the channels to hear an interpreter from the congregation translating the service into the designated language.

I want to say again that these lists are not intended to suggest that you should be doing all the things. In fact, some of the services I have appreciated the most have been quite simple. Do what makes sense for your community. If any of these ideas seem like they might help the people you serve experience worship more fully in this unfamiliar format, then maybe those few ideas are worth trying.

(But whatever you do, please DO NOT try all of these at once. That would be a horrible Frankenstein’s Monster of a service and would probably last all day!)

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