So what happens when worship is disrupted? How do theological schools help students and the rest of the school community stay engaged with one another and with the divine? How do they reinforce spiritual bonds and foster spiritual practices? How do they combat the isolation that can occur during a pandemic?
In the laboratory experiment of the past year, technology, innovation, and creativity were the most essential components. Some have called 2020 “the reformation that happened overnight,” says Suzanne Duchesne, visiting assistant professor of worship and preaching at New Brunswick Theological Seminary. Or as John Witvliet, director of Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, says, “We made three years of [technological] progress in five months.” Even though most schools have been offering online education — and online chapel — for years, “COVID totally upped the stakes,” says Rachel Miller Jacobs, assistant professor of congregational formation at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. “We started livestreaming chapel last year because I was looking for ways to include distance students in our worship life,” she says. When the pandemic first hit, the seminary moved chapel entirely online, but in September, it also began holding chapel outdoors where people wear masks and stay physically distant.
Some schools have responded to the pandemic by reducing services, others by increasing services, and many by experimenting with a combination of synchronous (live) and asynchronous (prerecorded) models. At Vancouver School of Theology (VST), two Anglican students took it upon themselves to start — and lead — both morning and evening prayer five days a week.
"Our students are shaping worship online and finding ways to engage others in profoundly moving ways."
CHALLENGES WERE EXPECTED
Figuring out how to conduct worship during a pandemic has not been without obstacles. Schools that are holding classes on campus are figuring out logistics such as how to limit capacity, how to facilitate contact tracing, setting up microphones for outdoor worship, determining how best to balance livestreamed with in-person services, and of course, learning how to videoconference and use other forms of technology.
One thing that helps, Miller Jacobs says, is giving people a clear understanding of their purpose and direction. “I attend all chapels. For the videoconferencing chapels, I greet people as they come in, then outline what is happening that day, then turn it over to the worship leaders. If you have someone telling you what your part is, you don’t have to be hypervigilant about figuring things out.”
There is also the very real issue of Zoom fatigue. “We now have to rethink everything we once did on autopilot and are using more of our reserves to do normal things,” she adds. It’s causing everyone — students and faculty alike — to tire more quickly and operate with less capacity.
Elizabeth Ruder-Celiz, chaplain at VST, agrees: “You think you’re able to do more, but in fact, it’s actually less.” She’s found it helpful for students to turn off their screens. Humans naturally monitor themselves when they see their reflection, and that’s tiring — plus, a blank screen makes it easier to reflect and contemplate.
One of the biggest blows has been the restriction on singing. VST senior Frances Kitson says it’s the thing she misses most about worship: “I so treasured singing together. That was part of the glue that kept us together as a community.”
And since humans are hard-wired to connect, the physical isolation has created a greater need for spiritual and emotional care. “Radical change like this causes people to be disoriented,” says Vergel Lattimore, president of Hood Theological Seminary. “With my background in pastoral counseling, I’m conscious of students’ emotional needs and the need for support groups. As a whole, our faculty and staff aim to respond to student questions or concerns before the end of the day.”
SOME SURPISING BENEFITS
Lattimore says there are blessings to be found in the pandemic. Although Hood has offered online learning for several years, the switch to all online has been a relief for students with long commutes. It has led to not only increased enrollment but increased attendance at worship services. What used to draw 40 to 60 people now draws around 100, he says.
VST, too, reports greater chapel attendance now that it is virtual. “Some of that reflects the nature of theological education these days,” says its principal, Richard Topping. “Part-time students weren’t likely to drive all the way in on chapel day, and now they don’t have to. But some of the increased attendance is that need and desire to be together. They often show up early and start conversations. To allow for that, we have implemented breakout groups.”
Having distance students join in worship from all over the world has also led to opportunities to share global perspectives. “In the United States, we too often think we have the answers to the world’s questions,” Witvliet says. “But in seeking out global conversation partners and asking how they approach matters in their cultural contexts, we can learn together.” Miller Jacobs agrees, noting that with the current social unrest and civil protests, many people are reflecting more deeply about “intercultural and intertheological assumptions.”
Virtual worship has expanded learning communities into places of healing and grace, Witvliet reports. Moreover, it has offered a “remarkable opportunity” for students to learn leadership: “Our students are shaping worship online and finding ways to engage others in profoundly moving ways.”
"The fact that we are looking at people so intently is good."
To make it work, schools have experimented with a number of different platforms — important skills to hone going forward, says Frances Kitson, the VST senior. She expects to use her experience with virtual worship in her upcoming job in rural Saskatchewan. “Even as restrictions ease, I can picture people gathering in house churches to watch the service together.” She notes that it’s also helpful for assisted living facilities, small churches, and rural churches with no regular minister. For that, pastoral staff will need to have at least an understanding of the available technology.
Zoom fatigue has been a major consideration for faculty and administration. Professors at Hood coordinated their scheduling to make sure they weren’t holding more than three Zoom classes on a given day. The same goes for worship, says Lattimore: “We wanted to be intentional about this and deliver good-quality worship that is engaging — not thrown together or just a talking head.”
Schools have experimented with duration as well. Calvin Institute, for example, has tried shorter and fewer Zoom meetings that are more interactive and less passive, Witvliet says.
Even the camera position is important. Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary started livestreaming with a computer from the back, then moved it to the front so people weren’t watching the backs of heads.
When Fuller Theological Seminary first started offering online education years ago, they tried to translate in-person learning to an online setting. But after two years of research showed this was the wrong approach, Fuller began treaing online worship as a separate entity. Julie Tai, Fuller’s chapel director, says online worship opens up engagement in ways they weren’t able to achieve before. She explains that they use three platforms: Zoom for those who want to engage (during the times when speaking is allowed) and YouTube or Facebook Live for those who simply want to watch.
Connections are easier when we “see who we are praying with, even though we can’t touch or hold hands,” Ruder-Celiz says. “The fact we’re looking at each other so intently is good. At moments, we ask people to turn their screens off to do meditative practices, and we mute so we only hear the voice getting us to do a body check.”
To promote community connection, schools are working to create space for people to gather, both before and after online worship. VST first tried it after the service — setting up breakout rooms to talk — but as Ruder-Celiz reports, that didn’t work well. After the service, “people were tired and needed to get outside and stretch their legs.”
And perhaps getting outside is an important part of worship too. It is, after all, a recognition that worship is a connection between embodied human beings and a transcendent God. And knowing the difference between limited humanity and limitless divinity is perhaps one of the most significant lessons of this unusual time. Technology can never bridge that particular gap.
CREATIVE WAYS TO ENGAGE IN WORSHIP
Take chapel services outdoors, even in cold weather. Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary has been considering in-person outdoor worship, says professor Rachel Miller Jacobs. This would involve what she calls “wild church and more contemplative worship.”
Don’t overlook important rituals. Even anointing can be done online. Everyone has their own oil and indicates their desire for anointing in the chat. Leaders can anoint their own hand, look at the person on the screen, and speak the appropriate words. Miller Jacobs finds it “amazingly effective and a very striking way to really recognize that we are part of the body of Christ.”
Implement personal testimony about how the Holy Spirit has been at work in their lives (during times when people are invited to speak). Miller Jacobs says this has been very powerful and effective.
Create space for connecting, such as breakout rooms with focused testimony and prayer.
Combat Zoom fatigue by turning off the self-view. “Part of what makes you tired is the constant self-monitoring when you see yourself on the screen,” Miller Jacobs says.
Be intentional about when worship starts and ends. When Chaplain Elizabeth Ruder-Celiz leads, she first asks a question that requires contemplation. She then invites everyone to turn off their screens, maybe put up a picture, light a candle, take a deep breath, close their eyes, thank God for friends and family, and pray for those who are distressed. “Any conscious effort to sink you into a sacred space works. You don’t need to look at the screen for that."
Expand your bubble. Some people are shy and aren’t good at reaching out. “If they’re in a bubble of one, if their housing doesn’t allow animals, how do they have company?” Ruder-Celiz asks. You can connect by mailing palm crosses or prayer tags. People can write back with prayer requests. Send messages on Facebook or texts by phone. It’s about forming community everywhere.
Prayer is powerful. Ask faculty and staff to write prayers to read during services. At New Brunswick Theological Seminary, the prayers people wrote were so powerful, and came from so many different perspectives, that they had deep impact, says professor Suzanne Duchesne. In some cases, these prayers were so impactful that those who wrote them included them in a sermon.
Timely issues, hot-button topics, and good preaching are good ways to draw students into worship.
Gathering and chatting are essential for emotional and spiritual well-being. After services at Fuller Theological Seminary, the chaplain holds a virtual coffee and conversation meeting so attendees can talk about what they experienced during the service. It also gives the preacher a chance to answer questions and delve more deeply into the subject of the sermon. Fuller has always had affinity groups on various subjects such as church planting, films, and books. The seminary finds that they help foster friendship building, and this is especially necessary now, when neighbors are not visible, says chapel director Julie Tai. Fuller has also started hosting half-day online retreats, and her colleagues are now investigating doing the same in person, working with the pandemic team to oversee safety parameters.