Now that our Church is online, is there a way back?
Brett Ashton is Pastor of Worship & Arts at Southview Church in Calgary, AB
I was on a beach in Mexico when everything seemed to fall apart. Multiple texts came in on my phone asking if I was coming home and trying to keep me in the loop for what to expect when I got back. The NBA led the charge by putting their season on hold, but I didn’t take that overly seriously because I can’t stand basketball. However, when the NHL followed suit, I knew it must be real.
At my church, we have spent years sorting out what our liturgy looks like. What that meant for us was looking at the elements of our worship service, and narrowing down what needed to be there, and why. Every denomination, every person, has a liturgy they follow that forms who they are and what is important to them (You Are What You Love, James K. A. Smith) – and because we believe that to be true, we wanted to make sure what we were doing was intentional. To do that we leaned on the history of the Church, and in the most evangelical way we started choosing elements that would enrich our worship week after week.
Receiving communion most weeks was critical, as was forming our church body through words of blessing by passing the peace of Christ – but we also used the video medium to encourage reflection prior to the sermon, as well as music, collects from the Anglican Church of Canada as our Call to Worship, and we leaned into the Church seasons to order our lives around God’s time and story (a liturgy we could each take home and practice).
We worked through this process over the course of about ten years before COVID-19 seemed to disrupt things.
To start, we couldn’t meet in person. Like most churches, we chose to move online in some capacity, and that was where our first decision impacted the rest of our time through this pandemic. We realized our reliance on liturgy and repetition helped us immensely. On a practical level, we had developed a familiarity within the church body with the order of our worship. At the time of our first Online Liturgy (what we called our online services), we were in the season of Lent. I’m not sure there was a better season to be in when things were locked down. We had a very clear idea of what our new online service would contain, it was just a matter of adapting for length. On a spiritual level, the repetition of the church season, familiar collects, music, videos, etc., could bring a sense of normalcy to the worship experience—perhaps even have a calming effect when everything seemed to be up in the air around us.
We chose to film two songs in a more broken-down format (often myself and a guitar), and we shifted – following a Lenten theme – to look at liminality as we were all stuck at home wondering what was going to happen, and where God was in all of it.
Early on we were full of energy but soon the weekly filming, editing, and mixing schedule turned into a weekly drain. We would film worship on Tuesdays or Sundays, Community Life (announcements) was filmed on Mondays, sermons on Thursday afternoons and we would edit and mix as we went so that the Online Liturgy was out on Saturdays for those who were used to attending a Saturday night service.
When we resumed services in a limited capacity, it was clear our Online Liturgy was here to stay. Many people were still unable to gather for in-person services for various reasons, and so we continued to produce the Online Liturgy, and still do for the time being. Livestreaming was never something that I was comfortable with. Though pre-filming required a lot of work and time, we felt it was more beneficial to create something intentionally for those needing to worship at home rather than set up a camera that would make them a fly-on-the-wall to the worship that was happening onsite. We wanted to lead in the various liturgical elements with them specifically in mind, and by doing so try to honor the experience in their homes. It wasn’t without frustration for some who missed seeing a full band onstage, but we felt strongly it was the best choice for the situation we were in.
Looking ahead, our Online Liturgy’s lifespan is connected to when we can resume live services without limitation. Knowing that won’t bring everybody into the church building on weekends, we’ll continue for a bit afterward – but we do feel strongly we need to worship through these elements together. In person. Receiving communion together in person. Worshipping through song in person. Hearing the Word preached in person.
The Online Liturgy can’t be something we do forever because we feel as though this sends the wrong message long-term. In a trying time that few of us, if any, have experienced before, it was a helpful stand-in for something that is meant to be happening in person.
And so the potential new challenge facing us is to convey the importance of worship in-person to those who prefer to stay home. In a time where many have become comfortable with the rhythm of staying home and engaging online, is part of discipleship for us to call them back to meeting together? We continue to pray and discern on these questions and trust that God would continue to guide our church community forward.
What We Are Reading
I have found it interesting to compare two pieces by the same author that I wonder if congregations ought to more consciously and strategically come alongside young people who are working through their early educational, vocational, and occupational decisions (a few years back my colleague, Ben Kutsyuruba, and I edited a book, The Bliss and Blisters of Early Career Teachers (based, in part, on a pan-Canadian study of teachers) and the hunger for mentorship in this was a common theme. I've been interested in professional and career lifecycles and transitions for a long time. In my early years I had my "November Syndrome" a period when I wondered what I might be doing the following Fall.
Of course, this is “front end” of cycle – what about mid-way, all-the-way, and end of road aspects of the cycle? Again, I think that congregations might be much more involved in hosting safe and informed places for persons to think through work and lifecycles, in healthy ways. This accompaniment could easily be framed as a form of discipleship or formation. I wonder if our discipleship neglects a wholistic view of Christian formation. Typically, in the metaphor of lifecycles there is a requisite high or steep learning curve for first 5ish years and then either a plateauing (flat-lining) or spectrum of episodic-continuous learning. Most lifecycles are shaped like an upside-down U or mountain shape. Over the years, we move towards the peak then begin to decline (I used to call this the “womb to tomb, and beyond” cycle).
One of life’s challenges is to figure out at, or around, the top of the mountain (half-life of professional career) whether or not to start a new mountain before the decline (David Brooks wrote an excellent and commendable book entitled The Second Mountain; Bob Buford produced a number of books on this topic, including Half Time). In other words think about recreating our trajectory (S or Sigmod Curve) to hop off the decline mountain (a natural thing) and onto a new mountain ascent. I can think of many example of people who have found their ways to a new mountain.
A decade ago, a colleague, Lynn Bosetti (UBC), and I interviewed over 40 university presidents in Canada, US, and UK. Many of these leaders told us their stories of having jumped from their academic mountain to climb their administrative mountain when they sensed an impending decline or traction slippage or sense of need to reframe their purposes or a vocational shift for a better fit. Many of us will know men and women who have moved from a variety of different professions to become clerics in their 30s-50s and older. It is interesting to me that we don't invite more out loud conversations amongst congregants to consider where they are at in their lifecycles.
To think that we can drive on the same tires forever and not take the time in our hurried pace to appreciate the need for seasonal change doesn't make much sense. I recall the metaphor of some road signage somewhere in British Columbia, heading towards Alaska, that said “choose your rut carefully, you’ll be in it for 2500 km.” There is value in reflection, considering our role in rut disturbances, rather than leaving it to fateful chances.
In addition to those already mentioned, there are score of books on subject of mid-life experiences (Passages, Transitions, etc.), as well as those focused on pre-retirement. Many of these earlier works have been revised with better research (i.e., there isn’t a necessary mid-life crisis but there is something call “middlescence” where we begin to question and reframe our lives).
This week I read a profound and thoughtful new book by Arthur Brooks (currently a Harvard prof). Last year I’d read his timely book on reconciliation and not contributing to polarization wars (Love Your Enemies). This brand new book is: From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life by Arthur C. Brooks.
I won’t summarize the book but I do wish to commend it to people who engage in discipleship. Start reading it for free.
In my day-work as a social scientist, focusing over the last few years on governance, organizational development, and leader wellbeing (thriving, flourishing, being resilient, adapting to change), I have rarely seen such a well-narrated, practical, straight shooting, and accessible book. There is a phrase sometimes used: “Put the cookies on a shelf that can be reached.” Brooks does this – though not all the cookies offered are easily digestible or in sync with our “worldly” constructs (comfortable ruts that are found in congregations as much as outside of congregations – antidotal speculation on my part). This book worked for me and continues to work in me as I ponder.
Professor Brooks (a professional French horn player until the age of 30) plays his score and weaves his story together with the lives of famous and ordinary, dead and still alive people to create a convincing argument for being proactive in our doing life and being all we are called to be. Our doing and being (and daring) don’t come naturally but rely on diligence, reflection, decisions, listening to the promptings of the Lord's Spirit, and adaptive disciplines. Brooks, as a Christian author, takes arm-fulls of social science and stories from history and experience to benefit of his readers. I'd recommend that congregations use this book as a part of small group curriculum or pastoral counselling for those who are experiencing dis-ease in their lives (with respect to their vocational discernments).
I’m not sure why I observe as much inertia or rut-ness amongst those in their 40+ age brackets; so little energy to take pauses from the hamster treadmill to think about speed, purpose, calling, destination, savouring; asking: What gives me joy? How can I make my maximum impact for God in the world? What do I have to offer the world and especially what do I have to give to those close to me? You can listen to a Trinity Forum interview with Dr. Brooks at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iiwIV-D_e4o
Dr. Keith Walker, Professor of Leadership and Educational Administration, University of Saskatchewan
Creating Beloved Community: Resources for Leading Mental Health-Informed Worship
Tuesday March 22, 1:00 pm ET
Our congregational life revolves around worship. It’s the time when we all gather and when our identity as God’s Beloved Community is nurtured and expressed. How does worship address mental health and the mental health challenges that have been revealed by the pandemic? How can addressing mental health in the context of worship connect us to Jesus’ healing ministry not only for those who have active presenting problems, but for everyone else too. Join us to consider how worship shapes us as God’s Beloved Community. Register Here
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THURSDAY, MARCH 31, 2022, 12 – 3:30PM
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What do I do? Can I really make a difference?
We invite you to join with others to explore the big questions about poverty and discuss tangible solutions. Register Here
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