Familiar Bible stories can take on new meaning during this extraordinary time
by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE — The coronavirus has inflicted any number of health crises on Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations — but in some tangible ways it’s also enhanced their ecclesial health.
Bryce Wiebe, director of Special Offerings, was the guest Wednesday on a Vital Congregations webinar series on the Seven Marks of Vital Congregations. With the help of the Zoom call’s more than 50 participants, Wiebe explored the final mark, ecclesial health, which Vital Congregations defines as “whether our mission, vision and values match up with the ways we live together.”
It requires evaluating “whether our buildings provide access and services to people. Does the way we worship reflect who we are and is it in alignment with who we are and who we profess God to be?” Wiebe said. One place to begin that evaluation is to use a document Wiebe wrote earlier this month, “Ten Stewardship ‘Do’s’ During the Pandemic and one ‘Do Not.’”
One of Wiebe’s suggestions is to listen to stories of faith found in Scripture anew in the light of COVID-19 crisis, especially the accounts of wilderness and resurrection. “I have been reflecting on Scripture, and it’s changed a lot for me,” Wiebe said. “It’s an important time to dig into Scripture and listen for the way the story changes and changes us while we are in isolation.”
Wiebe and staff at Vital Congregations then got participants talking by asking some discussion questions. During this difficult time, what are the things that look healthy? Answers included more and more churches sharing worship-hosting duties with one another, the value of weekly clergy gatherings, increased interest in online prayer support and Bible study, the creativity shown by how Presbyterians minister to one another and online giving being employed to bolster congregational finances.
Asked to identify the current challenges to ecclesial health, participants mentioned the people who can’t or won’t participate in online worship, finances, the grief around putting off or limiting funerals, and music during worship, among others.
Asked what new rituals are emerging, one participant said, “A new habit is to focus on the needs of our communities where so many are out of work and can’t feed their families, rather than (focusing) simply on ourselves.”
Another mentioned this online worship innovation: the Zoom worship services opens 30 minutes early “for people to greet each other and converse — a chaotic scene but well worth doing before the 9:45 service.” Those who have worshiped online remain after the service for more conversation and greetings. Often they’re given a guided question to discuss, such as “What signs of resurrection have you been seeing?”
Virtual worship has another advantage, as Vital Congregations’ the Rev. Carlton Johnson pointed out: “Most of the time during worship we are looking at the back of someone’s head,” he said. “In a setting like this, we can look at the faces of 50 people.”
Wiebe said when he’s been asked to preach online, “I’ve tried to embrace the intimacy of it by trying to be as close and communicative as possible.” It may be counter-intuitive, but online worship “does allow us to be close,” he said.
Here’s how one participant reacted to that observation: “What a wonderful irony: There’s greater intimacy in worship as we are physically distanced.”
Wiebe, who came to his job in 2015 with a background in Christian education and justice advocacy, said he’s recently seen more parents getting involved in faith formation with their children. One participant said he’s noticed the same thing: At his church, he’s seen more people who can help lead worship because it’s recorded during the week. “There is a lot more empowerment of families experiencing faith formation together in their homes than there was before,” he said. “Recorded worship is allowing for people to worship when they are available, rather than either go on Sunday or not at all.”
“Many people are watching 3-5 services each week,” another pastor said. “I’m encouraged by the number of people listening and spending hours in more worship services, some Presbyterian, some not, but it’s encouraging that more people are worshiping more.”
“Online church seems to be challenging the leaders and members of our denomination who may have claimed that ‘church’ isn’t ‘church’ unless it is gathering in person,” a pastor said. “Being able to reach more people seems to be encouraging a form of outreach which may have been scoffed at by many in our denomination just a couple of weeks ago.”
“I am grateful for the church,” Wiebe said at the end of the hour-long webinar. “My heart breaks with so many and my heart rejoices for so many. For many it feels like the world has sped up even as it’s slowed down.”
Vital Congregations webinars on the Seven Marks of Vital Congregations occur at 3 p.m. Eastern time each Wednesday through May 6. Click here at that time on April 29 or May 6 to participate.
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Categories: Congregational Vitality, Special Offerings
Tags: bryce wiebe, coronavirus, covid-19, office of vital congregations, rev. carlton johnson, seven marks of vital congregations, Special Offerings, Vital Congregations, webinar, zoom
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Ministries: Theology, Formation & Evangelism, Vital Congregations, Special Offerings