Presbytery executive Aisha Brooks-Lytle talks up the creativity and connectivity she’s witnessed by viewing multiple online services each week of the pandemic
by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE — The Rev. Aisha Brooks-Lytle enjoys nothing more than cheering on the Herculean online worship efforts being made each week during the pandemic by churches of the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta, where she’s the executive presbyter.
“The creativity is unreal,” Brooks-Lytle said Thursday during an online town hall put on by the Presbyterian Association of Musicians. David VanderMeer, minister of music and fine arts at First Presbyterian Church of Ann Arbor, Michigan and a former PAM president, hosted the hour-long event.
As she watches worship services among the more than 100 churches and new worshiping communities within the presbytery, “I’m always an ‘amener’” in the chat room, she said. “I want them to know I am interacting with the preacher.”
“I love the chat feature. I love it that [worshipers] are engaged in what’s happening, and I’ll miss that” after returning to in-person worship.
“It’s interactive,” she said. “In the Black church, we have call-and-response.” The chat feature “feels like a call-and-response opportunity for everybody.”
She’s heard reports of pastors conducting porch visits, talking to parishioners in need of pastoral care or the pleasure of a visit, even through a window. She’s seen drive-through and drive-in worship and worship originating from the pastor’s study. She’s even preached at some, sometimes proclaiming God’s word to a nearly empty sanctuary.
“It’s hard. It’s scary,” she said with a laugh. “I’m anxious. I think this is the worst sermon on the planet. Then I play it back and I think the Holy Spirit showed up in the moment. We have to trust God in this, to be comfortable in being uncomfortable.”
The Holy Spirit “can come across a [two-dimensional] space in ways we will never understand,” she said. She heard about one preacher delivering a masterful sermon, only to have a buzzing insect interrupt her final point. The preacher re-recorded her sermon. “It became part of her blooper reel,” she said. “I just say, ‘I know I’m going to mess up Jesus, help me — and he does every time.”
Newly installed and transitional pastors have also hopped on board the innovation train. A new pastor had a drive-by meet-and-greet at home to see the congregation face-to-face, but from a distance. “It was really sweet,” Brooks-Lytle said. Even during online worship and other virtual church-related activities, “we are connecting and we are engaging. It’s just as important as a face-to-face meeting.
Use the appropriate technology, depending on the person on the other end, she suggested. “Just use the phone!” she said. “We Zoom so much we forget we can just call somebody.”
How, VanderMeer asked, does Brooks-Lytle see singing resuming once in-person worship returns in more churches?
Brooks-Lytle said she’s witnessed good use of plastic glass and masks to allow for a small number of singers. “It depends on the context, and how many people” are involved, she said. “It has to be a small, incremental way of integrating vocalists … Use the wisdom and the resources we have — and get people vaccinated!”
Moving forward, online and in-person worship at most churches will be both/and rather than either/or, Brooks-Lytle said. “I’ve seen [online] ordination services with red streamers people can hold while keeping a distance,” she said. “Why stop that when you can do ordination services in person? There are tactile, multi-sensory things we can do.”
“This is such a time to be creative, and I get excited about that,” she added. “Ask this question when you are planning worship: Is there something tactile, hybrid and engaging we can do?”
VanderMeer had this example: His church asked online worshipers to send in photos of their at-home communion station. The photos, many of them quite thoughtful and creative, were shared with the online congregation at the appropriate time during worship.
“Oh, I love it. Oh, that’s beautiful,” Brooks-Lytle said while viewing the photos. “There are stories for every plate, every picture.”
She had her own tactile worship story: On Maundy Thursday last year, she was at home re-twisting her son’s dreadlocks. “It’s a very endearing time in a Black household, doing hair,” she explained. As she worked, the Presbyterians worshiping onscreen began to wash one another’s feet. “Do you want to do that?” her son asked her. She of course did, and she located a basin. “I washed his feet, and he washed mine,” Brooks-Lytle said, “and then we went back to doing his hair. That’s always going to sit with me as a sweet memory from the pandemic, an intimate spiritual moment.”
She said she’s also encouraged churches to “name their grief” during the pandemic, recalling “all the tears that have happened in the night, and reminding them that joy comes in the morning.”
Churches “need to offer testimonials” to one another and to the greater community, including “I didn’t think we would make it” or “this got under my skin, but I felt the sunshine on my face and I’m still standing.”
“That’s who we are,” she said. “We are witnesses. We are an example in grief and resilience work, but we’ve got to be honest about what has been hard. Come and be with us or let us be where you are.”
“We don’t have to pretend this is easy, but we’re getting through with God’s help,” she said. “Being vulnerable is important. If you want to know about weeping and joy, we’ve got a good soundtrack.”
When the hour was over, Brooks-Lytle offered “deep blessings to everyone on the call. You are doing the best you can,” she said. “We are doing all right, and God is honored by your faithfulness.”
Watch the conversation, titled “Worship in Times of COVID from the Perspective of a Presbytery,” by clicking here.
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Tags: call-and-response, covid-19, david vandermeer, first presbyterian church ann arbor michigan, hybrid worship, in-person worship, online worship, presbyterian association of musicians, presbytery of greater atlanta, rev. aisha brooks-lytle, vaccine, worship in times of covid from the perspective of a presbytery