When Governor Whitmer issued the “Stay-at-Home” order in mid-March, churches all over Michigan struggled to figure out what to do. It wasn’t a question of cancelling worship. The Church never does that; it joins the saints and all of creation, constantly worshipping. But what shape should our worship take, given the desire to protect human life by avoiding gathering in person?
More than a month has passed now, and many churches have found a way that works for them.
- Some congregations are doing “drive-in” church, congregants in cars, preachers speaking over radio waves.
- Some electronically circulate a written liturgy and other pre-recorded materials, and invite people to worship on their own, at their own time, in their own homes.
- Some bring a handful of socially-distanced worship leaders into the sanctuary and film a “regular” worship service live, typically a few songs and a sermon, streaming on Sunday morning in real time.
- Others pre-record the whole service earlier in the week, either in the sanctuary or not, and then make it available to their congregations on Sunday morning.
- And many congregations, like CoS, have chosen a different path: some pre-recorded elements, but the actual “gathering” of God’s people on Sunday morning is happening electronically, via Zoom (or some other platform).
All of these are imperfect attempts to mitigate the losses we all feel. We long to re-member the Body of Christ on Sundays in ways that are tangible, incarnate. But it seems we will be unable to do so for many months.
While we wait in hope for a return to something like a new normal, it might be helpful to reflect on the values that have led COS to its decisions about the shape of our corporate worship. Here are a few reflections on the principles that have guided our choices, centered around two adjectives: Participative and Indigenous (“indigenous” in this case means “not imported; coming from the people themselves”).
The church at worship is not primarily an information-dump—an intellectually rich sermon delivered from a wise pastor to under-informed congregants. Nor is it primarily about an amazingly emotion-evoking performance of beloved music by gifted artists. Rather, it’s the gathering of the people to renew the covenant of grace with our Triune God and to rehearse the story of salvation. It is a drama that involves God and God’s people. Indeed, the primary actor in worship is God; God is at work activating the worship of God’s people. Therefore, the foundation of worship is the “conscious and active” participation of the congregation. To reflect this, CoS has historically emphasized “liturgical worship.” (Liturgy, roughly translated, is the “work of the people”). A gathering of “two or three,” while not as richly resourced as a gathering of 600, is just as legitimate, just as edifying, just as God-honoring.
Thus, COS has chosen to highlight indigenous or homemade participation above some standard of performative “excellence.” Live-streamed services can be done in many ways, but those that include pre-recorded elements borrowed from Nashville musicians or high-production-value sermons from big-name preachers – this sort of thing leans in the direction of imagining worship as something that professionals produce and deliver to tithe-giving congregants, as if the worship of the church was a matter of religious goods and services sold to middle-class consumers via offerings.
This seems natural to American individual consumerist sensibilities: pick and choose in the marketplace, attend whichever service you “like” best. But CoS wants to swim in a different direction. Each Sunday is an opportunity to remember that God doesn’t much care what you, individually, “like.” Each Sunday is an opportunity to sacrifice our preferences for the sake of mutual edification. Each Sunday is an opportunity to grow in Christian deference, gladly singing someone else’s song for the sake of unity in Christ and love of His church. Each Sunday is an opportunity to mirror the early church, and also the persecuted church today in places like China: small households, gathering for fellowship, the apostle’s teaching, the breaking of bread, and prayer (Acts 2:42).
Our Zoom habit encourages the sometimes-inconvenient discipline of “meeting” at a set time, each member actively participating by singing and speaking and listening and pouring and eating and drinking and blessing and praying – and typing/texting. This allows the indigenous participation of lay leaders as liturgists and musicians and pray-ers. It allows us to virtually “pass the peace of Christ” to one another. It allows us to share our thanksgivings and intercessions, even led by congregants who are thousands of miles away. It allows us to offer “announcements” – i.e., testimonies of God’s goodness, even while separated. It allows us to see one another, even if electronically mediated. And perhaps just as important, it allows us to be seen – to avoid the anonymity that comes so easy in this social-media-dominated era.
We see you, Church of the Servant. And we bless you.
The Worship Committee welcomes your feedback, if you wish to engage in conversation about this. We’re all trying our best, in humility and faith.