As ELCA congregations offer in-person and hybrid services this Advent and Christmas, many have expressed thanks for the online worship support that the ELCA worship team provided during the early lockdowns of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Beginning in spring 2020, the ELCA offered resources for worship at home or for use during livestreams and recorded services, technology advice to hold online services, guidance for reopening church buildings safely, tips on resuming singing in line with federal guidelines and more. The resources could be adapted for virtual worship, online conversation or individual reflection and devotion. Members especially enjoyed the “Worship in the Home” entries on the team’s blog, which included Scripture readings from the lectionary, hymn links, prayers and reflections for each Sunday.

The online resources were made possible through Mission Support, the portion of offerings congregations share with their synods and that synods share with the churchwide organization to provide national and global ministries. “We’re very thankful for the Mission Support that we get and were happy to be able to give back to the congregations by providing online resources during the pandemic,” said John Weit, ELCA executive for worship.

Navigating new modes of worship

While many congregations already had the technology and know-how to livestream services or use social media platforms like Facebook Live, the worship team had to react quickly to help those that were struggling. “It was hard early on to instruct on how to do an online service, as every church was doing something different and figuring out ways to use technology to have worship online,” Weit said.

“There was no one right or wrong way to think about what worship should look like during the pandemic. We offered resources but also encouraged experimentation. We made it clear that worship wasn’t cookie cutter but could be many things. It was a time to encourage deeper conversations going forward. What is worship? What is a gathered assembly of people? How is an online assembly different than a physical assembly? The pandemic forced us to think about these questions.”

Gwenn Trout agrees, saying the pandemic provided many lessons learned and an opportunity to think about what worship is. “We’ve learned the importance of hybrid church and of reaching out to those online,” said Trout, who as pastor of Zion (Enola) and Zion (Etters) Lutheran churches in Pennsylvania recorded services from her home via Zoom for the first time and learned how to use Facebook Live.

“The pandemic was a stark illustration of the fact that the church is not a building.”

Trout recalled how nice it was for former members from around the world to watch her services online, along with homebound people and those who couldn’t attend church. “I really appreciated the [Worship in the Home] reflections, which I used mostly for sermon preparation, because they were timely and relevant to what was going on in the world at the time,” she added.

With the help of a member who was a technology enthusiast, Trout figured out how to make it all work, and is now doing hybrid church, a combination of online and in-person services.

Sandra Rudd, pastor of Sitka (Alaska) Lutheran Church, also found the online resources to be a blessing, using them for worship each Sunday. “Some congregation members either chose not to join us on Zoom or didn’t have email or Internet, so we would copy the online worship materials and hand-deliver them to about 10 people in the community,” she said.

Rudd also found the worship team’s prepared prayers helpful because of their relevance to what was happening in the news. The team also provided resources for use during Lenten worship last year, which equipped Rudd for ministry during an especially busy church season.

“The pandemic was a stark illustration of the fact that the church is not a building,” she said. “A lot of people say that, but we didn’t fully know it until we didn’t have a building to use. We learned that there are many ways to be connected as the church.”

A version of this story first appeared in the 2021 edition of Stories of Faith in Action, an annual publication sharing how Mission Support sustains and grows ELCA ministries.

Wendy Healy
Healy is a freelance writer and member of Trinity Lutheran Church, Brewster, N.Y. She served as communications director for Lutheran Disaster Response of New York following the 9/11 attacks.

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