On March 13, 2020, the council of Christ Church Gabriola (CCG) exchanged a flurry of emails in support of closing the church building prior to that Sunday’s worship service. We responded to the voices of wisdom in our midst that said we are a small island with an aging population and a limited capacity to respond to a COVID outbreak; we knew we needed to lead the effort to protect our wider community by moving our services online and our pastoral care to an elaborate phone tree and socially distanced visits. It took a few weeks to sort out the basics of what online worship would look like, but it was well worth the time and energy.
Because we have a weekly attendance of around 40 people, Zoom was our best option. It’s not the same as in-person worship, but we are able to see each other’s faces and interact as a community on Sunday mornings. People invite friends and family from around the world and connections are made in ways we never imagined! It was a big help early on to have tech-savvy people help get the congregation onto Zoom; about two months in, everyone who wanted to Zoom could.
Keeping congregants engaged in worship has been an intentional effort. I constantly keep this mantra in mind: the more that people personally invest in worship, the more they commit to being a part of it. From the beginning of online worship, we’ve had two readers every Sunday, an intercessor, a “voice of the people” who speaks “unmuted” the bolded words in the bulletin that everyone else is saying with the mute switch on. And we have someone helping to host the Zoom call.
Because we are not taking an offering each Sunday by passing the plate, I first make sure people know how to send a cheque into the church, then I talk about our human urge to be of service in the face of hardship in our midst, always ending with a blessing of the gifts we send to the church and the acts of service we are doing in Christ’s name.
I soon grow tired of my own voice and start asking congregation members to share something during the offering. I ask them to share either about why they offer their time, talent, and resources to CCG, how are they seeing the (CCG or Gabriola) community come together during this time, or what they have received during the pandemic and what it meant to them. The responses have been extraordinary. In all my years of ministry, I’ve never seen so much willingness to publicly share one’s story. Our practice of offering time sharing has blossomed and blessed us richly!
As September turned to October, our worship numbers increased again, and we did another thing to help people invest in the worship service. Throughout the pandemic we have been recording hymns and other pieces of music for use in worship, and in preparation for Advent we recruited a few more musicians to help. We were able to set up a few socially-distanced recording sessions to capture the rich sounds of Advent and Christmas to lead the congregation in song. We were even able to video record families lighting the Advent wreath, which brought in even more participation and warm feelings from the congregation on Sunday mornings. We all long to be back in our beautiful little sanctuary, but for now we offer what we can and walk through this season together.