Learning How to Worship All Over Again

Many people are counting the weeks until we can reopen the building and welcome people back, but even/especially then the liturgical creativity is only starting.

Like many in North America, March 14, 2020, is a date I won’t forget. My wife and I were gone the week before on an impromptu trip to see friends. That was not at all what we had planned. We were going to meet our minister daughter and seminarian son-in-law for a week of R&R in Florida, but those plans changed the night before our departure because there were “rumors” of “possible short-term quarantining” for students returning from Florida, and our son-in-law didn’t want to lose valuable in-class opportunities. (Little did any of us know…). We ended up altering our trip and even cutting that short to rush back to Chicago because this “virus” we kept hearing about was ramping up and leadership needed to consider closing down the church building “for a few weeks.” No one ever suspected the previous Sunday would be the last time for a long time that we would experience a full church, exceptional singing, and extravagant fellowship. But we’ve never stopped worshiping.

Other parts of the continent are already doing the liturgical yawn and stretch. Here in Illinois, we’re likely limited to congregations of <10 until August. People are chomping at the bit to get back, but we still have time to think and plan and innovate. Good thing, because, in many ways, we’re going to have to learn how to worship together all over again.

Since the shuttering, we have been webcasting worship. A few of us go in on Saturday and pre-record audio, video, and projection to be sent out through both our website and YouTube the next morning. This has gone very well. It’s our own local version of “togetherness” that has allowed us to celebrate everything including Easter with rich music, imagery, and liturgy.

Now that we can gather up to ten, we’re moving to what we’ve labeled “satellite sanctuaries,” asking people who are comfortable to open their homes to a small group of fellow worshipers. We’ll be creating supplemental materials to enhance their communal experience of the webcast and inter-connect the satellite locations through prayers and other worship elements that can be shared week to week.

Many people are counting the weeks until we can reopen the building and welcome people back, but even/especially then the liturgical creativity is only starting. First, we’ve determined that we will keep webcasting a “normal” liturgy pre-recorded as we’re doing it now. Why? Because what will need to happen in the Sanctuary with the initial live bodies (all appropriately social distanced) will be radically different from what is important to our rapidly expanding web congregation. The webcast can offer hymns. The live service cannot. The webcast can be a higher, more vertically-oriented liturgy. The “live” service will need to be more family equipping, community rebuilding, and horizontal—at least initially. The filtered fifty in the building are going to need to interact in special ways: family prayers, call and response, and testimonies are the first things that come to mind in a format much like Morning Prayer with benefits.

This reminds me of the time I broke my left leg and pretty much destroyed my ankle in an accidental fall off a high ladder. After months of non-weight-bearing rehab, I was cleared to start playing the organ again—except I couldn’t. I’d lost the ability to “aim” and control my left foot. I wept bitterly after my first few attempts. I realized I had a difficult decision to make. I could quit or I could teach myself to play all over again—with some variation in technique to be sure. I took the second option and never looked back.

We are in for a long period of “but we used to be able to…” Musicians are facing some of the most challenging conundrums. We can yearn for the past, curse the virus, and consider an alternative vocation, or we can take this time as a God-given incentive to learn, with and from our eager congregants, how to worship all over again—innovating, experimenting, and discovering that the Holy Spirit is there ahead of us. I vote for option two. Who’s with me?

Rev. Dr. Paul Detterman is an author, composer, and conference speaker who is pastor of First Presbyterian Church of River Forest, Illinois, and a blogger at reformedworship.org. He is a former associate for worship on the national staff of the Presbyterian Church (USA).