Living into a New Normal: Being the church in a time of social distancing

By Pastor Rhodes Woolly

The other day a friend said: “This last week has been the longest year of my life.”

It feels like that, doesn’t it? It wasn’t long ago that we were following Super Tuesday results, arguing with Joe Lunardi’s college basketball predictions, and gearing up for spring high school sports.

… which feels like a lifetime ago.

Since that time, we’ve all learned a new vocabulary (social distancing and “shelter in place,” for starters), watched way too much Netflix, grown to appreciate teachers more than ever before, and claimed work as a gift.

We’ve also started to think in new ways about how to love and care for each other. We’ve learned to value FaceTime, hand-written cards, and long walks. Our group of neighbors are enjoying social time at the end of each day — outside, properly distanced from each other!

And we’re gaining a new-found appreciation for worship. More specifically, virtual worship.

Worshipping online. We began worshipping online Christmas 2018. What started as a single camera in the sanctuary’s balcony soon turned into three cameras that are controlled by a single operator from the sound booth. By the end of last year, our online audience had increased from 30 to over 150 each week — which means that 150 devices were tuning into the 11:00 service through our website, Facebook, or YouTube.

How fortunate we have been to test drive online worship this past year. We certainly weren’t thinking about a global pandemic when we began, but over a year’s worth of experience made it relatively easy to transition to a fully online experience on March 15.

Is virtual the same as live? Of course not. But what we’re hearing is that people are craving worship, even if it’s from a TV set, phone, or computer screen. On March 15 alone, 1250 devices logged into our worship service. The next Wednesday evening, 250 devices logged into our Lenten worship service.

One thing seems so very clear: In times like these, people long for worship.

Creating Sacred Space. Last Sunday evening, I sat with my family in front of the TV as we watched our worship service on YouTube. It was different, no doubt. Half-way through, I looked around the room to see Matt laid out on the couch, Carter on the carpet, Anna curled up under a blanket, Krista returning from the kitchen with a glass of water and I, well, before I knew it I was checking text messages on my phone.

Which begs the question: How do we create sacred space for virtual worship?

The answer depends on your context and your family dynamics, of course, but a few general thoughts come to mind:

  1. Define your space. If you have more than one TV, consider choosing a site that is not often used for casual TV use. Maybe that’s a living room, or even around a dining room table. Wherever you choose, declutter and remove distractions in order to create a sense of sacred space.
  2. Establish a ritual. I love the idea of families lighting candles as we begin online worship. Or make the sign of the cross on your body. Tangible signs help the body and soul enter into the fullness of worship.
  3. Dress for worship. I’ll probably get laughed at for this one, but consider the value of “getting dressed” for worship.

I remember visiting an elderly lady when I was on my internship in Virginia. She lived alone in an old farmhouse, unable to worship with us on Sunday mornings. We sat in her kitchen and chatted. She was wearing a simple smock dress; I was in my usual attire. When I asked if she wanted to share in holy communion, she asked to be excused and went back to what I assumed was her bedroom. She was gone for 10-15 minutes. I started to get nervous. Then this lovely woman emerged, having changed into a new pair of clothes, with make up and combed hair.

“My mom always taught me to dress for worship,” she said. I’ll never forget it.

“Dressing for worship” might not be meaningful or necessary for you, but at the very least I would encourage you to be intentional about how you approach virtual worship. Otherwise we stand the risk of “watching” worship rather than fully participating in it.

These are uncertain days. Our hope and prayer is that we can be fully present as the Body of Christ, caring for each other, loving each other, and, yes, worshipping together.

Even if you have to start by searching “SJLC” on your favorite mobile device.


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