Being the body of Christ together in worship takes intentional planning, development and evaluation, as we learn new ways to worship while physically distant.
Time To Re-Evaluate?
As we enter the sixth month of the COVID19 pandemic, it has become clear that we will be worshiping online for some time. This is the perfect time to re-evaluate our virtual worship practices, looking especially at who is represented and who is missing. The Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee offers an excellent set of reflection questions around online worship.
What should we be offering families?
Many churches have noticed that most children, youth, and families are not participating in their main Sunday online worship offerings. This has led to many questions: Should we be offering something separate for families? Or could we change what we are doing to better engage all ages?
The answer to these questions, as always, depends on your context. This is new territory for all of us, and we do not pretend to be experts here. What you’ll find below are suggestions for experimentation.
Considerations for Online Worship with All Ages
The first thing to consider is your goal. What is worship? What is most important? Is worship something we consume or something we create together? Your understanding of worship will have profound implications on the logistical decisions you make.
There are multiple platform options for online worship. If one of your goals is to actively engage all ages, we recommend Zoom. Worshiping on Zoom provides built-in accountability—people see each other and can have an experience of participating together. It also makes it easy to have a variety of worship leaders and ways to participate.
Length of Service
Keep it short and consistent. We recommend 40-60 minutes. Try to keep the service the same length each week, that way everyone knows what to expect.
Note: Intergenerational Zoom worship seems to work well for elementary-aged children to older adults. In our contexts, we have found it difficult to engage most infant to three year-olds in this style of worship. Families with very young children have enjoyed StoryChurch in Miranda’s congregation and Godly Play via Zoom in Sarah’s congregation.
The gathering is important. Use this time to build community and maintain meaningful connection. Make sure there is someone welcoming each household by name as they arrive. Start the liturgy 2-3 minutes after the stated start time.
Worship is meant to be a full body experience. We sit, stand, kneel, shake hands, hug, and go to the altar rail. We hear different voices and types of music. Often we taste the bread and wine. Sometimes we even smell incense. We cannot fully recreate this online, but if we want to actively engage folks in worship we need to attend to embodiment. How can we encourage movement? How can we offer a variety of voices? How can we use symbols and images creatively? In her congregation, Miranda has been exploring the use of gestures as visual cues that let us know we are worshiping and responding together. Check out this video what this looks like in Miranda’s context.
Because we are not used to worshiping online, it is helpful for leaders to offer suggestions about how people might engage their bodies and senses during each part of the liturgy. For example, The Rev. Sylvia Miller-Mutia suggests inviting people of all ages to draw, journal, doodle, or sculpt during the lessons and sermon. At the end of the sermon, the preacher might say, “The Spirit of God speaks to us in all sorts of ways, and we listen for God in all sorts of ways, not only with our ears, but with our eyes and hands, with our whole bodies, and hearts, and minds. If you have been listening with your hands today, I invite you to share what you’ve created by holding it up to the screen so the church can practice listening with our eyes…on the count of 3… 1…2…3..”
Music is one of the most important aspects of intergenerational worship. Music can offer us embodiment, connection, and active engagement – even over Zoom. I don’t know anyone doing this better than Music That Makes Community. This incredible group is teaching folks how to lead music online in ways that invite active participation, embodiment, and presence.
Sharing the work is an important aspect of any worship for all ages. Train leaders of all ages to participate in as many ways as you can imagine. Have a mix of children and adult leaders each week.
Use the Strengths of This Medium
Zoom offers features such as screen sharing and break out rooms. Lean into these resources. For example, Miranda has preached several homilies that allow the congregation to look at art together and discuss how it adds to our understanding of a Scripture story. Zoom can also help people learn each other’s names. During the Peace, you might suggest that people extend God’s peace to whomever is adjacent to them in Gallery view.
A Possible Outline
This outline is based on a document put together by Dr. James Farwell at Virginia Theological Seminary.
Gathering (3 minutes)
Welcome & Technology Notes (1 minute)
Lighting Candles (have someone do this from their home)
Opening Song (1.5 minutes)
Song of Praise (1.5 minutes)
Collect of the Day (1 minute)
First Lesson (3-4 minutes) *Read by a lay reader
Gospel Song (1.5 minutes)
Gospel Reading (3-4 minutes)
Sermon (5 minutes)
Open Sermon Reflection: What stood out to you? (5 minutes)
The Nicene Creed (3 minutes) *Could be led by a lay reader
Prayers of the People (6 minutes) *Keep the formal prayers short and offer a time of open intercessions
The Lord’s Prayer (3 minutes) *Could be led by a lay reader
“The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ…” or a Blessing or The Exchange of the Peace (3 minutes)
As with any experiment, make sure you take time to evaluate as you go! You might offer worship in this way for 4 weeks and then ask folks to stay after on the 5th week to reflect on what they have been noticing. Try to stay away from “likes” and “dislikes” and ask, “What have you noticed?” “What have you heard/seen/sensed?” “Where have you resisted or been distracted?” “Where have you experienced God?” Be sure to ask a wide variety of worshippers.
The Rev. Miranda Hassett is the rector of St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church in Madison, WI. She lives in Madison with her family. She is passionate about intergenerational worship, and makes jewelry in her spare time.
Sarah Bentley Allred received her MDiv. from Virginia Theological Seminary in May 2019. She now serves as Director of Children and Family Ministries at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Wake Forest, North Carolina and as the Associate for Christian Formation and Discipleship for Lifelong Learning. Sarah is passionate about children’s spirituality, intergenerational worship, and small church formation. She loves local coffee shops, board games, the beach, and exploring new places with her husband, Richard, and their dog, Grace.