Critiquing preachers and worship styles has long been a post-church pattern for congregants. Some Sunday mornings, our tongues are quicker to question than to urge empathy and understanding for those who lead us in worship. Perhaps the move to critique is quicker these days as we come to church through emails and gather around screens. Are we tempted to forget that these are uncharted waters for the very real people who are working hard to pivot our fellowship from in-person to online?
Our pastors did not get a seminary class on video editing or leading worship through conference calls. Every denominational office has sprung into action to offer supports and resources to fill the gap. These supporting organizations applaud the work of pastors and worship committees who have made changes in mere hours and days that under normal circumstances would take months and years.
“It’s remarkable to see the creative, thoughtful work that so many leaders and congregations have developed, often with very limited time and resources,” said John Witvliet, director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Yet Witvliet also acknowledges that COVID-19 is a “challenging journey” for churches and their leaders.
From where they sit behind computer screens and telephone lines, do we really know how our pastors are managing amidst all of this?
Wrestling with recording
“After the first [online service], I cried about it all night,” confesses Pastor Brittney Salverda. “I felt like: I’ve never done that before and I hated it and I didn’t say anything I wanted to say. Let’s take it back.”
David and Brittney Salverda team pastor a congregation of about 200 members in Victoria, B.C. In the few days they had to discern how to move online, they agreed to let go of any need to replicate the feel of in-person worship and instead record videos of interview-style services at their kitchen table after their kids went to bed.
The Salverdas see this as a good opportunity to try something new. “I sometimes need a little kick-in-the-butt in order to try new things,” admits David Salverda.
“This requires experimentation. It requires creativity, and, for me,” says Brittney Salverda, “that requires a great deal of courage and not caring. Not caring if it sucks. I can’t pull an all-nighter doing a retake. I could. I could. But I will not let that voice, which is quite loud, say ‘you just need to do a retake that was awful;’ ‘you look ridiculous;’ ‘you weren’t articulate.’ That part of me, I’m just trying to kill it.”
Encouragement from congregants has given the Salverdas the courage they need to continue with creating online services. “You won’t believe it,” exclaimed one elderly member who lives alone, “I felt like you and David were sitting in my living room with me!”
Worship through liturgy
In northern B.C., Andrew Aukema pastors Prince George Christian Reformed Church, a smaller congregation with fewer than 100 members. He too finds himself wrestling with doubts after experimenting with new worship tools and platforms. “It’s almost like spiritual warfare,” he says, describing the experience of sitting with an audio recording of his sermon. Aukema includes the sermon recording with a home worship guide designed to lead households through their own liturgical service.
While acknowledging that change is hard, Aukema echoes the Salverdas’ call for churches to push through and try something new: “Take the opportunity to make changes . . . we’re now at a time when everything can be tried.”
“It should feel different and it’s okay if it requires more effort from people than an ordinary Sunday service,” says Aukema. Engaging in a liturgy is hard work. Each person is invited to share in the tasks of reading, carrying discussion, praying and making music. For those who don’t feel comfortable singing along with YouTube videos or playing their own instruments, Aukema encourages them to write or share about how they have seen God’s goodness in the past week in lieu of singing. Those who don’t have many others living in their home may gather, while maintaining their distance, with one or two other church members who are related or live nearby.
Aukema says that the church will likely transition to a pattern that allows for some return to the familiar Sunday morning service experience, perhaps using the current guided home-worship format for two weeks and then doing a live streamed service every third week. Aukema sees a value in both formats and comments that publicly accessible video feeds of church worship services “could provide a new front door” for those curious about what goes on at church.
Unlike these churches in Victoria and Prince George, most of those who attend Telkwa Community (Christian Reformed) Church still see each other’s faces every week during worship.
“We placed the highest value on an online platform that would enable the whole congregation to engage with each other in some way,” explains Joe Ellis, who pastors this congregation along with his wife Michelle. The Ellises facilitate their services using Zoom, an online video conferencing platform which allows participants to join by computer, tablet, smartphone or landline phone. The landline phone access is key since many members live rurally with slow or limited internet access. During their online services there are anywhere between 33-45 devices online with up to 100 participants. Prior to the first service, Ellis says he spent a lot of time on the phone explaining how Zoom works and even made himself available the day before for people to make test calls to try it out.
“The first Sunday that we gathered online, there seemed to be a palpable shared relief that we could see each other. It felt special to see each other in our homes . . . more of a glimpse into each other’s lives,” says Ellis. Some remarked how surprisingly intimate a group video chat could feel.
Telkwa Community Church has a culture of sharing during the service, especially during the congregational prayer. “I wonder if the fact that our congregants were used to sharing their thoughts and prayers in normal times, made it easier to do so online,” muses Ellis.
The Ellises don’t struggle with the anxieties of pastors who have pre-recorded their services, since their gatherings are still live, but they did speak to the challenges of balancing pastoring and parenting without the supports of their in-person community. “Having a two, four, and six-year-old is a huge gift, but over the past months we’ve seen all of our normal family supports vanish,” explains Ellis. “This has been hard and often I’ve felt like I just don’t have as much to give.” The normal routines of pastoring and sermon-writing are now structured by naptimes and punctuated with trampoline injuries.
As our church leaders stretch themselves in new creative directions, perhaps tapping into new talents or making a few missteps, may we extend an extra measure of grace to their efforts. Let us remember that we are the church. While we may be sitting in the places where we typically consume food or media, may we resist the temptation to consume and critique. Rather, let us be willing to take worship risks ourselves, making phone calls, learning new digital skills and participating whole-heartedly in this season of worship.
Five key takeaways for pastors and worship leaders:
“Give yourself the freedom to experiment. We’re all learning as we go.” – David Salverda
“Kill off the perfectionist side of you.” – Brittney Salverda
“Ask yourself, is this something people are consuming or is it something people can participate in?” – Andrew Aukema
“People are overwhelmed with content. What we all hunger for during this time is to be seen and heard.” – Joe Ellis
“What’s more important than figuring out how we’re going to worship together is figuring out how we’re going to be missional and reaching out to our neighbours.” – Andrew Aukema