April 08, 2020 | Matt Kucinski

A graphic of an open hand holding a church with birds flying above

Oh, the difference a week makes.

On March 8, many churches in North America were engaged in their traditional worship service experiences. The following Sunday, most churches had either canceled their services or moved them online.

Shifting services

For some churches, the technology piece of it was a breeze, they had livestream already setup or had already been in the regular practice of recording their services and posting them online. For others, particularly smaller congregations, the transition was like being thrown into the deep end and being forced to learn how to swim.

“In this crisis situation, so many churches have to immediately do things differently, and they are looking for help,” said Kathy Smith, senior associate director and program manager for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (CICW).

And that’s what the CICW has been doing for years: helping churches navigate the seasons of the church, providing resources for worship services, practical tips, and contextual and theological perspective for the seasons in the life of the global and local church.

Facing a shared problem

But this is a season of church history that seems particularly novel: a pandemic that has swept the globe and closed church doors around the world. It threatened to leave churches feeling uncertain and unstable.

“We live in a globalized world, but I think this is the first time the world is experiencing trauma at the same time,” said Maria Cornou, an associate director and program manager for CICW.

CICW recognized the fears gripping churches across the globe and stepped in early on to offer help, to guide churches in this unique season.

“So this creates a sense of church unity, the sense that we need each other, we can help each other. We all need to pray for each other, across nations and churches,” said Cornou.

Creating a road map

“Some of the materials we have made available are in direct response to people who have asked for a specific resource,” said John Witvliet, director of CICW. “Church leaders are needing help with copyright advice related to streaming or wondering about the pros and cons of having the Lord’s supper online. We are also continuing to anticipate what churches are going to need, so a few weeks ago we started adding resources to help churches navigate Holy Week in an online format, and now we are looking ahead toward Ascension Day and Pentecost.”

Kristen Verhulst, an associate director and program manager for CICW, says the institute is also helping churches think through creative ways to stay connected with their congregations outside of worship services, how to keep worship inclusive, and is providing resources to help churches walk alongside their congregants who are experiencing trauma. Some of these are existing resources that have been repurposed, while others are being developed in real-time, to respond to specific needs in this season.

“It’s remarkable to see the creative, thoughtful work that so many leaders and congregations have developed, often with very limited time and resources,” said Witvliet. “We see our role at CICW as content creators, but also as curators of some thoughtful resources that our friends around the world and across the ecumenical spectrum of churches have developed to help us navigate this challenging journey.”

Providing perspective

While CICW has offered many practical tips and guidance for churches who have and continue to move aspects of their worship experiences online, they are also providing churches with resources that provide perspective.

One of the most popular pieces right now is “Pandemics and Public Worship Throughout History.” This curated page summarizes how the church responded at various points in church history to epidemics and pandemics and includes links to articles.

“These perspective pieces really help us situate ourselves as congregations during this time,” said Witvliet.

Sharing success

CICW continues to hear success stories of congregations across North America and around the world who are serving their communities well. Some of those church leaders are sharing their stories and their learnings on the CICW website. And many others are sharing their gratitude with CICW leaders for their ongoing help in navigating this time of uncertainty.

“The message we are hearing is ‘thank you, we followed your instructions,’ for some, and for others, ‘thank you, I needed this broader perspective, it helps me become a bit less anxious and reactive,” said Witvliet.

“We’re hearing a lot of leaders saying: Thank you for giving me the words for this,” said Smith.  “We posted a prayer by Neal Plantinga early on that is written for this situation, and it gave people the words they were struggling to find.”

“We are hearing about an enhanced community that is happening in this situation,” said Witvliet. “Being isolated is bringing us together in pretty amazing ways.”

So, while the physical doors may be shut. There are many windows that are open wide.

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