by Matt Emery
After the recent Sunday morning snowstorm coupled with bitter cold, many churches decided to cancel worship. Here is how one pastor offers worship at home when cancellations happen.
Prior to arriving at Storrs Congregational in January 2011, I'd served as the associate at a downtown church in a small city in Illinois. It was our policy and practice there that church was never cancelled. The senior pastor with whom I worked lived only about a mile and a half away from the church, and I was even closer--only four blocks. So, even in the worst of snow falls, we figured at least one of us could make it to the building, and as it written, "where two or three are gathered..."
Coming here to the 'Quiet Corner', though, the geographic context is simply different. Very few congregants, even if they live "in town," are within easy walking distance (excepting the handful or two of UConn students who come from the dormitories just down the street); I myself now live 8 miles away in Andover and our associate comes over from Hartford. Regardless of the distance, the roads in this neck of the woods are hilly, twisty, and narrow -- no wide, flat-as-a-pancake midwestern grid roads here! So, as much as it goes against what had been my instinct, we do occasionally cancel worship here at Storrs Congregational.
Having arrived at the beginning of 2011, though, as it would happen the first time I'd ever been forced to decide to cancel was not due to snow, but rather a hurricane... who'd have thought, in Connecticut! Hurricane Irene hit New England across Saturday night and Sunday morning, August 28th, and such conditions made deciding to cancel pretty easy. On that first time I'd ever canceled, and still a little less than 9 months in to my time here, from the battened-down hatches of my home, I prepared and sent out an all-church email on Saturday night inviting the congregation to a time of worship and devotion in their home, in lieu of our gathering for Sunday worship. A number of congregants responded to it positively -- with a few "we've never had a minister do that before" comments -- and so I've carried on with the practice for most of the other occasions we've needed to cancel Sunday worship.
The resource I prepare for home worship and devotion is based on the liturgy as it would have been for Sunday worship had it not been canceled, reshaped and reframed into a more personal devotional tone. Typically, it invites people to center themselves and to pray an adapted version of the opening prayer(s) we would have spoken in corporate worship. People are then invited to read and meditate the scripture reading(s) for the day. Then follows a brief reflection of some sort, often copied or adapted from something I myself had come across during the week in the course of preparation for sermon writing (properly cited, of course!). After that, I frame a time of intercessory and personal prayer, sometimes pulling imagery from the reading(s) for the day, and sometimes based on the prayer list in the bulletin people would have received at church. Then, the resource wraps up with a concluding meditation and blessing. So, as I said, a pattern that's based in the structure of our Sunday liturgy and makes use of elements from it that we would have shared together in church, but with some simplification and reshaping to be more "at home" in the home. I don't have any good way of measuring how many of my congregants "use" the resource, although I do get at least a few appreciative comments or other forms of report-back, so I know at least some people are. And because the resource is based on materials I'd already put together for the bulletin for the service-that-would-have-been, it doesn't take too much 'extra' effort on my part to provide this opportunity.
Over the last couple of years, I know some of my colleagues have started doing "Facebook Live" church, or other similar sorts of live-streaming or video-based presentation when church must be cancelled. That's fine for them... but I'm going to stick with my email version of personal worship and devotion for now. I feel that it empowers people to themselves "take hold" of the "doing" of worship and prayer (albeit in a guided format), rather than simply audiencing something on a live-stream. It also lets people choose to engage the resource at the time and place that's most fitting for them, not necessarily at a set hour. And, finally, it takes the onus to still "perform" on that particular Sunday off of me, since, truth be told, the minister doesn't mind getting a snow day every once in a while, either ;-)
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