Worship in the Midst of COVID-19: Clinging to Old Paradigms Can Be Fatal

By the Rev. Ken Howard

This blog post is part of a series on strategies and tools for helping congregations survive and thrive in the face of the COVID crisis. This blog will help congregations better worship together during the Coronavirus pandemic.
Click here for the previous post

Church pastor dies a week after contracting COVID-19

This article was published on the Chicago Sun Times Wire Service on Monday, March 30. In this short but moving piece about assistant pastor Angel Escamilla, assistant pastor of the local Assemblies of God church, the lead pastor describes Angel as having had “the spirit of a dove, the strength of a warrior, the faith of Abraham and when he prayed you knew he was talking to Heaven.” 

What the first article didn’t say is that he contracted COVID-19 after two weeks of the entire worship team gathering at the church’s worship center to livestream services. It didn’t report that the pastor had told the team that livestreaming from the church was an essential service, and those who didn’t feel that they were essential were welcome to stay home if that made them feel more safe. It didn’t convey the fact that several members of the worship team had also tested positive for COVID-19 and were sick or that the lead pastor had encouraged them to withhold this information from the congregation out of “pastoral concern.”

All of that news was broken by a local investigative reporter in a piece published the very next day.

This is what happens when we forget that with the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, our old paradigms of worship have crumbled and the new paradigm of worship together during the Coronavirus pandemic has not yet fully risen from the ashes of the old. 

In fact, the task before us is not figuring out how to adapt old ways to a new situation, but rather working together, by trial and error, to create an entirely new paradigm from scratch. In other words, we have to turn our thinking Inside Out. Because, as Jesus said, “New wine explodes old wineskins.” 

Or as Simon Sinek put it , “Start with Why”

Why? → How? → What? (→ What if?)

Why are we here?

How are we called to be here?

What are we called to do? 

What will happen if we do?

If that lead pastor had asked “Why?” instead of “What?”, he might have remembered that since time immemorial the Church has been saying, “The people are the Church, not the building.” 

Which means worship together during the Coronavirus pandemic is essential but doing it in or from the building is not.

And when we start asking about the “What,” we have to ask about the “What if.” Every decision we make, every action we take has consequences, and we need to project forward to consider what the consequences might be on PEOPLE: the risk we are requiring of our clergy and staff, and the example we are setting for our congregation and those in the neighborhoods around us that are watching what we do. 

In the time of COVID, the decisions of faith leaders can be a matter of life and death. Some examples…

Judicatory leaders: You cannot afford to say to your clergy, “You have our support to livestream from the nave of the church building if you think that is essential, but if you think it’s safer to livestream from home, we will support that, too.” I have watched more than one of my clergy colleagues reconsider plans to livestream worship from their homes after receiving that kind of message, and that puts them at significantly greater risk, encourages them to set a bad example for their congregation, and communicates bad theology. Rather, they should be saying, “Livestreaming from the building is a nonessential activity that risks dire consequences – do it from the safety of your homes. If you are someone who feels strongly that seeing the altar and the stained glass window is essential, take a digital picture and put it up as your Zoom backdrop.”

Congregational Leaders: Please remember that even seemingly inconsequential decisions may have major consequences. If you decide to ask people to send their offerings in the mail during the COVID outbreak, you are putting both your counters and your congregation members (especially the older ones) at risk. Congregants who follow your advice to mail in their checks will come in physical contact with their local mailbox, and we know that COVID-19 can remain infectious on surfaces for hours. Later, counters will have to open those envelopes and checks, which may have been in contact with a person infected with COVID. Conversely, making a concerted effort to move your people to smartphone-based giving may prove to be a lifesaver.

Please. Everyone. Don’t try to force new wine into old wineskins. Remember that buildings are not essential to the practice of corporate faith; that you can learn to sing new hymns to God in a foreign land. Start by asking yourself the reason you exist as a faith community, then figure out how to achieve that in this new reality we all find ourselves in. 

And when you think you’ve got the “WHAT” figured out, don’t forget to ask, “WHAT IF?”

This post was originally intended to expand on our previous article “What We’ve Learned from Our Experiment with Online Worship,” but was O.B.E. (overtaken by events). Click here to read that article, which will soon be updated with new learnings.

Future articles may include:

  • Strategies for Outreach – Part 2
  • and How to Use Them
  • Things people can do to create a sense of community with their own neighbors and neighborhoods.
  • Tools and strategies for hosting online fellowship.
  • Tools and strategies for facilitating online bible study and formation.
  • Social Vulnerability Scales and Other Tools and strategies for locating and engaging populations most vulnerable to COVID19. 
  • Tools and strategies by which judicatories can resource their congregations.