In 2020, COVID-19 challenged our churches’ production and practice of congregational worship. The isolation resulting from quarantines and shutdowns raised questions about discipleship and the practice of worship in our homes and daily lives.
Yet, in response to these questions, creativity sprouted from the absence of familiar traditions associated with liturgical worship. I went on the lookout for encouraging stories of creative worship during the pandemic. Here’s what I found.
Claire Wright, a singer at Incarnation Church (Tallahassee, FL), reflected that many of the rich traditions of the Anglican service are lost in an online service, like the procession of the cross. “Anglicanism has so many physical traditions, sitting, standing, and kneeling responsively. We were forced to think, what are the most important things? How can we maintain the richness of the liturgy without physically being in a room together?”
As Incarnation sought to address these questions, parishioners came together in creative collaboration. Vicar Jon Hall organized a Zoom service for the Stations of the Cross (Lent) and Lessons and Carols (Advent/Christmas) in 2020. Parishioners reported that he was the light and encouragement they needed to push through the isolation and come together to create. They composed many original songs for these services and paired each piece of music with a local artist’s work.
(Thanks to artist Stephanie Trotter for the two images above.)
During and after each Sunday service, Incarnation used Zoom breakout rooms to help parishioners engage directly, reflect on the sermon, share prayer requests, and pray. “It helped keep some semblance of connection between groups and allowed us to stay on as an alternative to our normal coffee hour,” said Claire Wright. “We could process this crazy season together and still see some familiar faces.”
Parishioners at the church speak of Vicar Hall’s work with video with admiration and thankfulness. He stitched together videos of different Incarnation musicians singing and playing the church’s seasonal Gospel processional songs, which were used during Sunday worship. They note that the quality increased over time.
Wright spoke highly of her priest, saying, “Jon put a lot of effort into honing his video and audio production skills and coordinating with artists in the church. From where we started with the first Gospel processional song to the last, the quality has gotten better and better, and it became easier to worship in the online format, with the help of his leadership.”
St. Boniface Episcopal (Mequon, WI) was unable to gather inside their building, so they responded by adapting their facilities to bring an artistic representation of light to their community with visual art that influenced other ministries. Cindy Wilmeth and Darele Bisquerra painted four large windows at the front of the church as Advent candles according to Bisquerra’s design, thus creating an Advent “wreath” for drivers.
“The candles are illuminated at night, and we light another ‘flame’ (flickering flame light bulb) every week, just as we would with an Advent wreath,” said Wilmeth. “We’ve also used the designs as coloring sheets for the kids, including them as PDF downloads in our weekly parish email newsletter.”
Wilmeth also said that the response “has been positive in the church; we’ve been using ‘the light that shines in the darkness’ as a recurring theme in our virtual Advent worship, and included tea light candles in our ‘Longest Night Service’ bags for parishioners to hopefully continue to tie it all together.”
Isolation from communal worship inspired Kristen Yates, Associate Pastor of Spiritual Formation and Congregational Care at The Mission Cincinnati (Cincinnati, OH), to teach about spiritual practices.
Her church decided to provide online liturgies for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, complete with music, art, embodied practices, and prayers that people could engage in at home. She noted that this creative way of thinking through liturgy challenged people to create contemplative moments of worship in their homes.
Of course, the concern that some have with an online liturgy is: will the people use them? If they do, how do we know they will be impactful? “I know they were hugely meaningful for some people, and they even shared the liturgies with friends and family who also practiced them,” said Yates.
Yates was intentional about her choice for an online liturgy over a streamed service. “First, I decided to do these at-home liturgies instead of streamed services because I didn’t want to lose the embodied practices of foot-washing and stations of the cross, and I didn’t see how we could really do that by streaming a service.”
When Yates personally went through the stations of the cross, she took a printout of each station and walked around the neighborhood while playing a recording of the service on her phone, making the experience more interactive and better engaging with “the work of the people.” Being active and walking engaged her in a way that the streaming service alone did not.
“In creating these liturgies, I also allowed people to do these activities at their own pace and to have space for extemporaneous prayer and meditation on song and Scripture, which a streamlined service wouldn’t do because they obviously move at one pace only regardless of the audience. So again, these liturgies ended up being very personal and meaningful.”
The stations of the cross liturgy was so well received that she ended up doing something similar for each week of Advent in addition to their in-person and streamed services. “When I have crafted them, I put on my spiritual director hat and thought through how the Lord could meet our people at home through prayer, music, art, practice, and silence. Now, I would say that I don’t think everyone engaged in these. For some, simply watching a service is easier where these liturgies take some initiative and more participation, but that is the point. And part of my own goals right now as a pastor is to help people not to be spectators in their spiritual life (which the American church has taught a lot of them) and to initiate spiritual practices in their lives that usher them into God’s presence and form them.”
Like many churches during pandemic shutdowns, my church, Trinity Anglican (Thomasville, GA), had parishioners submit videos of prayers, readings, and songs that they recorded at home and incorporated them into the Sunday worship service.
What was missing, though, was a way to hear from the people. What was going on in their lives? What words might they be hearing from the Lord?
In response to this felt need, we invited people to write blog posts and submit art, original music, and reflections to a series of collections we called “the One Word art gallery”—each piece inspired by a single word. It was beautiful to see these works of art and creative reflections from the people in our congregation.
Worship as a Way of Life
The pandemic has revealed over and over again that true worship is not an event that we attend once a week. We need to develop rhythms of study, prayer, and fellowship and make space to share our responses to these practices with our community. It has also highlighted that we need each other in a way that transcends our bodies: spirit to spirit, connecting with each other as we connect with God.
We worship the triune God as we connect in our spiritual disciplines and in community, in the performance of a piece and the process of collaboration. As we grow closer to God, we grow closer as a church community. And as we worship out of response to these rhythms and in connection with the Holy Spirit (the source of our creativity), we will become people prepared for the mission God has called us towards: to be a light to the world.
Catherine Miller lives in Tallahassee, FL, with her creative husband, three rambunctious sons, two cats, and a dog. She serves the local church as an organist, pianist, and songwriter. She is the Online Team Leader with the international arts ministry United Adoration, working to find, gather, equip, and send out artists to use their gifts and abilities to worship God and build up His Kingdom.