Alternative Worship Approaches During Social-Distancing

by Sue Conrad Howes, West Swamp congregation

Salford streams an abbreviated worship service. Photo by Steve Kriss

At the heart of congregational life is gathering for worship. In light of government warnings about the need for social distancing to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, many Eastern District & Franconia Conference congregations had to decide whether they should gather together on Sunday, cancel worship, or find alternative avenues to lead congregants.

For many, this meant finding ways to use technology to enhance their community worship. Facebook Live was a popular platform for many congregations. Salford congregation (Harleysville, PA) live streamed an abbreviated version of their worship service.  One goal was to keep things as “normal” as possible; “The person who led the Children’s Time came in and read the story from the usual Children’s Time bench,” said Pastor Beth Yoder.

Pastor Jessica Miller (Perkasie) holds “Virtual Church” from her dining room using Facebook Live.

Meanwhile, Perkasie (PA) congregation had a casual, 30-minute service on Facebook Live. “We read Psalm 23 together, lit candles, and recited our peace lamp litany, had a scripture reading, and sermon,” reported Jessica Miller, associate pastor. She shared that the sermon response invited people to get a drink of water in their homes, an opportunity that would not have been realistic in the church pews.

One advantage to using Facebook Live as a platform was that participants had the opportunity to join the worship service live, watch it later on Facebook, or watch the service later via a video link posted on the church website, which gave those who do not have a Facebook account an opportunity to view the video link.

Many pastors noted that the services were shorter than a typical Sunday. Josh Meyer of Franconia congregation (Telford, PA) commented, “The service was simple and brief: a welcome, a pastoral prayer, some announcements, Scripture, a meditation, and a closing … 38 minutes.”

Ambler’s Zoom gathering. Photo credit: Andrew Huth

Not every church could live stream their worship experience, so alternative options were given. Methacton (Norristown, PA) sent out a group email that included a virtual worship service.   Rocky Ridge (Quakertown, PA) put together a “virtual worship service” and a blog post for interaction.  Ambler (PA) congregation used online conferencing. “Zoom worked well, with 40-plus persons participating, including two former congregants now in other states,” said interim pastor Dorcas Lehman. “It felt different, lively, meditative, and well-appreciated.”

A big surprise was the consistent report that participation was higher than expected. Deep Run East reported that about four times as many people watched the Facebook Live worship service than attend a typical Sunday morning in-person worship. “I was surprised by the breadth of people who joined the worship experience,” commented Pastor Ken Burkholder, “including people from numerous states, mission workers in Honduras, and others who would not typically worship in person at Deep Run East.” Likewise, Salford reported that by noon, their service had received over 1000 views.

Many pastors and congregants noted that each platform seemed to offer a valued sense of community to each other, especially during this time of social distancing and unknown. Methacton’s pastor Sandy Drescher-Lehman, reflected, “We often talk about wanting to be a ’church without walls’ and this time we really did it!”

Even though the response far exceeded the expectations, there were still problems. Franconia’s worship crew arrived at church to find their internet was down.  Plains congregation (Hatfield, PA) planned to post a worship service video on their website by 10:30 am but discovered it took hours for the video to finish processing and uploading.

Another challenge was the obvious strangeness of leading a service in an empty auditorium or knowing how or where to make eye contact. Meyer commented, “So much of what happens during corporate worship is exactly that: corporate.  Without a gathered body, a number of our regular worship practices needed to be adjusted.”

Despite the challenges, last minute implementations, and new approaches to worship, most every church reported very positive experiences from congregants.  “Many expressed that being able to ‘gather’ in this way helped social solidarity, in a time when we are practicing social distancing,” said Lehman.