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The Benediction of March 8 (part 1)


The Lord bless you and keep you;

the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;

the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.

Numbers 6:24-26


Cain’t no one know at sunrise

how this day is gonna end.

Cain’t no one know at sunset

if the next day will begin.

Dr. Ysaÿe M. Barnwell, 1994


Introduction

Every Sunday, for as long as we can remember, our worship services have ended with a benediction, bene dictio, a good utterance, a good word. A word that dismisses us from our congregations under the cover of a blessing. A word that sometimes contains a charge on how to engage the week. Sometimes it is followed by a postlude, depending on one’s tradition. We say it (or we receive it) each week. And while we do not know what the future holds, there is (or at least there was until March 8 of last year) a way in which we expected the week ahead to unfold in relatively predictable and uneventful ways. We know what our (all too often over extended) schedules looked like. We knew what meetings, anniversaries, birthdays, events we had in the upcoming week. If we had members from our faith community on the “sick and shut-in” list, we knew who we were visiting that week. If members were in hospice or life support, we prioritized those visits. But when we gave the benediction that Sunday, March, 8, 2020, we had no idea that we were giving the benediction to the world as we had known it. For between March 8 and March 15, the world turned on such a radical axis that we had no idea how hard the pivots and how steep the learning curves we would have to engage before the world shut down.

Prelude to a Pandemic

The disease that would bring the world to a halt emerged quietly in the United States on the west coast. A man returned home to Washington State, just outside of Seattle, on 15 January 2020. Four days later, the weekend of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. observances, he felt ill and checked into a hospital after seeing reports about a virus outbreak in China. Two days later, 21 January 2020, the Centers for Disease Control (“CDC”) announced that this man had tested positive for the coronavirus (“Covid-19”), the first CDC-reported case in the United States. However, Covid-19 does not yet dominate the news cycles. On January 24, the first confirmed case is reported in Illinois. As the news about these first two cases made their way across the country, obliquely, on radio and television and in newspapers, on January 26, the tragic accident that claimed the lives of Kobe Bryant, Gianna Bryant, John Altobelli, Keri Altobelli, Alyssa Altobelli, Sarah Chester, Payton Chester, Ara Zobayan, and Christina Mauser dominates the news cycles. Mourning is global as expressions of sympathy, support and love come flooding in for their families. In the midst of this global grief, on the same day, January 26, the first cases in Arizona and California are reported and go almost unnoticed. Four days after the tragedy that gripped the world, again, though perhaps less obliquely, on January 30, the United States received more information about Covid-19. The World Health Organization (“WHO”) declared the coronavirus “a public health emergency of international concern.” Covid-19 is gaining our attention, but it has not yet impacted our lives. However, those days were just around the corner.

February 1 to March 10

In the 39 days between WHO’s declaration of “a public health emergency of international concern” and WHO’s declaration of a pandemic, 34 states and the District of Columbia reported their first Covid-19 cases. The spread of Covid-19 appeared to be slow in February, with only three states reporting their first cases: Massachusetts (February 1), Wisconsin (February 5), and Oregon (February 28). However, the virus seemed spread like wildfire in March, with 29 states and the District of Columbia reporting their first cases in the first 10 days of the month. The breakdown is as follows:

March 1: Florida, New York, Rhode Island

March 2: Georgia, New Hampshire

March 3: North Carolina

March 4: New Jersey, Texas

March 5: Colorado, Maryland, Nevada, Tennessee

March 6: Hawaii, Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Utah

March 7: District of Columbia, Kansas, Missouri, Vermont, Virginia

March 8: Connecticut, Iowa

March 9: Louisiana, Ohio

March 10: Michigan, South Dakota

And on the same day that WHO declared Covid-19 a pandemic, six states reported their first cases: Arkansas, Delaware, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Dakota, Wyoming. Six states reported their first cases after the March 11 declaration (March 12: Alaska, Maine; March 13: Alabama, Idaho, Montana; March 17: West Virginia).

March 11, 2020

Tedros Adhanom, WHO’s Director-General, in his opening remarks on March 11, 2020, reported that (1) there were over 118,000 reported cases of Covid-19 cases in 114 countries, (2) there had been 4,291 fatalities, and (3) this was “the first pandemic caused by the coronavirus.” The world was in somewhat unchartered territory. There had been pandemics before, but never had there been a pandemic “caused by the coronavirus.” He said, in part, that “This is not just a public health crisis, it is a crisis that will touch every sector – so every sector and every individual must be involved in the fight…countries must take a whole-of-government, whole-of-society approach [emphasis mine], built around a comprehensive strategy to prevent infections, save lives and minimize impact.” He ended his opening remarks with five words that he described as actionable: “prevention, preparedness, public health, political leadership, and most of all, people.” Regrettably, part of the inability of the United States to move with any dispatch or confidence with respect to “prevention, preparedness, public health, and political leadership” was that the country lacked it. There was an egregious lack of administrative competence or truth from the previous presidential administration. Lies abounded. Science was silenced. Truth was trampled. False predictions about the gravity of the disease were flaunted as fact. Experts were dismissed and contradicted by the administration. It was impossible to make “whole-of-government, whole-of society” approaches when there was infighting among government officials, when those elected to steward the country for “the common good” were operating for “political goals” and “personal gains.” How were individuals, families, churches, schools, businesses, and other institutions supposed to make sound, informed, preventative, prepared, public health decisions when fiction was fact, information was inaccessible, and there were lacunae in leadership, from the White House to Capitol Hill and beyond?

Since there was not consistent messaging around risk, infectiousness, transmissibility, fatality rates, and the like, church communities were not all moving in the same direction, at the same time, and at the same speed. Questions abounded. “Do we close completely or partially close? Do we close this Sunday or next Sunday? Do we have Bible study this week? Do we cancel choir rehearsal? Do we….? How do we…?” In ordinary circumstances, decisions are made with the best information and resources one has at a given time. However, for most of us, these were unprecedented times, and we were in varying degrees of unchartered waters.

Looking in the Windows

Shortly after the pandemic, I began to wonder (liturgy nerd that I am) how pastors and congregations were transitioning into this new, uncertain, and constantly changing context to do worship. And, I also thought that this pandemic, as inconvenient, disorienting, and frightening as it was, presented the church with an opportunity to examine (interrogate!) its theology, particularly its liturgical theology. It presented the church with the opportunity to interrogate its notions of power and authority because the times demanded new ways of ministry “for such a time as this.” How do we create worship for people are not before us? Who gets to do what? Who gets to say what? Who gets to handle the elements? Who gets to say the dominical word? Who gets to consecrate elements? The pandemic presented a robust opportunity for to church to re-examine its theology around the priesthood of all believers. For when we return to our gathered contexts, how are the home practices that we have introduced and instructed on and that members have implemented in their homes going to theologically square with practices that we engage we return? If people have been praying over (consecrating?) their own bread and juice (or wine) at home, when we return will they be prohibited from doing so because they are not “elders, deacons/esses, stewardesses… because they are not on the board?” Will we return to “the way we did it before March 8?” Is how we view who serves in what capacity a matter of polity, theology or tradition? Whatever the answer, the next question might be, “should it be changed?” Does our belief and praxis around our liturgical practices need revisiting and revision before we return to gathered worship services? How will we continue to serve two constituencies: the one who will be physically before us and the one that has joined us virtually from around the country and around the world? How will be re-gather with integrity of theology and praxis when this is over?

In our wildest dreams, we could not have ever imagined “doing church” without being physically gathered. We have been brought up, formed, socialized, conditioned, that church, worship, was something that you could only do “gathered.” The mandate to isolate challenged almost every notion of what it meant to “be church” and “do church.” The first place it showed up was in our language. Many said, “The church is closed.” That language was later interrogated, and we realized (remembered!) that we are the church, so our language shifted. “The building is closed, but the church is still operating.” This is just one example of the many ways that the pandemic has helped (forced!) us re-vision the church, our theology, our language, and how the church can still fulfill its mission in the midst of a physically distanced world.

I wanted to look in the window and see how pastors and congregations were doing. I sent out and posted a survey online, and I am grateful for the 34 pastors and worship leaders who participated in this survey. I asked some basic questions. I wanted to see what they were doing March 8, where they were at the time of the survey (approximately three to four months into the pandemic), and the manner in which they transitioned into ministry in the midst of a pandemic. So this is by no means a super scientific study (by statistical, PEW research-like standards), but a less formal peek into the liturgical windows of some churches around the country and how they transitioned into the pandemic.

Demographics

Respondents spanned the country, with more respondents from the east coast: California (1), Minnesota (1), Texas (1), Virginia (1), West Virginia (1), Connecticut (1), New York (1), Washington, DC (1), Pennsylvania (2), Maryland (5), Georgia (7), and North Carolina (11). One respondent is from Kingston, Jamaica. Respondents were from the following ecclesiastical traditions: African Methodist Episcopal (2), Church of God (1), Church of God in Christ (1), Church of God of Prophecy (3), Disciples of Christ (1), Roman Catholic (1), United Church of Christ (1), Pentecostal (1), Presbyterian (7), Unitarian Universalist (1), Baptist (13), and non-denominational (2). Length of pastoral service ranged from 1 year to 26 years, with 68% of respondents pastoring or leading worship 1-10 years, 20% of respondents pastoring 11-20 years, and 12% pastoring for more than 20 years. Membership in these 34 churches ranged from 38 members to 6,000 members. The churches ranged in age from 5 years old to 200 years old, with 53% of churches being less than 100 years old, and 47% of churches ranging in age from 119 to 200 years old. One congregation is identified as exclusively black. One congregation is identified as exclusively white. 35% of congregations were identified as have 90% or more of the black congregants. 23.5% of congregations were identified as having 90% or more white congregants. The remaining congregations were comprised of either predominantly black congregants or predominantly white congregants, with other congregational members identified as African, Afro Caribbean, Asian, Asian Pacific Islander, Hispanic, and Latinx.

Shifts and Pivots

Prior to March 11, 51.4% of respondents indicated that their worship services were live streamed. Once WHO declared the pandemic on Wednesday, March 11, almost 62% of churches (21) went to exclusively online services the following Sunday (March 15). 29% (10) of churches went exclusively online the following Sunday (March 22). Approximately 6% of churches (2) went exclusively online on March 29. And one church (representing roughly 3% of total respondents) was exclusively online the Sunday before the pandemic was declared (March 8). A majority of these churches (approximately 74%) held live services (with the ability to watch later), approximately 24% pre-recorded their services, and the remaining approximately 6% had worship that combined live and pre-recorded elements (with the ability to watch later).

Approximately four months into the pandemic, these numbers shift. With members now worshiping from home, approximately 44% of respondents indicate that they were still holding live worship services, representing a 30% decrease since the beginning of the pandemic. Approximately 9% of respondents indicated that they went from totally live worship services to completely pre-recorded services. Approximately 15% of respondents indicated that they went from completely live services to ones that were a combination of live and pre-recorded. Roughly 3% went from completely pre-recorded worship services to a combination of pre-recorded and live worship services, and another roughly 3% went from pre-recorded back to live worship services.

Tech, Time, and Training

Some of the biggest challenges faced by pastors and worship leaders as a result of the pandemic was having the necessary technology to make the shift to online worship services. For those who had been using technology in their worship services prior to the pandemic, the shift was not as drastic. However, many pastors had to figure out what they even needed in terms of technology. Many pastors and worship leaders had to purchase, replace, or augment current equipment. This was half the challenge. The other of the battle was who was going to operate it. And then, there was the question of platform. The “stay connected to friends, family, and colleagues and watch old church videos” platforms of Facebook and YouTube quickly became integral technology platforms for doing the work of ministry.

Audio and visual equipment

Prior to March 11, microphones were the only form of technology used by approximately 9%. Almost 18% of respondents used audio equipment for community distribution and/or archiving worship. One respondent’s church also used hearing assistance devices for individuals who needed such assistive technology. Roughly 38% of respondents indicated that they used both audio and video equipment for live streaming, live broadcasting, community distribution, and/or archiving. Almost 15% indicated that they had video equipment for live streaming purposes only. Approximately 6% indicated that they both audio and video equipment for live broadcasting and live streaming. Approximately 3% indicated that they used an iPhone. Another 3% indicated that they used an in-house sound board, computer with a projector, and a screen. Finally, roughly 3% indicated that they had just begun to live stream two weeks before March 11.

As one would expect, those numbers change after March 11. Almost 53% of respondents indicated that they use both audio and video equipment for live streaming, live broadcasting, community distribution, and/or archiving, up by almost 15% prior to the pandemic declaration. One respondent in this group indicated that they also use an app to create “virtual duets, trios and occasional choirs.” Slightly more than 20% indicated that they now use video equipment for live streaming. Approximately 9% use an iPhone and among this group, one respondent has integrated iPhone usage with laptops and audio/visual equipment. Approximately 6% indicated that they use video and audio equipment for live streaming and live broadcasting. Approximately 3% indicated that they now use video equipment for individual and community sharing and archival purposes. Approximately 3% indicated that they now use a television studio to pre-record worship.

Online Platforms

The largest group of respondents in this group, a little over 35%, indicate that they did not stream prior to March 11. However, depending on how you look at the rest of the statistics on platform usage, one may disagree (or the answer could be nuanced). As a whole, slightly above 44% of respondents used Facebook as a streaming platform. However, only 26% of the total respondents used Facebook exclusively. A little less than 18% of respondents used Facebook and one or more of the following platforms: Boxcast, Livestream.com, Roku, Vimeo, YouTube, and/or their church’s website. Approximately 9% used YouTube exclusively. Approximately 3% used their church’s website exclusively. Approximately 3% used Church Online exclusively. Approximately 3% used Twitch exclusively, and another 3% indicated that they used internet radio.

Four months later, almost 74% of respondents are using Facebook to stream worship services, up 30% from prior to the pandemic declaration. The Facebook group users break down as follows: 14.7% of this group uses Facebook exclusively. 58.8% use Facebook and one or more of the following platforms: Boxcast, Church Online, Freechurchonline.com (linked through church’s website), Instagram, Periscope, Roku, Vimeo, YouTube, Zoom, and a telephone conference call service. Roughly 9% of respondents still do not live stream their worship services. Approximately 15% use YouTube, 3 respondents are exclusive YouTube users, 1 uses YouTube and later uploads to Facebook, and 1 uses YouTube and Zoom.

Learnings and Leanings

The pandemic did not spare pastors and worship leaders the luxury of not learning and utilizing various technology platforms. Ability to use and attraction to (or lack thereof on either part) technology notwithstanding, most individuals had to now incorporate technology platforms into their lives and ministries to maintain (or even survive) in the pandemic. After approximately four months into the pandemic, almost 18% of respondents did not have to learn new technology platforms. One respondent indicated that technology was handled by the tech ministry, and another respondent indicated that he already knew how to use the technology platforms. About 26.5% indicated that they needed to learn how to use video equipment, with three respondents needing only to learn video equipment. The other 6 respondents needed to learn video equipment in addition to Facebook, YouTube, and/or Zoom. Approximately 29.5% indicated that they needed to learn audio and video equipment, with one respondent needing to learn only audio and video equipment. The other nine respondents in this category needed to learn audio equipment, video equipment, along with Boxcast, Facebook, Instagram, SoundCloud, YouTube, and/or Zoom. Approximately 12% indicated that they needed to learn how to use Facebook (2 Facebook exclusively, 1 Facebook and Instagram, and 1 Facebook and Zoom). Approximately 6% indicated that they only needed to learn YouTube, and another 6% indicated that they only needed to learn Zoom.

Learning took place with varying levels of support. Slightly more than 41% of respondents said that they learned all the technology on their own. Approximately 6% of respondents indicated that someone taught them how to use the platforms they need to use, and almost 53% of respondents wrote that their learning was a combination of self-directed learning and someone teaching them.

From Nuts and Bolts to Planning and Practice

While the concrete aspects of shifting from gathered worship services to online worship services had to be addressed, these 34 pastors and worship leaders (like all the other liturgical leaders in churches) also had to look at the actual worship service itself… its length, content, and form. In Part 2 of “The Benediction of March 8,” we will discuss the heart of the matter: worship. We will reflect on the liturgical “shifts and pivots” (as I like to call them) they made for their services. We will also glean from their experiences in terms of the insights and wisdom they share about what they gained in those few short months.

Have a good Lent.

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