Daniel Benson shares that returning to in-person worship with the extended church family is like coming home.

A man holding cleaning supplies during COVID-19
Credit: Courtesy of Daniel Benson
Published On: September 22, 2020

“To open or not open, that is the question.” With due respect to Shakespeare, the issues for the church are almost as deep and existential as those that Hamlet faced. Some months ago, when the Ontario government approved the opening of houses of worship, I was contacted by our community paper for a story about people coming back to church. “But we’re not opening,” I replied, giving a lengthy explanation and rationale. Now, having pushed the re-opening from just after March Break (were we ever that naïve?), to Easter, to maybe in the summer, my Board decided to aim for the Sunday after Labour Day – our traditional “back-to-church” Sunday. 

The decision was discussed at considerable length. “If not now, when?” “People are drifting away.” “It’s too early and too dangerous.” “We need to bring people together to support one another.” “Online is good, but not good enough.” If you’ve had this debate at your church, you’ve probably heard all these arguments and dozens more.

Canvassing the members showed that a surprising number were eager to come to church – provided that we had adequate safety procedures in place. I say surprising because, like a lot of congregations, our membership is older, a demographic that is particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 and I assumed many of them would be apprehensive. Some were, of course, and we won’t likely see them until there’s a vaccine; but, it was obvious many craved the familiarity, comfort, and grace of Sunday worship.

And there’s the rub. With all the necessary measures in place (hand-sanitizing stations, masks, physical distancing, traffic flow patterns, contact tracing, etc.), would worship be so different, so compromised, that it wouldn’t seem “right?” Add to that there would be no singing, no coffee hour, and the possibility of not sitting in one’s usual pew, and you really begin to wonder whether there are just too many hurdles to overcome.

But, we were committed, so to leap these hurdles we developed a two-fold strategy: First, a detailed COVID-19 policies and procedures plan. This outlined the logistics of the necessary measures such as sanitization before and after the service, the role of ushers and cleaners, how and where people would be seated, roping off pews, calculating how many people we could safely accommodate up to the provincial limit of 50, etc. 

The second part was a communications plan hinging on managing people’s expectations. “Where two or three are gathered, God is with us;” therefore, even without the singing and the coffee (and despite sitting in a different pew), we are still the church. It will be different, but different is ok. This was both a teaching and a pastoral moment to focus on the essence of worship and provide assurance that “all will be well.” A lot of that assurance comes simply from openly acknowledging that things will be different and removing the surprise factor. Everyone knew there would be no singing, no coffee, and they’d have to sit in the pew they were offered, and everyone rolled with it.

Of course, you may be thinking all this sounds good, but what about the liturgy? Well, during the closure I’ve been leading worship online through a blog (Zoom didn’t sit well with our members). Because some members and adherents would not be coming to in-person worship, I felt it best to continue the online worship, and that ideally, the two services be as close as possible to identical. This way, there would be less fear-of-missing-out if someone chose one format over the other. Further, with both options available, we could proactively encourage people to choose the format that best suited them, their comfort level, and their personal circumstances.

I think it’s very easy to get caught up comparing the pros and cons of pre-pandemic and pandemic worship. The distinctions are real, to be sure, but the critical thing is to focus on what’s important and meaningful, and discern what is legacy simply because “we’ve always done it this way.” Sometimes the legacy is important, but often as not it’s merely habit disguised as tradition. Although this is a work-in-progress, here are some observations from my side of the pulpit:

My online worship services are typically much shorter (about 30 minutes) than the in-person ones prior to the shutdown. The shorter time suits the medium much better, and matching the in-person service to that length also addresses the public health recommendations that in-person gatherings be kept brief.

Despite being unable to sing, music is still essential in worship. Without a music director or choir, I’ve been using videos from YouTube for hymns, introits, anthems, etc. For online, I’ve preferred versions with the lyrics on the screen but for in-person I’m selecting ones without the lyrics, which otherwise might encourage people to sing along. To augment the YouTube videos, members have offered up anthems on violin, guitar, drums, piano, organ, or other acceptable non-wind instruments. Eventually, we may set up a plexi-barrier to allow vocal solos. Maracas and tambourines are in the pews so people can use them, clap, stomp their feet, or move-on-the-spot with the music. The maracas and tambourines have to be wiped down after the service; it’s an additional cleaning burden but that’s more than offset by the enthusiasm and enjoyment they generate.

In our in-person/pre-COVID services I encouraged a lot of lay participation for readings, prayers, candle-lighting, dialogues, and so on. This is, sadly, more complicated with COVID and I’ve limited it to scripture reading for the time being. My homily is very short and I preach with a face-shield. (Hint: make sure your mic is inside the shield!) For much of the rest of the service, I use a mask, which is in keeping with what everyone else is wearing. 

People crave the personal contact they’ve been missing during the shutdown, and this comes out in church. Our ushers managed this beautifully, gently reminding people to keep their distances, adjust their masks, and follow the arrows. I heard lots of friendly chatter and laughter, signaling we were hitting just the right tone: friendly and serious but not bossy or intimidating. Still, I could feel the uncertainty and anxiety because, for some, this was their first real outing from their bubble in months. It’s important to acknowledge this in prayer, word, and action during worship, and I could visibly see people relax a little as we did so.

At the end of the service, I went to my usual post at the back of the church to greet everyone on their way out. I kept my hands firmly in my pockets to overcome the natural inclination to shake hands, offer hugs, or place a supportive hand on a shoulder. There were lots of comments of how good it was to be back, tinged with both joy and nervousness. But I think the most revealing comment was from one parishioner who observed that gathering together with her extended church family in the church was like coming home. She felt the stirrings of this as she saw familiar faces, when she heard the scripture being read, during the music and through the sermon. But it really hit her when we all began saying the Lord’s Prayer together. Softly, hesitatingly, slightly muffled by the masks, the words filled the church and for a few brief moments all seemed as it should be.

I’m writing this on Tuesday after the service. Over the past 48 hours, there’s been lots of feedback, almost all of it is very positive and enthusiastic. Notably, one person doesn’t like tambourines, and another didn’t like having to sit in a different pew (seriously!). We’ve revised some of our procedures based on the learnings from Sunday, and we’re planning for next week. Recently, however, there’s been a significant uptick on the number of new diagnoses here in Ontario. A friend of mine is fond of saying in such situations, “there’s a lot of moving pieces.” Given the rapidly shifting ground we’re all trying to get a foothold on, that’s the understatement of the week. But, with so many moving pieces, we’ll continue to plan ahead and be ready to shift directions as needed. Stay tuned. 

—Daniel Benson is minister at St. Paul's United Church in Scarborough, ON.

The views contained within these blogs are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of The United Church of Canada.

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