Mennonites explore virtual worship

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April 22, 2020 | News | Volume 24 Issue 9
Virginia A. Hostetler | Executive Editor
The Easter worship service of Cedar Valley Church in Mission, B.C., was livestreamed on YouTube and Facebook. It included singers and instrumentalists performing from separate locations, a message from Pastor Rob Ayer, and information about a Minecraft Easter egg hunt for children. (Photo from YouTube video)

“We’ve been thrown out of the boat and now we’re learning to walk on water!”

This lighthearted metaphor comes from Cathrin van Sintern-Dick, as she considers changes in congregational life resulting from the novel coronavirus outbreak. Sintern-Dick serves on the regional ministry team of Mennonite Church Eastern Canada, and recently she helped lead an online meeting for MC Eastern Canada pastors around the challenges for Good Friday and Easter congregational worship, in light of this new reality.

In mid-March, when public health officials started encouraging Canadians to practise “social distancing,” leaders in MC Canada and the five regional churches advised congregations to avoid large gatherings. 

Some congregations cancelled their March 15 services as they figured out next steps. The following week, MC Canada staff organized the first of several video services. According to an MC Canada news release, “These services are meant to help local congregations as they continue to make adjustments to their own worship practices amid the COVID-19 outbreak.”

The video was recorded in the sanctuary of Douglas Mennonite Church in Winnipeg, with worship leader Judith Friesen Epp, pastor of Home Street Mennonite Church, and a small group of local musicians. There was no congregation in the pews, and participants stood physically distant from each other. Doug Klassen, executive minister of MC Canada, gave the message based on the lectionary text from John 9:1-41. For the virtual children’s time, he sat on the front step of the sanctuary, looking directly into the camera. There were a few familiar songs, a time for prayer and an encouragement for viewers to give financially to their own congregations, as customary. 

That service was available for viewing by Sunday, March 22. By the middle of April, it had more than 4,600 views on MC Canada’s YouTube channel. 

Staff from the nationwide and the regional church offices then began coordinating more services to be shared across the church. Collaborative efforts in Ontario and Saskatchewan produced recorded services for March 29 and April 5, and a team in Alberta led Good Friday and Easter celebrations. The hope is to provide recorded services until meeting restrictions are lifted. 

While there has been appreciation for these centralized efforts, many people wanted their own church to plan times for worshipping and connecting. And so the challenge: How to lead meaningful congregational experiences when you can’t share the same space? This has required creativity, changing expectations of congregational life, and an increased dose of technological savvy. Some churches continue the usual posting of sermons and bulletins on their websites and a few already were posting their services online. But, for many others, this has meant learning new skills as they prepare content to be accessed digitally. 

Some churches and pastors have new YouTube accounts; some groups are learning how to have a presence through Facebook Live. Creative efforts have included children in their homes waving handmade palm branches on Palm Sunday, congregants sharing photos of spring flowers, and prayer times and sharing in breakout rooms through the Zoom teleconferencing app. Individual musicians performed at home, recording separate tracks to be later edited together digitally. Some groups experimented with virtual communion by inviting congregants to partake of the elements in their own homes.

Efforts have emerged to provide resources for congregations learning how to do this new “walking on water.” MC Canada’s website offers online resources, and a new Facebook group has emerged called the Anabaptist Worship Network, meant as a place to share ideas and resources.

The fact that so many church groups are embracing these challenges has surprised Klassen. “It has highlighted how important Sunday morning worship is for us,” he says. This is an opportunity to give more thought to the purpose and practices of congregational worship. 

Sintern-Dick recognizes that some congregants are not connected with the current technologies and need to have their spiritual needs met in other ways. Some congregations will choose not to join the virtual wave, and that’s okay. “We don’t want to see our pastors burnt out through this,” she says, adding that the MC Eastern Canada staff is “marvelling over the creativity of our pastors, their ability to adapt during times like this.” 

She goes on: “Ministry is taking on different forms, so let’s see where this is going. There’s a certain amount of excitement: What will this be for all of us?” 

This article appears in the April 27, 2020 print issue, with the headline “Out of the boat.”

Related stories:
Sundays without singing
Watch: A virtual Mennonite Easter choir
Mennonite Church Alberta holds virtual AGM​​​​​​​
MC Canada congregations offering online worship services​​​​​​​
MC Canada offers pandemic preparedness web resources for congregations​​​​​​​

The Easter worship service of Cedar Valley Church in Mission, B.C., was livestreamed on YouTube and Facebook. It included singers and instrumentalists performing from separate locations, a message from Pastor Rob Ayer, and information about a Minecraft Easter egg hunt for children. (Photo from YouTube video)

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