Christian Living

Moving the Church Service toward a New Normal

Adjusting to How We Gather on Sunday Mornings

It’s been four months since I’ve been to church service on Sunday morning. It isn’t that I’ve lost my faith, have backslidden, or am pursuing a rebellious protest. It’s because of coronavirus in 2020.

With government mandates to avoid large gatherings, most churches responded by moving their services online and closing their doors to people. After four months of isolation, churches are finally reemerging as a place to gather.

Sadly, I’ve not missed going to church.

A minister once remarked that some people go to church for the music and put up with the sermon; other people go for the sermon and put up with the message. At various times in my life I’ve done both. Now I do neither.

In recent years I’ve showed up at church for the chance of experiencing community before and after the service.

Though I’ve participated in our church’s online offerings most every Sunday. I’ve often wondered why. Remote worship and recorded sermons mean little to me. And from the distanced safety of my living room, interaction with others—aside from family—doesn’t occur.

Outdoor Church Service

Today we have our first opportunity to attend church for a Sunday morning gathering, but we’re not going to our home church. They’re proceeding with caution and aren’t ready yet. Instead we’re going to another nearby church, one within walking distance.

They’ve been holding outdoor services for the past month. Some of our neighbors attend there, as well as one of my wife’s coworkers. We expect to see familiar faces.

We could walk, but the predicted temperatures will hit the mid-90s today, with an accompanying high humidity. It’s already in the low 80s, without a cloud in the sky. The fifteen-minute walk would surely leave us a sweaty mess and not looking our best.

Part of our family plans to meet us there. They arrive a bit before we do and have already claimed a spot in the shade on the right side of the stage. We join them, setting up our portable folding chairs. It’s 9:30 in the morning, and the shade offers a welcome relief from what heat has already formed.

Social Distancing

The church website and Facebook page make no mention of social distancing or wearing masks, unlike most businesses and many other churches, which state strict guidelines for proper coronavirus etiquette. I’m quite willing to do the first and not the second, especially given that my lone mask is in our other car.

It doesn’t matter. No one, not even their church leaders, wear masks. Yet everyone makes some effort at social distancing, avoiding hugs and handshakes, while conducting conversations at six or so feet apart.

We have brief interactions with a few people, mostly those we know. Otherwise we stay segregated in our family group, as do most other households.

A portable stage sits on the east side of their building. A tent awning provides shade for those on the platform, while the rest of us sit in the open sun or rely on the shade of a few nearby trees.

The sun, not yet at its peak, shines over the left shoulders of the people gathered. A gentle breeze provides pleasant relief.

An Abbreviated Church Service

One of our neighbors tells us that given today’s forecast they’ll have an abbreviated service. She serves as their worship leader. They’re in between ministers, with their former one departing nine months ago and their new one arriving next week. Today we’ll hear a guest speaker.

The worship leader stands behind a portable, electric organ. She welcomes us and begins the first song. She’s aided by two backup vocalists, a drummer, and a guitarist. As we sing, the words appear on monitors, flanking each side of the stage.

We sing a couple of familiar choruses to a light pop sound.

One of their leaders gives announcements. He confirms that, given today’s forecast, our service will be shorter than usual. Though we’ll endure the heat and humidity for a while, we’ll retreat to our air-conditioned cars and return to our air-conditioned homes.

He’s right, and I feel a pang of guilt over being so privileged. And with that, he introduces us to the guest speaker.

The Story that Grounds Us

At fifteen minutes into the service, the message begins. The sermon title and text appear on the two monitors: “The Story That Grounds You, Exodus 13.” The minister reads Exodus 13:1-16, encouraging us to follow along in our Bibles. Words do not appear on the monitors. I wonder why.

It’s the Fourth of July weekend, and he links our country’s weekend celebration of independence to ancient Israel’s Independence Day, as implied in the Exodus text. It’s an interesting observation, but I see little connection between the two.

He reviews the facts surrounding the departure of God’s people from captivity in Egypt, but he offers no application. Or it could be I missed it. I made only a few sermon notes, but I may be out of practice. It’s been four months since I last took notes.

The title, I guess, is the point: What is the story that grounds us? Contemplate on that question.

The message takes twenty-five minutes, and we conclude the service with a final song. After the benediction, most people are quick to fold up their chairs and head home. A few linger to talk, but these conversations don’t last long.

By the time we head out, most people have already left, and the set-up crew has dismantled and stored the technology and tools used in today’s service.

We arrive home at 10:30, one hour after the service began.

Read the full story in Peter DeHaan’s new book Shopping for Church.

Travel along with Peter and his wife as they search for a new Christian community in his latest book, Shopping for Church, part of the Visiting Churches Series.

This book picks up the mantle from 52 Churches, their year-long sabbatical of visiting churches.

Here’s what happens:

My wife and I move. Now we need to find a new church. It’s not as easy as it sounds. She wants two things; I seek three others.

But this time the stakes are higher. I’ll write about the churches we visit, and my wife will pick which one we’ll call home. It sounds simple. What could possibly go wrong?

Peter DeHaan writes about biblical Christianity to confront status quo religion and live a life that matters. He seeks a fresh approach to following Jesus through the lens of Scripture, without the baggage of made-up traditions and meaningless practices.

Read more in his books, blog, and weekly email updates.