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Can online worship be intimate?


Webinar panelists insist it can be, and here’s some of what they’ve learned

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Easy chairs have been added in the sanctuary to facilitate online worship at Grace Presbyterian Church in Wichita, Kansas. (Photo courtesy of Grace Presbyterian Church)

LOUISVILLE — Online worship that’s intimate, meaningful, inclusive — and, at the same time, can be touching and even humorous?

It can be done, according to a panel assembled for a Thursday webinar hosted by 1001 New Worshiping Communities Coordinator the Rev. Nikki Collins.

The panelists — the Rev. Emily Scott, leader of the Dreams and Visions church in Baltimore, a community “rooted in the faith and experiences of LGBTQ+ people” and a project of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; the Rev. Catherine Neelly Burton, senior pastor and head of staff at Grace Presbyterian Church in Wichita, Kansas; and the Revs. Daniel and Jeya So, lead pastors of the Anchor City Church new worshiping community in San Diego — spoke to an online crowd of nearly 80 pastors and other church leaders during what has become a weekly webinar put on by 1001 New Worshiping Communities.

Dreams and Visions

The Rev. Emily Scott

“This is a tricky moment to be starting new things,” Scott said about online worship and community-building efforts. “Principles work for many of us, but every context is different.”

Dreams and Visions uses the Zoom platform to put on everything from evening vesper services to Sunday worship. To get the online congregation singing, Scott uses simple call-and-response hymns. She’ll sing a line and someone else will echo the phrase, with congregants singing along with the response, though their microphones are muted.

“With online worship, we have a space to be human together,” she said. Even technical mistakes during online worship “are opportunities to offer one another grace and laugh together, which is a huge gift.”

“This is a really scary and uncertain time” is a message she has repeated often to congregants. “I am here to listen to you and we will be community together, whatever unfolds.”

“You don’t have to have it all figured out,” she said with a smile, “to be a leader.”

During online evening vespers, Scott invites people to check in and focuses on “creating ways for people to feel heard.” Once a person has checked in, she has the congregation call the person by name and say, “We hear you.”

She uses prompts online, asking worshipers to talk about the most important person in their lives as a child, or to describe what was once their most prized possession. That helps people to get know one another better and helps them feel heard, she said.

Scott invites congregants to create “a little chapel space in their home” to help center their worship. “You as a leader can also create a sacred space behind you,” she said, because “creating a zone of spiritual connection is helpful.”

Scott has developed a reputation for developing original, creative worship — but that’s not what’s needed now, she said.

“Repetition is really good right now,” she said. In Dreams and Visions’ online vespers, “we have been reading the same four psalms and saying the same prayers every evening. We can set up patterns and rituals during online worship that feel predictable and safe.”

Among the most popular portions of online worship has been, surprisingly, the announcements.

“It’s the most lively and wonderful part,” she said, especially when worshipers share their celebrations. “It helps to share the little moments.”

Grace Presbyterian Church

Rev. Catherine Neelly Burton

Neelly Burton has set up easy chairs in the sanctuary to make online worship feel more accessible. “People are sitting at home,” she figures. “Let’s sit with them.”

For online clergy garb, she splits the difference — a black blouse with a clergy collar and jeans. “They are sitting at home in their PJs,” she said. Dressed the way she does for online worship, “it feels more like I am with them.”

Grace Presbyterian Church uses the Facebook Live platform. For congregants who aren’t particularly tech savvy, “we tell them just to click the ‘F’ on our website and it’ll take you right to worship,” she said. “We do it live because to me it feels like we are all together.”

Passing the peace involves sending a few text messages to fellow worshipers. At a certain point during worship, congregants light a candle they were given on Ash Wednesday. Most bring their Bible to worship to follow along as the day’s Scripture is being read.

The weekly affirmation is taken from “Belonging to God: A First Catechism.” “Eventually,” she said, “we’ll all know it.”

Anchor City Church

The Revs. Jeya and Daniel So

Jeya So said the worshiping community she and her husband serve uses Zoom’s breakout rooms so that worshipers can find a community of interest, such as the youth group. “We are small,” she said, and during online worship, “we get even smaller.”

The children “love to see each other’s homes,” she said, and enjoy talking about — even demonstrating — the toy they’ve brought to worship.

“We are a small family church with lots of kids,” Daniel So said. “They will do summersaults in the background. We let parents know they don’t need to wrangle their kids.”

“A friend of ours said this is the moment to decide in what ways we will enact permanent change, and what things are just for this moment,” Jeya So said. “How will we carry the technology forward after we can all see each other and embrace each other? That has been a driving force for us.”

Collins, the New Worshiping Communities coordinator, agreed.

“We are in this moment of what works for today, and what value will it have for the long term?” she said.

To download  a worship service outline for an online faith community gathering along with a guide for creating intimacy and connection in online worship from Emily Scott, click here.

Find an audio recording of this Zoom conversation here.

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