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‘Showing up’ during a pandemic

Online worship during pandemic

How can United Methodist honor their vow of presence during a pandemic? Pastor Brian Steele rethinks what presence involves in light of online worship and safety protocols.

Extraordinary Connection

Two weeks ago I started a series at Grace United Methodist Church about what a church member is. I am explaining the vows we all take when we become a member of any United Methodist Church. I talked about prayer and–even though I have a complicated relationship with prayer–it is truly an important practice for us to do as a faith community.

Prayer is usually a more isolated practice that we do on our own or maybe in a small group. In this reflection, I’d like to go to the other end of the spectrum and talk about presence. This is an incredibly interesting topic to think about during a pandemic. If I was talking about presence to somebody who wanted to join our church two years ago, I would have talked about how much it really matters for us to be physically present together. I would have emphasized that coming to worship and being an active physical participant in our community is important. Now, in 2021 with the pandemic and new variant, the definition of presence has expanded, at least for the time being.

So, maybe you’re vaccinated and are comfortable going to in-person services. That’s great! But for the last 18 months what we have learned is that presence is more than just attendance. God has started to reveal to us that presence goes beyond just showing up to a building.

Presence is a willingness to stay connected and in relationship with whatever means we have, and that includes digital communications. Now, if we can get this pandemic behind us, I do think God’s preference is for us to be physically present together. But even after the pandemic, there may be times when that doesn’t happen for a variety of circumstances.

Even when we aren’t physically present, we can still practice the vow of presence. We can still stay connected to our church. Most of our churches have ways for you to talk with others or check-in online. Presence involves a conscious decision to stay faithful to a community of faith that has poured into your life. This involves continuing to worship with a group of people in new ways, even as the bigger church down the street might have a lot more glitz and glamor.

Presence in these past 18 months has mattered, even though the ways the church has been able to meet was not what many preferred. But presence isn’t about having our preferences met. It’s about trusting that God is still at work–even if we may disagree about some of the protocols that are in place.

Participation in worship–digitally or in-person–matters. One of my favorite classes during my seminary years was the Ethics of Community taught by Dr. Christine Pohl. If you’re looking for a great book to read, check out her “Living into Community.” It’s essentially about what practices help sustain communities of faith during hard times. One of the core values is faithfulness. Staying committed to each other during hard times. Keeping the promises we have made. Now, I’m not saying there aren’t legitimate reasons to sometimes leave a church, there are. But I think we need to remember that during a time like this, we are called to offer each other grace and are called to each other and not away from each other. We do that through our presence. Presence involves recognizing that God is still at work even when we are inconvenienced or when technology doesn’t work up to our standards.

So, however you can practice it right now, practice presence. Presence has taken on an expanded meaning in this time, and God is still speaking. So, friends, show up! Be present with your community of faith, and Jesus will still come near.

~ The Rev. Brian Steele is the pastor of Grace United Methodist Church, Chesterfield Township. He is a regular contributor to Extraordinary Connection, an online resource for those seeking “daily encouragement and immersion in God’s word during these most unusual times.” Reprinted with permission.