By Robb Redman
The current global COVID-19 pandemic has affected the way both families and churches operate, particularly when it comes to worship. News of the novel coronavirus broke in February, and by the end of March most churches throughout North America had suspended weekly worship services. Thousands of churches that had never planned to broadcast services scrambled to offer livestream services at their websites or on Facebook in order to stay connected with members.
At first, many churches began simply with a message, prayers, a few announcements, and perhaps some songs. Gradually, however, churches began to develop new ways to interact, encouraging people to share prayer requests or praise reports via chat features. Some churches figured out ways to celebrate the Lord’s Supper and baptisms. Sunday school classes, small groups and even worship teams began meeting on Zoom. What started as a passive Sunday morning event, with viewers sitting on a couch watching a talking head on a computer or smart phone, has become in many places a more active and engaging event for members stuck at home. Churches are learning to leverage technology to increase interaction and participation. Who knew a pandemic would lead to that?
The experience reminds me of a famous saying. Speaking of the 2009 recession, White House Chief of Staff at the time, Rahm Emanuel, said, “You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that, it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” Through this pandemic, churches have learned to use communication technology and social media in unprecedented ways. And the lessons learned are likely to stay with us. Supported by research from ministry experts, denominational leaders like Mick Noel of the Christian & Missionary Alliance are encouraging their congregations to continue to broadcast services and keep on using the new technology even after the pandemic is over. “You will continue to reach those who can’t come to you,” Noel says, “and you’ll keep on reaching people you weren’t reaching before.”
The coronavirus pandemic can be our opportunity to answer in a much deeper way the question, “Where does the church worship?” In his book, Maximize Your Ministry, Bob Slocum reminds us that the church exists in two forms—as the gathered church and the scattered church—but in either form it is still the church. For those with ears to hear, the pandemic is a jarring wakeup call that the worship of the church is much more than its weekly gathering.
Biblical and Historical Perspectives
In the Bible, worship mainly takes place in two locations: at home with the family and at the temple, synagogue, or church with the assembly. In the Old Testament, the Mosaic law envisioned festivals that would be observed either in the home or in the temple, or sometimes both (Leviticus 23). Aided by Levitical priests who lived nearby, families celebrated the rites and rituals of the various festivals, especially the Passover meal, and parents explained them to their children. The songs of Israel, the Psalms, were sung in the temple by the gathered congregation but also by families in the home and on the road to and from Jerusalem for the festivals. God had in mind a people who would worship him earnestly in the temple and at home.
That pattern changed over time. According to Hughes Oliphant Old, the origins of the Jewish synagogue are unknown. We do know that after the destruction of the temple and the exile, the synagogue emerged as a weekly gathering of Jewish families for the purpose of praising God, reading and proclaiming the Scriptures, offering prayers, and gathering alms, or donations for the poor.
At the same time, families continued to celebrate the weekly Sabbath meal and the annual Passover celebration, among other festivals. The early church adopted this synagogue model and translated it into the wider Greco-Roman world, becoming the pattern of worship for Christian worship around the world to this day. But as Robert and Julia Banks point out in their book, The Church Comes Home, worship of the early Christians continued to be a family affair in the home as well, including daily prayers, songs, Scripture recitation from memory, and other devotional practices.
The emphasis on worship in the home has ebbed and flowed over the centuries. During Medieval times, worship in the home was frequently neglected and overshadowed by the emphasis on the weekly mass, though there were notable exceptions. The reformers like Luther, Calvin and others attempted to restore the balance of gathered and scattered worship. We see this in the Reformation-era catechisms, which were intended to give children a vocabulary of prayer and praise as well as an understanding of the gospel. The reformers understood that the worship of the scattered church is just as important to the spiritual vitality of the believer and the congregation as the worship of the gathered church. In his book Worship That Is Reformed According to Scripture, Hughes Old reminds us that the Puritans regarded the weekly worship of the congregation as the gathering of worship in the homes, the daily routine of individual worship in the prayer closet, and the worship of the couples, parents and children at the family altar. Similarly, the Pietists like the Moravian Brethren encouraged a “both-and” approach to gathered and scattered worship.
Connecting the Sanctuary and the Family Room
Unfortunately, the practices of family worship have waned in recent generations in North America; fewer families read the Bible and pray together on a regular basis. Even the once-common blessing or grace before the meal has gone missing as fewer families eat together anymore. The lack of practice became apparent in the early days of COVID-19 restrictions when gatherings were restricted or banned altogether, and services were live-streamed to families in their homes. It is safe to say that for many churches, neither their families nor church leaders were prepared for what happened.
Things were bumpy at the start for many churches; churches that had never broadcast services before were faced with technical challenges, and pastors struggled to preach and pray to a camera in an empty sanctuary. Things were awkward at the other end, too—parents who were used to programs for children and youth during services now found themselves having to wrangle their kids while trying to pay attention to the service. Many felt awkward about singing or praying or taking communion in their homes rather than in the church building.
As the restrictions persisted into the summer, pastors and worship leaders began noticing some amazing things taking place. To be sure, expectations had to be reset and everyone had to learn new ways to say, sing, and do the things we are accustomed to in worship. But a “new normal” began to take shape quickly. Grateful for the connection to the family of faith through technology, even the most hide-bound church members accepted new ways of doing things in their homes. Kids and youth found themselves hearing and watching things in their churches that they’d never, or rarely, heard and seen before. People didn’t stop watching; surprisingly, attendance for video-streaming services for many churches has been greater than before. Giving and participation in ministry didn’t disappear as people found new ways to give and serve from home. By the end of the summer, many church leaders could be heard to say, “Maybe this isn’t so bad.”
So what have we learned from the shift of worship in the sanctuary to worship in the family room? The results so far seem encouraging. The big takeaway is the rediscovery of family worship. Families are beginning to worship together at home. Children are learning that Jesus is someone they can talk about at home as well as at church. Digitally native, tech- and social media-savvy youth are stepping up to serve with the technology, creating websites and apps, managing the video-streaming and video recording, and monitoring chat activity. Parents are finding themselves talking to each other and their kids about what their relationship to God means to them, and they are praying with and for each other and their children. The beginnings of a spiritual awakening are happening right in our own homes.
A Worship Awakening in Our Homes
It has taken a crisis to help us do what we didn’t think we could do, namely, to connect the worship of the family of faith with our families at home. To be sure, it is only a start, but it is a promising start and one that will help all churches make more and better worshipers.
Whether or not this breakthrough will last remains to be seen. A vaccine for COVID-19 and the end of restrictions on large gatherings will be a test. Will the churches and families settle back into the old routines? Or will pastors and worship leaders develop and deepen the new connections between the family of faith and its families, between the sanctuary and the family room?
Practical Suggestions for Family Worship
Getting family worship going and keeping it up can be difficult if your family isn’t used to regular times of worship. It can be like starting a lawnmower you haven’t used for a while. However, there is help. There are plenty of resources available for family and small group worship (see the resources listed below). Consider using the Worship Leader 2020 Advent Calendar with your family starting Sunday, November 29. Take turns reading the Scriptures, listen to the devotion from the guest worship leader, then sing along with the video recording. Joseph Kidder notes, “Anything you do is better than nothing. Be intentional about family worship on a consistent basis. Make it interesting, practical, Christ-centered, relevant, and participatory for all.”
Here’s some good practical advice from the front lines:
- Find a convenient and regular time and stick to it.
- Include everyone. Find something for everyone to say, sing, read, or do.
- Keep it brief and focused. Ten to fifteen minutes is plenty for a daily family worship service, especially if you have younger children.
- Don’t worry about feeling self-conscious. The more family worship becomes a routine, the less of a concern this will be. Kids will fall into a new groove quickly.
- Encourage everyone to pray out loud. Lead by example but try not to dominate the prayer time. Don’t worry if your kids—particularly middle-schoolers and high-schoolers—hang back for a while; they may need more time to get comfortable with the idea.
- Pray “glocally,” that is, pray for both global and local concerns. This mirrors God’s concern for the whole world and for each person individually.
- Sing along. Start with easy songs that everyone can sing, like kid’s songs or simple choruses. If you’re not musical (or even if you are), there’s no shame in using recordings.
- Find ways to connect your family’s worship with your church’s services. Besides tuning in to the livestream or recording, use the church’s Bible reading plan, devotional resources (such as Daily Bread or The Upper Room), and worship songs in your daily worship times.