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October 5, 2021

Tired of constantly adapting to worship in a pandemic? You’re not alone

By Angie Hong

Worship leader, writer and speaker
Angie Hong is a worship leader, writer and speaker based in Durham, North Carolina. She has written about her worship and ministry in an edited volume “Intercultural Ministries: Hope for a Changing World” (2016) and is a master’s student at Duke Divinity School.

Composite graphic by Jessamyn Rubio

Many churches thought that vaccines would pave the way back to normal worship, but new COVID-19 realities are forcing us to keep pivoting.

When the pandemic first hit less than two years ago, our lives changed drastically.

As we adapted, the church found alternative ways to connect outdoors and online. Church members went on long walks together and learned to make themselves look presentable on Zoom with ring lights. Some pastors even relished the opportunity to rest, innovate and move with more agility than they’d dreamed possible.

Congregants who once hated the thought of online worship services discovered churches all over the world to livestream, trying new spiritual practices at home.

We found passing the peace with emojis over live chat strangely endearing. With the discovery that some church members now had more accessibility to the church than ever before, we had fresh conversations about inclusivity of people with disabilities and other vulnerable conditions.

Then, after people started getting vaccines, churches began to plan for the transition into a post-COVID era. Like many people, I looked forward to the respite of having something closer to normal again.

My pastor friends made careful preparations with staff to return to in-person worship, loading up volunteer rotations and creating reservation links to sign up to attend services at half capacity.

Some churches prepared to turn off their cameras for good, while others explored ways to have the cameras present but unobtrusive to attendees. A group of pastors and liturgical scholars even created a comprehensive guide for easing back into congregational worship this past spring.

But as we know, with the rise of the Delta variant and the failure to reach herd immunity, COVID is still here — and increasingly, seems here to stay. Hospitals are back to full and overflow capacity, and indoor mask mandates have been reinstated. Pastors have modified and even halted their plans for launching indoor worship services.

Now, instead of “pandemic fatigue,” I hear many pastors claiming “pivot fatigue.” The endless game of stop-and-go due to changing COVID-19 realities has meant constantly disrupted planning and programming for months.

In August of this year, I agreed to lead worship for a church volunteer kickoff event in preparation for indoor worship services. As we planned logistics around audiovisual support and song lyric slides indoors, our conversation flowed from the autonomic memory of pre-pandemic days.

I sensed excitement and anticipation in the air, a spirit of hope and forward movement surrounding us as we sought to bless the volunteers.

But halfway through the week, news of the Delta variant and increased hospitalizations emerged, requiring a new set of planning conversations. The excitement and anticipation for indoor worship pivoted again, as our plans hinged on the news and the event was moved outdoors.

Many scientists expect that COVID-19 will become a permanent part of our lives, with swells during the winter months, similar to the flu and other diseases throughout history that medicine has been unable to eradicate.

The COVID-19 pandemic will eventually become endemic, with reduced severity of disease, freeing us from the pressure of constant survival mode. “Endemicity as the COVID-19 endgame seems quite clear,” notes science writer Sarah Zhang in The Atlantic. “But how we get there is less so.”

This lack of clarity for the path forward is stress-inducing for churches and pastors planning worship in between a pandemic and endemicity.

Over the course of the last year and a half, many Christians have been sharply divided over questions of safe corporate worship. Tense conversations about mask mandates, proof-of-vaccination requirements and group singing have replaced past arguments about lighting, seating and moving the piano from one side of the pulpit to the other.

I’ve read numerous articles with differing theologies on conducting baptisms and funerals safely, and of course discussions continue on the difficulty of serving and taking communion physically isolated from each other.

Now, without a clear path or timeline into COVID’s future, I predict even more contentious conversations.

God is showing us yet another edge to our capacities.

By the grace of God, the church has managed to survive many a medical plague and pandemic throughout history, adapting liturgies and the sacraments temporarily and even permanently.

Developing creative adaptations and strategies for worship follows historical tradition, and looking to history encourages us to join with those who came before us in shaping worship during pandemics and beyond.

Worship adaptations also exist in the Bible. Various saints created rituals and acts of worship during times of wilderness and uncertainty, including gardening, washing feet, singing, dancing, tambourine playing, baptizing, preaching, retreating, speaking in tongues, serving others, loving neighbors and breaking perfume-filled alabaster jars, to name just a few.

The capacity to pivot logistically while remaining faithful spiritually serves as a witness to others to remain steadfast in faith on the way into the new normal.

With each pandemic “edge” we are shown, God simultaneously affirms the incredible gifts we possess to continue navigating the nebulous path to endemicity. With each pivot made, we model complete trust in God even at the expense of losing members or drawing scrutiny from others.

Those coming after us may not remember our best sermons or spectacularly planned Easter services, but they will remember how the church learned to survive and be faithful during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Our enduring legacy may just be surviving “pivot fatigue” and meeting God at the edge.

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Faith & Leadership

This was first published in Faith & Leadership, the online learning resource for Christian leaders and their institutions from Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

The Thriving in Ministry Coordination Program is a service of Leadership Education, which designs educational offerings, develops intellectual resources and facilitates networks of institutions.