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Sunday Morning Live at Wagner’s

Sunday morning in Jackson

Reflecting on recent Sunday mornings, the Rev. Glenn Wagner says, “D.P. (During Pandemic) worship at our house has been like travel in a foreign country. Everything is new on Sunday.”

GLENN WAGNER
Michigan Conference Communications

This shared pandemic has caused a seismic shift in my life-time pattern of Sunday morning church attendance. How has it impacted you? 

Here are some reflections to assist your viewing of online services and some personal observations that may be of help to many who are working to prepare those virtual worship experiences for the benefit of God’s quarantined people.

B.P. (Before Pandemic), during four decades of active ministry, getting ready for worship in church involved hours of preparation and coordination with a large team of people. My B.P. Sunday morning routine included early rising, devotion, exercise, sermon rehearsal, showering, breakfast, and dressing for church. 

Providing leadership for B.P. church services occupied much of the rest of my typical Sunday mornings as a pastor. These services followed an established “order of worship” that was printed in the paper bulletin and involved a large team of people who also made commitments to be present because they had valued jobs to do. I learned during my B.P. years of ministry the importance of the supporting cast of participants to the vitality of Sunday morning worship. Worship is at its best when many gifted persons are sharing their gifts for the glory of God and the blessing of Christ’s people.

In B.P. church services amenities were readily available. Hymnals and Bibles were in every pew. Large print bulletins were also available. The sound system accommodated persons who were hard of hearing. Special seating was provided for persons in wheelchairs. A variety of musical instrumentation and video projection equipment enhanced the worship experience, which was focused almost entirely on assisting the congregation present in the pews. A system was in place for acknowledging and following up with visitors. 

In more recent B.P. years, Sunday worship was recorded for posting of the sermon for later viewing on the church website with little alteration of the video for a wider potential online audience. B.P. videos of church were done for the sake of church members unable to make it to church and an occasional visitor who wanted to “check out the preacher” from a safe distance before venturing to show up for worship in person.


“B.P. (Before Pandemic) videos of church were done for the sake of church members unable to make it to church and an occasional visitor who wanted to ‘check out the preacher’ from a safe distance.”

 

 

In B.P. worship, services were offered at established times in a defined space for a largely established community where physical, social, emotional, relational, and economic connections were reinforced via regular contacts.

Here are some reflections about what I am learning about my own stay-at-home worship life during this pandemic (D.P.).

D.P. worship at our house has been like travel in a foreign country. Everything is new. All our old patterns have been upended. I have not dressed up for church in this D.P. era. I come for worship in comfy clothes. I appreciate the short “commute.” I don’t feel a compulsion to get to church “on time.” I don’t worry about getting a “good seat.” I am able to cast worship from the iPad to our larger screen television and can watch recordings of the service in a padded, recliner-rocker at a time that fits our schedules. I can bring a beverage and even breakfast.  

Our dog is welcome to lie on a lap. We are easily able to view services from multiple congregations like online shoppers in a world full of options. In D.P. worship, there is minimal interaction. If we tune in to a live stream service on Facebook, there are ways to add comments and to track rising and falling viewership during the service. I prefer the anonymity of participating in worship after it has already been recorded. We can pause the recorded service, fast forward, or turn it off and leave without embarrassment if we get interrupted by a phone call from family.

D.P. worship has been full of creative surprises. From home, it is easy to recognize that effective D.P. worship leadership requires new skills and new technology. Here is a listing of things I have experienced that have enhanced worship. My favorite D.P. worship has been offered in non-church settings. I have appreciated worship leaders who have taken care to set up their cameras so that I am blessed visually by the backgrounds as well as the worship leader close to the camera. I love those who have made use of beautiful outdoor settings, but I have also been reminded that windy conditions can create distracting issues with sound transmission. A wind-screen made of spongy material to wrap around the microphone can help reduce unwanted wind noises when transmitting worship from outdoors. 

The preacher takes Sunday outdoors.
The Rev. David Nellist, Senior Pastor at Dearborn First UMC, preached from the shores of Lake Erie on Camp Sunday. His wife, Glenys, recorded the sermon on her cell phone. ~ Facebook/video image/Dearborn First UMC

I also appreciate worship that is segmented and involves different persons in leadership. Highlights of streaming worship services have included items like a pre-worship scrolling PowerPoint program set to spiritual music showing a slide of welcome. This is followed by attractively prepared slides offering announcements for upcoming church ministries with information about how to be involved. Then comes a welcome from the pastor outside of the church building, inviting us to join with him or her for worship. I appreciated a church that had the prayer time recorded earlier in the week and led by masked church volunteers who were offering prayers for the community while standing responsibly apart and waiting to begin a shift of distributing food boxes to the hungry outside of the church building. I liked a Sunday school teacher who used her back yard setting as part of her children’s message. I was able to worship during a piano solo offered by the church musician from his home. I was inspired by a sermon delivered by the pastor during sunrise at a county park, and an invitation to participate in giving by another church leader who shared photos of church volunteers helping others in the community. I was blessed by worship that included a video clip of the choral anthem from a before pandemic worship service that also fit the morning’s theme. I loved the service that concluded with another segment of the pastor offering the benediction followed by a slide of blessing set to another inspirational instrumental piece.

I have been blessed by services where video footage of inspirational scenes accompanied the music. These scenes have included close-ups of stained glass windows at the church, flowers, candles burning, or beautiful outside views in a local park. It was apparent that a team of dedicated persons had given thought and planning to edit and put together a worship experience in advance that fits the new delivery system, while still respecting safe social distancing protocols. It helps that some churches have figured out how to add captions to their video to provide information like names and roles of worship leaders, words for hymns, scripture, prayers, and providing instructions for giving. 

I loved the pastor who encouraged viewers to text a message of support during the service to someone who needs encouragement, and another pastor who shared prayer time with a narrative description of personal and community needs and followed each petition with the short refrain, “Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.”

I have been impressed by D.P. worship leaders who invite online worshippers to share the link for the service with their Facebook friends, thereby greatly extending the potential reach of the worship. One church is inviting viewers to submit creative selfie photos while they are watching the worship or working to provide essential services for Christ so they can be included in a PowerPoint presentation to show at a future online service.

On the receiving end of D.P. online worship, I have a personal preference for leaders who are able to speak to the camera without the need for notes or who make use of teleprompter technology to assist their delivery. Eye-contact and authenticity are important to me. I am OK with worship leaders who choose to read brief passages of scripture on camera, but I prefer pastors who have internalized the message of the text and can share it in essence from their heart. I was helped by a pastor who included a large print visual slide of the scripture while he was reading it so we could read along. I commend pastors who have learned the value of recording their sermons in segments to offer a change in camera angle and backdrop. Professionally produced television programs have conditioned us to changing images on screen every few seconds. I recognize that this kind of editing and filming is beyond the do-it-yourself production expertise of many pastors in quarantine. Still, I confess it is nice when a pastor makes an effort to link movement from one point to the next in a sermon with an occasional change in the camera placement and backdrop.

 

“On the other hand, if a musical group is not present, the lyrics are unavailable to me at home, if the camera never moves, and the musician is just average, I confess that I have less interest in listening to all seven verses of a hymn.”

 

Video editing software is readily available. Editing of worship presentations takes on new significance in this D.P. world and may provide a way for church members with tech expertise to offer their skills to support Sunday worship in a new way. It is an educated guess that some of those with the greatest technical expertise in each church and available to help with video editing from home may be our teens and young adults.

I have noticed some churches that live stream services on Facebook allow for viewers to offer real-time comments about the service and have persons on hand to respond to those comments immediately, providing a new kind of continuous interaction with the greater congregation. My brother, who is an active United Methodist pastor in Illinois, shared with me that these side comments during the service are a significant reason many of his parishioners tune in live. The comments provide them valued connections with their friends during this period of social isolation.

I have been impressed by D.P. worship services that allow opportunities for gifted musicians to participate from home and who have taken care to respect copyright laws about streaming protected music. These services post their church CCLI or other license number in a corner graphic at some point while the music is broadcast. Several music teams have really blessed me by making the special effort to record musicians in isolation and then editing so they stream their singing and instruments together.  On the other hand, if a musical group is not present, the lyrics are unavailable to me at home, if the camera never moves, and the musician is just average, I confess that I have less interest in listening to all seven verses of a hymn.

One Sunday, after being inspired by the online worship efforts of three different congregations, I was moved to contribute financially in support of each of their efforts. I followed the easy instructions for donations given during each service by going to the respective church websites. Two of the churches offered easy links to donate by credit card. One required me to send a check in the mail. I remember the conversation that we had in one church finance committee meeting years ago. We decided not to take contributions online by credit card as a statement of social opposition to credit card interest rates and in solidarity with the 37% of Americans who struggle by carrying burdensome credit card debt. That said, in this current circumstance, I am more likely to continue to support ministries that have made giving options easier and safer during this season of social distancing by including the option to donate by credit card online.

I have also experienced my first D.P. virtual family funeral service. Nancy’s 99-year-old aunt recently passed away. As the personable widow of a beloved pastor and with a devoted extended family, in a B.P. world, the church would have been overflowing with supportive community. Instead, the service was recorded graveside by the funeral home. The microphoned pastor shared scripture, prayer, family memories, committal, and a beloved recording of our late Rev. Uncle John singing a favorite hymn. This D.P. service was posted for viewing with a link next to the obituary on the funeral home website. Only immediate family members, observing social distancing protocols, were present off-camera at the cemetery. I hope this appreciated practice of recording and sharing funeral services online continues even after the pandemic is over.

Preparing for Sunday
Vassar First UMC uses Facebook during the week to gather content for virtual Worship. “For next Sunday (5/17) we want to see your wave! If you can either submit a short video or image on this post or direct it to Pastor Scott. We will use it next Sunday. If you aren’t sure how to share a video, Pat will be down at the church on Tuesday at 11am and again at 7pm for drive-by waves. ~ Facebook/Vassar First UMC

It is readily apparent in this season of “during pandemic” that God’s people are figuring out how to be the church in wonderful new ways despite the challenges. D.P. churches are expanding abilities and willingness to use technology to extend ministry far beyond the defined time and space of B.P. worship. In many cases, they are effectively reaching and connecting with a much larger community than they ever did in B.P. worship.

I am impressed by a weekly e-newsletter we received recently from a church making these efforts at outreach and connection:

  • The newsletter reminded us how, when, and where to tune in for worship along with a direct link embedded in the newsletter for direct access.
  • The newsletter offered a link to download the weekly bulletin.
  • The newsletter offered a check-up phone call from someone on the church leadership team. Additionally, it provided a number to call at any time for persons with personal emergencies to share.
  • The newsletter offered a link to watch prior worship services.
  • The newsletter offered a link to join a weekly online Zoom prayer group or to submit prayer requests at any time.
  • The newsletter offered a link to download free video Bible studies for all ages. The church had purchased a subscription making this streaming service available for free to all its members.
  • The newsletter offered a link to connect with online mental health resources for persons struggling with depression, grief, or other issues connected with isolation.
  • The newsletter offered links and details for joining multiple online church study groups. D.P., I have participated in online groups using Zoom technology and have found these experiences to be helpful. I have learned how to use this same technology, as a result, to stay connected in this season of social isolation with family and friends.
  • The newsletter offered links and opportunities to learn about, engage, and support local, national, and global mission efforts.

We remember life as it was B.P. (before pandemic). Someday we will put in the rearview mirror our experience of worship D.P. (during pandemic). In the meantime, I hope you will join me in regular prayer for your pastor and worship team. Leading D.P. worship and doing it well is a great new and demanding challenge. If you have time and talents to share to assist your local church worship and ministry offerings, then, by all means, volunteer your services. Thank you for supporting your church ministry financially. The need for a vital church has not diminished in this D.P. era.

 

“My hope A.P. (After Pandemic) is that valued lessons learned D.P. (During Pandemic) about using technology to extend the reach and effectiveness of worship and ministry beyond the walls of the church will continue to transform our witness for Christ.”

 

My hope A.P. (after pandemic) is that valued lessons learned D.P. about using technology to extend the reach and effectiveness of worship and ministry beyond the walls of the church will continue to transform our witness for Christ. A.P. congregations will also need to incorporate new protocols for the health and safety of the gathered community that were not even on the radar in our B.P. worship life.

When the day comes that we can return safely to in-person congregational gatherings, I will gladly return to church for worship with a new appreciation for the joy of the Psalmist.

I will be glad when they say to me, “Let us go to the house of the LORD!” Psalm 122.1

But I will also return to church for worship with a far greater appreciation for the importance of sharing that witness for God beyond the walls to meet people with the love of Christ wherever and whenever they may be ready and able to receive it.