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Online worship ‘in your jim-jams with a nice cup of coffee’ is probably here to stay

Webinar gets clergy, Christian educators to share their pandemic practices to help determine which will remain post-COVID

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Ben White via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — Pastors and Christian educators from around the country as well as Canada and the United Kingdom joined for a webinar Monday to find out from one another how they’re creating community among the generations during the pandemic and, just as importantly, once it’s over.

GenOn Ministries, whose mission is to “nurture, grow and deepen intergenerational Christ-centered community,” hosted the hour-long webinar, which attracted nearly 30 participants separated by more than 4,900 miles but united by the task of providing meaningful worship, fellowship and other ministry to parishioners stuck in their homes on Sunday.

During the pandemic, churches have proven to be resilient and creative, said Liz Perraud, GenOn Ministries’ executive director. But “we find a big concern is, are we maintaining relationships in congregations well enough? Congregations must be intentional about [forming] this kind of community, COVID or no COVID, for this to happen well.”

During the webinar, participants were given three prompts and then divided into small groups to share what their local congregations have been doing to keep people separated by generations and from being with one another in person still somehow engaged.

The first prompt: Churches found new ways to create community among generations in 2020. What are ways your church is creating community among generations?

At one church, children create videos to help lead hymn singing during worship. At another, the pastor stands outside the sanctuary, broadcasting the sermon to worshipers listening to their car radios from the church parking lot. Once a month, the church reaches out via Zoom to children at home via a puppet show or some such.

A Florida church uses online gatherings to reach out to special needs children. The church has learned that virtual gatherings break down the barriers the children used to experience during in-person gatherings. Each week during the worship hour, people pray in breakout rooms. They’re more engaged in prayer that way, the church found, perhaps because there are fewer distractions.

Another church pairs each child with an older member where the mentoring goes both ways: the older members learn more about technology, and the younger ones about what older members have discovered through decades of living the Christian faith.

Prompt number two: Churches are primed to grow communities among generations post-pandemic. What experiences in 2020 would you like to replicate after the pandemic? What are some new post-pandemic ideas?

A church in Portland, Oregon, wants to continue a pen pal project that saw letters exchanged between its oldest and youngest worshipers. A church in the United Kingdom has found during post-worship fellowship coffee over Zoom that groups of worshipers were visiting who might not have found one another in person.

One church in Nebraska is using this innovation to lead music during worship: while a guitarist strums the chords to easy-to-sing hymns, church youth sign the lyrics to worshipers singing from home.

Several webinar participants said they were determined to continue with online worship even after it’s safe to come together in person — “just in case folks can’t make it to church,” said one. “We’ll continue to take ‘church’ beyond the four walls.”

At one church, the pastors have instituted daily online prayer over the noon hour. “People have loved this time of connection,” one participant said.

Another said her church plans to continue offering both online and over-the-phone worship even after the pandemic.

Here’s the third prompt: Moving to fully integrated in-person gatherings requires a well-defined leadership team. Who comes to mind thinking about this team? What are some decisions they might make?

One church has formed a task force full of “people I know care about wanting to be intergenerational,” one participant said. “There is a deep desire to be intergenerational, but it’s hard. Our worship is quite traditional, and people are pretty protective of the worship time, so we are trying to be intergenerational at different times” of the week.

Zoom fatigue also plays a role — children and youth included.

“People who are doing virtual school don’t want to be on Zoom one more time during the week,” said one participant.

But what is true for the workshop participant from the UK may also be true for many Christians in the United States.

“Church in your jim-jams with a nice cup of coffee is a lot nicer than church on a hard pew,” she said, offering this website as a tool the Church of England has employed for the past decade to help those creating and hosting online worship.

As Monday’s workshop was winding down, GenOn Ministries’ program director, Suzie Lane, urged participants to have a similar conversation with other leaders in their local church. At least one participant was way ahead of schedule.

“We did this as part of a [church] staff retreat,” she said. “The most helpful thing for us was it gave us a common language. We can all be on the same page moving forward, thinking through problems with common language to share.”

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