Hugh Wetmore is a songwriter and student of worship trends. He invites you to join the worship conversation by commenting on his monthly column.
Many Christians, unable to congregate for worship after the government banned meetings of over 100 people, have joined thousands who are congregating in shopping malls. That’s the irony and humour of developments around the coronavirus outbreak this week.
So how can churches cope with these necessary restrictions? Worship services will no longer be the same as they were before 8pm on Sunday March 15, when President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the ban on large gatherings.
A worship service can be relayed to groups of 100 each – the congregation meeting in the sanctuary and in other halls and venues on the premises. Ushers can count and direct the congregants (I once worshipped in a megachurch which met in a highrise skyscraper in Seoul, Korea. The congregation, spread over many floors, participated fully through video links).
The service can be streamed over the internet to the scattered congregation in their homes. They can watch it on their laptops or smartphones. The cameras could focus mostly on the “platform people” – the pastor, worship leader, singers and musicians. A group of say 70 named volunteers could comprise the visible congregation, with the remaining 30 seats open to visitors or members who didn’t hear of the changes and arrived as normal.
Meanwhile, we can identify several dangers to guard against:
- Reducing the worship service to mere song-and-sermon. We should always include public prayers of worship, confession, thanksgiving and intercession. Public Scripture reading(s) should also be prominent.
- Yielding to distractions around the home that intrude on our worship focus. Always set aside time and be together as a family for the service. Invite single folk to join the family group. Sustain personal discipline – self-control is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:23)!
- Not participating in the singing. A small group can make one self-conscious about singing as enthusiastically as we normally would in a Sunday congregation. If the screened words are not clearly visible over the ‘Net, the church office should email the songs to the members and adherents ahead of the Sunday service so they can sing the words with confidence.
The worship service can be videoed and uploaded onto YouTube. If congregants were unable to watch the live-streamed service they could still view it at any convenient time.
The danger with free-timing is that many of us don’t have the self-discipline to ensure we participate. So, church members and participants must be firm with themselves and set aside a specific time when all other activities are left alone and they give themselves wholeheartedly to participating in the worship service.
Technology promotes passivity and inhibits participation. We listen to worship that others are leading but fail to participate ourselves. Our eyes and ears get connected, but not our voices and hearts. Think about it … how many people with earphones do you see in the streets? Many. How many people do you hear whistling or humming a tune? Few. God desires our participatory worship, not our passive worship. Don’t let the fallout of the coronavirus infect you with passivity. Redouble your efforts to be a participant!
In low-income communities without the benefits of technology, the coronavirus crisis is an opportunity to decentralise large congregations. Instead of having, say, 400 people in one venue, divide the congregation into house churches, with an elder or lay-preacher assigned to each one. If desired, the preachers could be rostered among these smaller groups so that the pastor could, over time, retain contact with everyone. If there are not enough musicians, don’t be shy to sing as the early Christians did – with the unaccompanied human voice (rural Africa has been doing this for centuries. In a country where all religions are banned, some Christians meet in homes where they sing hymns as loudly as they wish – to the tunes of political songs!)
If we can’t meet and take offerings as usual, the church may slip into financial trouble. Encourage the people to give electronically into the church’s bank account. Do this regularly … we easily forget if we slip out of routine.
Large funerals can also create unanticipated problems. Preempt these by asking that only family attend. Then, when the coronavirus disaster has passed, hold a memorial service open to all.
Weddings are not so easily managed. If the invitations have not already gone out, then restrict them to selected guests and explain to others why this is necessary. People will understand and may still send a wedding gift!
Let’s pray for our churches over this challenging time and ask God to do what He does so well – bring blessing out of difficulty. Pray too for our country, and the world, that God would mercifully put an end to this coronavirus plague.