In early 2020, our church – Kowloon International Baptist Church (Hong Kong) – began to experience the shocks of an epidemic that was quickly spreading throughout Asia. By late February, we had to close our doors to comply with local social distancing regulations. Like many other churches, we were unprepared for virtual worship services, so we cobbled together a self-guided worship order each week and attempted to ramp up communication through social media.
When we realized that COVID-19 was becoming a global issue that would not quickly recede, we invested in equipment and training so our church family could worship together using live stream technology. Over the ensuing months, we learned much about the importance of connecting with one another and how to instill a sense of community among our people, even in the midst of physical separation.
Firstly, we saw the necessity of adopting language that represented our goal in online worship: engagement. We made an effort to avoid terminology such as “watching the service” or “viewing the videos.” Instead, we invited people to “join together online” and “participate” in times of singing, reading Scripture, praying, and studying God’s Word. We emphasized that “we are the church,” and that the church is not merely a building or physical location.
Secondly, to help people have a more concrete understanding of how to fully participate in an online gathering, we assembled a “Worship at Home” guide. [Resource link included below.] Practical suggestions included establishing a particular space and time for worship in the home, removing potential distractions, putting mobile devices on silent, and preparing materials beforehand (a Bible, a note-taking device, online giving of tithes and offerings, and Lord’s Supper elements). We reiterated that singing helps us internalize the message and acknowledged that the sound of the voice was less important than the condition of the heart.
For families with young children, our worship guide offered suggestions for kids, such as using blocks or toys to build something they learned about in a Bible story or providing coloring pages and pictures with Scripture verses or blank paper for drawing. During times of singing, kids can play an instrument, dance, clap, or move around the room. As hands-on learners, children need the opportunity to express their understanding of God in age-specific ways. Online worship at home is, in fact, a unique opportunity to teach children what it means to join with a community of believers in praising God and studying the Bible. Little ones who would ordinarily be “too wiggly” to sit through an in-the-building service can especially benefit from this time of family-friendly worship in the home.
Our worship guide encouraged families with older children or youth to interact with one another through conversation and discussion. A live stream worship service can be paused to address questions, or parents can create a time of dialogue during a meal or outing later in the day. The shared time of online worship lends itself to finding common ground with family members of different ages.
For those in our church family who live alone or who live in households without other Christians, our worship guide listed such suggestions as gathering in pairs or small groups to participate in the service together (when appropriate and safe). Connections through online social platforms also give opportunity for individuals to join in a worship service with other believers in real-time, even while physically separated.
Thirdly, while trying to facilitate meaningful live stream worship services, we recognized a deep sense of disconnection among our people. One way we addressed this feeling of isolation was to include familiar faces in our online worship times. We invited people to send us photos of their at-home worship, and – with their permission – we incorporated these pictures into weekly online services. Our virtual community felt enriched when we could see one another engaging in these same live stream worship experiences: a middle-aged couple sitting on a sofa, a young family with kids spread around the den, a dancing child, a mother holding the family dog, a group of friends sitting outside on a park bench, young adults connected on a Zoom call while joining the online service.
We also made a deliberate effort to incorporate various members of our church community into the live stream worship services. The local social distancing regulations often allowed only a few people to be present in our building on a Sunday morning, so we pre-recorded individuals reading Scripture, praying, or sharing a testimony. Stories from church members who faced similar struggles or who experienced God’s help in a specific way brought inspiration and reassurance.
Children, in particular, were eager to participate. During a sermon series focused on hope, we asked kids to record themselves reciting a Bible verse about the hope we have in Christ. At Christmas, we invited kids to share their favorite part of the story of the birth of Jesus. As a church family, we loved seeing the faces of children taking part in worship, and we marveled at how much they had grown since we last saw them in person. These video clips, when added to our live stream worship times, gave new energy and encouragement to our church community.
Lastly, in addition to providing at-home worship services on Sundays, we established a twice-monthly online worship experience called “Refresh.” Every other Friday evening, volunteers from our worship leadership team produced a 10-15-minute time featuring prayer, Scripture reading, and worship music.
The flexibility of this schedule and format allowed us to focus on different themes in various ways. Sometimes we included pre-recorded interviews with members of our church as we addressed faith-related topics. On other occasions, we introduced new songs, looked deeper into the meaning of favorite worship songs, explored ways of enriching our family worship times, or experienced moments of laughter. In December, we held a special live Christmas carol sing-along online, which gave our people a chance to sing Christmas songs that were especially meaningful to our community. Throughout 2020, our ongoing Friday evening online gatherings gave us another opportunity to engage with one another and worship together during the week.
As our church family continues to walk through COVID-related struggles and social distancing requirements, we keep seeking more ways to connect, to engage in meaningful worship times together as the body of Christ, and to encourage each other as followers of Jesus.
 i.e. Physical distancing. We recognize that the terms “social distancing” and “physical distancing” are interchangeable, but that depending on the country, people group and language, one term may be used over another in the local context.
A PRAYER FOR THE FUTURE
Dear God, in times of uncertainty and chaos – both within and around us – teach us to build and strengthen connections with one another. Show us how to create times and places for interaction with others from our church communities. Help us see opportunities instead of roadblocks as we face extraordinary challenges related to COVID-19. May we find our hope in you, and may we encourage one another – and all the more as we see the Day approaching. Amen.
Download a sample “Worship at Home” Guide.
For Reflection and Discussion
- What are some ways we can increase a sense of community in corporate worship online, despite physical separation?
- How can our personal stories of God’s provision be utilized to bring hope to others in our community?
- What practical ideas would help us – and individuals and families in our church – fully engage in a live stream worship service?
- How can we encourage families to teach and model for their children what it means to participate in corporate worship?