Since the middle of March, when church buildings closed due to the novel coronavirus outbreak, I’ve been visiting many churches. Not in person, of course, but on the internet. Each week I click on the link to a worship service that a Mennonite congregation, or group of congregations, has prepared to share with members of our denomination.
It’s been fascinating to see how churches are learning to live in this unusual time, and how they are harnessing the creative and technical gifts of members to congregate in new ways for worship, faith formation, pastoral care, outreach, social times and more.
However it is expressed, there is a clear desire to stay connected in a time of physical separation. Among the 200-some churches that make up Mennonite Church Canada, there’s quite a variety in how they are present online.
Many, but not all, churches have a website. Some of the sites have basic information about church: history and beliefs, address, contact information for staff, and a schedule. Other websites have embedded content, both audio and video, sermons in PDF format, and links to outside resources. Some have blog posts, written by the pastor or other church leaders. Some of them have announcement sheets or the order of service that can be downloaded. Some of them have a private area for members, to be accessed through a password.
Some congregations use Facebook, either with a public page or as a closed group for congregants. A church’s Facebook page might have photos, prayer requests, announcements and inspirational sayings. Some congregations stream their worship services through Facebook Live. Some share links there to other resources (thank you to the ones who point to content on Canadian Mennonite’s website!)
An informal search yielded at least 30 YouTube channels connected with MC Canada congregations, where churches share video sermons, personal reflections, music and children’s activities.
Worship planners and leaders are learning new skills for virtual worship: how to sing while located far from each other, and how to capture quality video and audio. Speakers and worship leaders are learning how to speak to a camera. Congregations are getting creative in how they involve children and youth in virtual ways.
Some churches have preferred more interactive activities and have incorporated the videoconferencing platform Zoom into their weekly routines, for worship or for times of sharing and prayer. (Important skills for all participants: knowing how to turn on your camera and how to mute your mic.)
In this time of physical distancing, we’re realizing how important it is to see the faces of others in the congregation. Through Zoom, congregants are inviting each other, virtually, into our homes and yards, where some of us have changed from Sunday clothes into T-shirts, shorts and pyjamas, and where pets linger nearby.
We are asking ourselves questions about how to live as congregations in this unusual time. What are the limits of online life, both for individuals and groups? Who is being left out of this virtual church? What are the vital aspects of worshipping together that we want to maintain? How do we carry out faith formation activities for people of all ages? What methods do we have for the pastoral care that is so vital to the flourishing of all? How do congregations stay fit financially when there isn’t the weekly reminder of the offering plate?
As I write, some congregations have begun opening up their spaces for meeting in person, while others are hunkering down for a longer time of being apart.
For now, if you’re comfortable online, you too can “visit” many churches! There are links to the weekly services coordinated by MC Canada at mennonitechurch.ca/worshipservices. Or go to the website of your regional church for resources and links to more congregations offering online activities.
In the coming months, there will be new questions and adjustments for our congregational life. How will our church have changed when we emerge out of the COVID-19 crisis? How will God call us to respond to the new challenges ahead—both online and in person?
Upcoming digital issues
Speaking of life online, Canadian Mennonite will begin our summer practice of offering three online-only issues, starting with the next edition. The July 6, Aug. 3 and Aug, 31 issues will not appear in print but will be available through email to digital subscribers. If you’re interested in receiving digital issues, through the summer and beyond, you can subscribe online at canadianmennonite.org/subscribe/digital or email firstname.lastname@example.org. There is no extra cost to current subscribers.