One of the foundational ideas of our Methodist identity is connection. From the earliest days of classes, bands, and societies, to our current polity composed of districts and conferences, Methodists are and have been a people defined by our connections to one another.
Connection looks very different these days, however. As we live with social and physical distancing, deal with the demands of quarantine, and experience much of the world virtually, the idea of being connected has had to be reimagined. Work and school now take place in Google chat rooms and over Zoom conference calls. The checkout line at the grocery store is marked by zones where we can stand 6 feet apart.
Churches are not exempt from the effects of the pandemic and its necessary constraints on our coming and going. Since early March, our worship gatherings have been transformed. We have exchanged pews and fellowship halls for couches and living rooms. Greetings and prayer requests are shared in chat rooms and comment threads. Pastors and music teams deliver sermons and songs over Facebook Live and YouTube.
In the midst of these new ways to gather and worship, the guidelines against physical gatherings for worship have led to fruitful and unique collaborations. Two groups of pastors – a collection of six churches in Person County and a cooperative parish group in Orange County – are working to answer the question of how we stay connected as communities of faith in unforeseen times such as these.
Under normal circumstances, the planning, preparation, and execution of weekly worship services can be daunting, coupled with congregational and pastoral concerns that continue to arise. Factor in the challenges posed by living in pandemic conditions, and you have a situation that was never addressed in any seminary class. Connection and collaboration make a difference. Rev. Cameron Merrill from Hillsborough UMC is thankful that “In the time that we’re in, I’m not doing this alone.” Rev. Lindsay Collins, pastor of the Trinity-Allensville charge in Person County echoes that statement, saying “The pastors have benefitted by sharing the responsibility of worship planning at this time, giving us more time for pastoral care and self-care.”
While virtual worship certainly looks and sounds different than what many churches are used to normally, the twin goals of presenting the gospel and offering a place of connection and belonging have not changed. Rev. Heather Locklear from Lea’s Chapel is “…grateful for a way to stay connected in worship with each other and our congregations.” And virtual worship offers a chance for wider invitation and reach into local communities and beyond. Rev. Amanda Dixson, pastor of Longhurst UMC, shared the joy of congregation members who are excited about this new way of extending invitations to worship. One parishioner, who is in her 80s, said “For the first time, I can have them at church by sharing the video. Oh boy!”
What does all of this mean for the future? Time will tell, as we continue to wait and pray for healing for a world ravaged by coronavirus and COVID-19. In the midst of it all, the church continues to wrestle with how to faithfully follow Christ and how to present the Gospel with new tools and in ways that keep us connected. Rev. Rich Greenway, pastor at Union Grove UMC in Hillsborough sums it up when he says that “some of the questions the church is asking about how to be community are being answered in new and different ways.” Old questions with new answers; ancient words presented in new ways. God, who is making all things new, leads us into the future, with all its uncertainty and challenge. We are invited to follow – together.