What Will Worship Look like?
July 15 2020
As our Task Force continues to develop the plans and protocols that will guide our congregational life in the months ahead, today our Worship Ministers offer a letter describing what the initial phase of new in-person worship will look like.
Immeasurable thanks to Garret Higginbotham for all his production work in recent months and especially getting the new video system set up that we used this week in worship. We’ve received great feedback on the image and sound quality. This new system, which is wireless, also prepares us for our anticipated hybrid worship experience of live-stream and in-person, which we assume will be a permanent part of our congregational life even in the far future of the post-virus world.
We your worship ministers have spent a good deal of time in recent months keeping up on all the studies, guidelines, and resources related to worship in the time of the coronavirus pandemic. We have a large Google drive where we have captured all these documents. Among them are the current directed health measures from the governor’s office which stipulates what we legally can and cannot do, national guidelines produced by ecumenical groups and denominations, local guidelines produced by an interfaith coalition, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, and studies and recommendations on singing and music by the American Choral Directors Association and others. We also have been learning from other congregations, particularly our smaller and more rural congregations who have now had weeks of reopening and much to teach us about best practices, communication, etc. And Pastor Scott has visited one reopened worship service to watch and learn. Our Task Force is currently studying and discussing all of these things. We have also read and discussed the results of the congregational survey.
We can with some confidence describe what the initial phase of new in-person worship will look like. First off, a renewal of in-person worship will only work if people are cooperative in practicing good public health hygiene—wear masks, wash hands regularly, stay away if you are sick and especially if you are coughing (even with allergies), and seriously evaluate if you are in the high risk categories that Bonnie Harmon described in last week’s newsletter.
Second, everyone will need to practice physical distancing, with pews marked with seating areas properly spread out. Our sanctuary can accommodate 47 household zones, according to the current rules. We will also be designing a flow of traffic through the building as people enter and exit. There will be no Coffee Hour in phase one. Also, it will be crucial that you resist the understandable human urges to shake hands and hug.
The service will also be different. There will be no choir. Instead we will use a cantor, probably Lyn Bouma most often. Congregational singing will be reduced and maybe even eliminated at first, with us exploring other options for congregational musical participation. If you are not aware, singing is considered a higher risk activity than talking, for it spreads droplets more like coughing does. But worldwide, musical and worship artists have been thinking creatively for months on how we are going to do this, so we have wonderful ideas and resources to draw upon.
Orders from the governor’s office require that all hymnals and bibles be removed from the pews, so everything will be printed or you can use your own digital device.
We will hold off on communion for the time being. There are some recommendations from these various sources for how to do communion, but we are delaying figuring that out until we have some experience with the rest of worship.
Preachers and speakers will most likely remove their masks when at the pulpit and lectern. There are numerous reasons why public speaking with a mask poses problems both for the speakers and the listeners (we all read lips and facial cues far more than we realized before this year, right?). So the pulpit and lectern will be twenty feet distant from the first row in which people can sit. We will also be turning up the volume on the microphones in order to reduce the need for speakers to project their voices (which is really going to take some work for Scott and Katie who’ve spent a lifetime being trained to do precisely that).
All of these measures will also mean a shortening of the service, though we suspect most people won’t be too bothered by that (right Sam?).
And because the service will be a hybrid, we will do our best to direct everything to both the online and in-person audiences, though some features of a particular service may favor one or the other. And, at least for the initial phase, the online audience will likely be significantly larger than the in-person congregation.
We also intend to supplement this Sunday morning service with other offerings—instrumental recitals, online hymn sings, and outdoor worship events.
It is also important to remind you that conditions keep changing, which has often compelled us to rethink something we had been planning. So, as the virus’s effects decline, increase, or plateau, as scientists learn new things about the virus, as guidelines and rules change, we will keep adapting. And we will also be prepared to return to online worship only, if needed to protect the health and wellbeing of our congregation. At least that time we won’t have to create everything from scratch in a few days and weeks.
And one further reminder. Our research and our congregants who are experts on public health and infectious disease suggest that with the right protocols we can gather in relative safety, but the risk of infection from this virus will not be zero and may not be for a very long time, if ever again. Just like you, we have read about the religious services where the virus has spread, though we also know that there are very few of these incidents out of the thousands of congregations worshipping every week. And most of those incidents have been in settings that did not follow, and sometimes openly flouted, safety protocols and best practices.
So, we are striving to wisely discern and follow the lead of the Holy Spirit, in order that we be as safe as is currently humanly possible while also fulfilling your spiritual, emotional, and other personal needs. And we are also confident that following these guidelines we will create a meaningful, worshipful experience.
Scott, Katie, Jim, & Stephen