Rethinking What It Means “To Gather” the Congregation

Rethinking What It Means “To Gather” the Congregation

At the South Yarra Community Baptist Church (SYCBaps) in Melbourne, Australia, moving worship and congregational life online during our city’s four-month hard lockdown proved so successful that there is now a serious conversation about the possibility of continuing it and not returning to physically gathered worship. This is particularly surprising for us because our worship over the last two decades has been richly sensory and sacramental with a strong commitment to embodiment. We did not anticipate it adapting well to an online format. 

What people say they value most about our worship is its radically participatory congregational style. Every regular participant has parts of the Sunday service that they lead, usually from where they are sitting. For most of a pre-COVID worship service, there was no one up front. Everything happened from within the circle, and everyone had a part to play. This meant that when we went online, the common practice of pre-recording or live-streaming footage of a few key leaders conducting a service from the church would have been a big turn-off for our people. It simply would not be “our” worship. We needed to find a way to “gather” the congregation online for a real-time, live, participatory event in which everyone could contribute to making the worship happen. We knew we would have to give up some things, but the congregational participation level was non-negotiable. 

Gathering on the Zoom platform and screen-sharing slides with texts, music, and visual imagery enabled this for us. Using Zoom’s side-by-side mode allowed people to see both the slides and most of the congregation at the same time. The texts of the prayers and songs that people usually had in a booklet now appeared on the slides. Each person knew which numbered slides were theirs to lead and could unmute themselves to do so. To our amazement, this replicated our previous experience remarkably well.

Some things had to be adapted more than others, and some adaptations had surprising consequences. For example, it had been our practice to follow a general confession of sin with an individual absolution in which each person turned to the next, marking the sign of the cross on the neighbor’s forehead and telling them by name, “Your sins are forgiven. Be at peace.” Thus, the absolution was passed right around the room to each person in turn. How could we replicate anything like this online? Our solution was to use Zoom’s spotlight feature to highlight each attendee in turn, so that the rest of the congregation could, in unison, tell that person that their sins were forgiven. It lacks the dimension of touch, but people can mark themselves with the baptismal sign of the cross as they are told of their forgiveness, and those gathered in small household groups can still mark one another. 

What we slowly realized was how important this component of our worship was for achieving a sense of being truly gathered in one another’s presence. One of the problems with online worship for many churches is that since most worshippers are only the receivers of streamed footage that they can watch at different times, it is difficult for them to avoid engaging simply as consumers or spectators. There is a legitimate question about whether going online hasn’t so much caused this as simply exacerbated and exposed something that was already happening in our church buildings. But certainly online, as a viewer, you know that the leaders are not aware of your individual presence, and your absence would make no difference to what happens. But for SYCBaps, in our online gatherings, even if you are a first-time visitor and do not have any parts to lead, when your image is spotlighted and you are addressed by name by the whole congregation, assuring you that you personally are forgiven by God, you are also receiving an unmistakable assurance that your presence is noticed and honored as important.

In the first few weeks when I was frantically busy trying to prepare all our worship materials for this new format, I freed myself from sermon preparation by inviting a few visiting preachers online. We quickly realized that this opened up the opportunity to have visiting preachers from all over the world without having to wait for them to visit our shores in the flesh. Not only has this enabled us to build stronger connections with other churches around the world, but we have been able to hear firsthand reports of how the pandemic was impacting other countries and how the churches in those places were adapting.

Zoom also gave us the means to gather people during the week for prayer and mutual support, something that was obviously going to be more important than ever during months of enforced physical isolation. With our congregation scattered across a large metropolitan area, we had not previously been able to gather people regularly for daily prayer. Lockdown intensified the need and Zoom provided the means. Within a few weeks, in addition to our main Sunday service, we had another 18 short prayer gatherings a week – morning, late afternoon, and nighttime, six days a week. 

At the time of writing, we have been out of lockdown and mostly COVID-19 free here in Australia for three months, but attendance at these daily prayer gatherings has not waned. About half the congregation attends at least once a day, and about three quarters at least once a week. Not only is that a lot more gathered prayer than was going on before, but after each of these gatherings, most people stay and chat with one another. Much of the congregation is spending far more time in one another’s company than ever before, sharing both small-talk and deep concerns. Paradoxically, the physical isolation of lockdown actually brought us closer together! A number of people have said that these daily gatherings saved their sanity during the months of lockdown.

As the months went by, more unexpected benefits began to emerge from this new manner of gathering, and this is where our story begins to move from one about the church’s worship, fellowship, and spiritual formation to one about new possibilities in mission. 

The first thing we noticed was that the numbers at worship were up. The long-term regulars became more regular. Some of this was just that during lockdown, people felt their need for connection more, and there were few competing activities and not much else to do. But it wasn’t only that. There were people whose increasing age and declining mobility had been making it more and more difficult to get themselves to church each week and who found the online worship far more accessible. Suddenly they were there every week again. Others who had moved away permanently or temporarily began rejoining us again because distance was no obstacle. In one amusing case, a young woman who had moved overseas for twelve months and was a bit anxious about missing her church for so long actually only missed one Sunday before we had to move online and she was able to rejoin us from the other side of the world!

Over time we have identified five distinct groups of people who have been significantly advantaged by our move online (in ways that are not specific to lockdown), all of whom have not previously found church working well for them:

  1. People whose mobility is diminished by age or disability. This includes many who are confined to long term care facilities.
  2. People with disabilities that limit their ability to connect in the physical environment. For example, one long-term member has impaired vision and hearing. In the church building, when everyone is leading prayers from different parts of the room without microphones, he cannot hear very much. Online, he can turn up the sound as much as he likes and can magnify parts of the screen when he needs to.
  3. People who live in remote localities that may not have access to a church.
  4. People whose lifestyle means that they are often in different places from week to week.
  5. People who are living interstate or overseas who want to worship with us. 

There are, of course, people for whom the online worship is more difficult, and who hunger for a return to physically gathered worship. Most notable among those are people who spend too much time on Zoom for work, and those with young children who particularly miss the physical activity and physical interaction that cannot be replicated online. 

But we are now facing a dilemma. Attendance from the five categories above has grown through the year so that now if we terminate the online gatherings, we will be casting adrift nearly half the congregation. And although our unique style of worship adapted surprising well to the online environment, it would be very difficult to make it work with a hybrid of the online and physically gathered. For both technical reasons (such as needing to make every person in the church building audible to those online) and liturgical reasons, there is a very real danger that trying to create a hybrid will significantly diminish both versions of the experience and simply create the worst of both worlds. 

So the pressing question is: Is there a new call of God emerging in our recognition of these five people groups who are benefitting from our online worship and congregational life? Knowing that it is not possible for any congregation to be all things to all people, is God calling us to accept the cost and refocus our ministry and mission toward these identifiable groups of people who have not found church sufficiently accessible in the past? We’re not yet sure, and the conversation has a long way to go. 

For Reflection and Discussion

  1. Taking worship online inevitably involves change, and some things have to be sacrificed. Given the longstanding Baptist commitment to the congregational nature of church life, how could we reshape our online worship service so that it encourages the active participation of the congregation?
  2. In some churches, people said their ongoing engagement in congregational life and worship was the thing that got them through the crisis of lockdown. Other churches are beginning to fear that many people will not return because when they most needed their church, it was not there for them. What could be some of the contributing factors for these two divergent phenomena, and what could your church learn from it?
  3. Has your church noticed there are some groups of people whose engagement with the life, prayer, and ministry of the church has increased or been enhanced by the new patterns that have emerged during the pandemic? Are they similar to the groups named in this article? Or could you name other such groups?
  4. SYCBaps Church featured in this article is actively trying to discern God’s calling to them regarding which people group they should focus their future ministry on. Has your church engaged in an active discernment process before? Or during the pandemic? 
Creating Meaningful Engagement and Connection in Online Worship

Creating Meaningful Engagement and Connection in Online Worship

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[1] 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.


[1] 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.

RESOURCE

Download a sample “Worship at Home” Guide.

For Reflection and Discussion

  1. What are some ways we can increase a sense of community in corporate worship online, despite physical separation?
  2. How can our personal stories of God’s provision be utilized to bring hope to others in our community?
  3. What practical ideas would help us – and individuals and families in our church – fully engage in a live stream worship service?
  4. How can we encourage families to teach and model for their children what it means to participate in corporate worship?