3 Questions to Ask Upon Returning to In-Person Worship

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As I write this, most churches in Canada have not yet returned to full in-person worship. Even though many U.S. churches have already done so, this is still an excellent time for all of us to ask a few important questions as we look back on our remote worship experiences during the pandemic.

Here are three questions to ponder: 

Question 1: What will we gain when we return to full in-person worship and other programming? 

Most of us might say, “Everything!” We are embodied and communal creatures. Worship is both of these things as well. We can join our voices in both praise and lament, collectively listen to God’s Word and discern God’s will, surround each other in prayer, weep, and shout for joy TOGETHER! 

  • The corollary question that congregations may need to explore more deeply will be “How is gathering together for worship and fellowship, communion and prayer, teaching and service enhanced and strengthened by being together in the same space? How do our current worship practices and faith practices really leverage embodiment and togetherness, such that joining from home will not always be enough to support our faith formation growth? 

Question 2: What will we lose when we return to full in-person worship and other programming? 

This may be the harder question to answer honestly. We have all heard jokes about worshipping in PJs or while in our easy chairs. There is always some truth beneath humour. While our pandemic lockdown limited so many freedoms, virtual or Zoom worship offered new freedoms. Folks can worship when they want, how they want, where they want. 

While this might seem to be the height of consumerism, there may be some spiritual realities underlying this as well. If I don’t feel like I really belong to my congregation, but I like the preaching, I can still attend without feeling lonely in a crowd. If my current situation feels hopeless, I can stay home and not feel vulnerable or competitive around others who seem so full of hope. If I feel overwhelmed with busyness, I can connect virtually without fear that I might be asked to add one more thing to my plate.

  • The first corollary question that congregations may need to explore more deeply is “How willing are ministry leaders to go beneath the surface with genuine curiosity and empathy to find out why some people will continue to worship and engage 100% virtually, and how can we provide a bridge to various points of connection with the Body?”

  • The second corollary question is “What are we willing to change or adjust to capture some of the blessings of virtual worship and other programming that folks appreciated during the pandemic? If seeing everyone's face was significant to creating a stronger community, are we willing to get rid of pews and rearrange our seating to allow for a different kind of gathered intimacy? If more people of all ages contributed to worship because they didn’t have to be up in front, are we willing to video their contributions? Might we shift our coffee hour to pre-worship in order to leverage the joy of communal gathering and connection for our worship together?

Question 3: How willing are we to consider Christian practices beyond Sunday morning worship as significantly faith-formational? 

Even pre-pandemic, I heard from emerging adults how discouraging it was to hear senior members of their congregation remark that the young adults’ deep commitment to their small groups was not as important as “showing up on Sunday morning,” even though those small group experiences included regular accountability, deep prayer, and robust Scripture engagement. 

  • The corollary question that congregations may need to explore more deeply will be “Have we inadvertently communicated that simply showing up on Sunday morning is our most important metric for faith engagement, and what do we need to do to change this perception?”

Now is the time to discern what new things the Spirit is calling us to. Which of your church’s former practices truly build faith? Which might you need to let go? And which new practices might you welcome and embrace?

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Astute observations in both July 13th articles. If anything, COVID-19 should have taught us that  members who are housebound, in care institutions, etc. and not able to be physically present in the sanctuary during the worship service can nonetheless be enabled to be intimately present via YouTube, Zoom, etc.