St. Thomas Anglican Church is a “maturing church plant” in the Anglican Diocese of the South. Like many church plants, we are completely mobile and rent the facility we use for worship on Sundays. Normally, we gather in the Day Chapel located in the State Botanical Garden of Georgia, which is managed by the University of Georgia. Over the last few years, we have seen solid, steady growth. We even added a second Sunday morning service to make room for more people in early March. But that came to an abrupt halt as we entered the last few months of social distancing.
Regathering When You Rent
In early May re-opening, or more accurately re-gathering, was everyone’s focus. How and when could churches safely come back together for worship together? I have been able to help the Evergreen Project Team put together resources and webinars for Anglican Churches. During this time, I realized a few things and our leadership team prayerfully discerned a unique way forward for us. First, in a webinar, Tim Keller said that every church would have to be re-planted post-COVID-19. Second, we learned from the Day Chapel that they were taking a very cautious, phased approach to re-gathering. Bottom-line, the Day Chapel would not be available for more normal use until August 2020 (at the earliest). What would we do for the Summer? Could there be an out of the box, outside the church regathering plan?
We are trying something we are calling “Simple Services.” Since we can’t go back to the Day Chapel, we have designed a simple, lay-led service for Sunday mornings. We are viewing them similarly to the launch-team meetings we had early on in our church planting process. Practically-speaking, we are holding 7 simultaneous services on Sunday mornings. One of the gatherings is an online community via Zoom. Then we have 6 different locations outside where hosts have transformed yards, farms, decks, and patios into “Outdoor Chapels.” We are able to invite people to gather in multiple, smaller groups in an outdoor environment. Of course, we have put some common-sense protocols in place, but don’t have the work-load or anxiety of trying to meet with everyone indoors (even in shifts of multiple services). It provides an intermediate step between only gathering digitally and being back in the Day Chapel for worship together.
We kicked off our Simple Services this past Sunday, June 14, 2020. There was great participation and everyone was glad to be back together. We even had several first-time guests who have never attended one of our more normal services! As the Summer progresses, we will learn more about this experimental approach. Here are some of my early takeaways about these Simple Services:
Group Size & Group Dynamics
We have 110 members and our ASA has been slightly higher than that in the early part of 2020. This approach has allowed us to spread out considerably into smaller groupings of people. This has been key for talking with our members about their comfort re-gathering and folks in our community. We had an organized sign-up process for our Simple Services. The sign-ups represent about 130 people, which is really encouraging for us!
Word & Table
We are able to provide a Simple Service of Word & Table. The service is built from the Communion to the Sick Service in the BCP (2019). Our lay leaders officiate the service. For the Sermon, I am preparing a Sermon Letter each week that is delivered on my behalf. There is an interactive, participatory time of prayer. Each outdoor group has pre-consecrated wafers and they are able to take Communion together. (The Zoom group is using the Prayer for Spiritual Communion).
We have not started singing together yet – even outside. We had several members who were really anxious about it. So, we didn’t want that to be a barrier to participation. We do have musicians in each group and will introduce simple, musical worship soon. Some of our groups are also using Bluetooth speakers and a curated Spotify Playlist to have some musical elements to the service.
I am really excited about the number of leaders involved! We are used to having lots of people serving each week as a mobile church, but I have been blown away by the excitement of our folks. We have hosts, service officiants, and will be involving musicians. Many of these leaders will get to develop or test gifts that will help them grow and will strengthen our congregation.
Imagination for Mission and Ministry
We are using Acts 2:42-47 as an anchor for these services. That passage shows us the simple structures of the early church that were building blocks for a Gospel Movement. We are inviting our parish to imagine that these Simple Services can be similar building blocks for Gospel Movement in and through St. Thomas as we look ahead to re-launching more formally, more publicly at the right time.
Sustainable for this Season
These Simple Services make gathering for worship much more sustainable. We spread out the workload by engaging so many of our lay leaders. We also take away the pressure of trying to go back to any kind of normal right away. Summer is pretty relaxed in Athens already as a college town. So, this seems to fit more naturally into the context of re-gathering during this unique season.
An Unprecedented Opportunity
Tish Harrison Warren wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times about this pandemic and reminded us that: “God hates sickness and death. But God also lets no crisis, no suffering and nothing in our lives go to waste. God is resourceful and takes it all as the raw material of redemption.” Together, we are asking what it would look like for us to embrace this opportunity to be reshaped, reformed, and renewed by God? We are approaching Summer 2020 as an unprecedented opportunity for our church to intentionally regroup and be retrained so that we can be resent and relaunched to do the work that God has prepared for us to do.
The Rev. Daniel Adkinson serves as the founding rector of St. Thomas Anglican Church in Athens, GA. Prior to moving to Athens to plant St. Thomas, he served for almost a decade at Christ Church in Plano, TX. He is married to Holly and they have two children. Daniel and Holly met while in college at the University of Georgia. So, they love being back in the Classic City!