For over a year now, Rainbow Mennonite Church in Kansas City, Kan., has worshiped from home. We have heard our pastor’s voice on the back deck in good weather and in the living room as we snuggled beneath blankets. We have not tried to recreate the typical worship experience by streaming the normal order of worship from the sanctuary.
Instead, our YouTube worship videos (rainbowmennonite.org/online-worship) have been more meditative or conversational. The Rainbow Mennonite Church staff has created meaningful worship experiences online. Sometimes Pastor Ruth Harder goes “on location,” using outdoor murals and artwork to illustrate the message. Guest speakers bring expertise and wide-ranging experiences.
We never know quite where worship will take us, yet we are always left with a new perspective to ponder. We have yet to gather in person except for child dedications, baptisms, ordinations and Christmas Eve — and then only outside. At present, our COVID team is not recommending in-person gatherings in the building.
Is there something to cultivate from this new form of worship? Perhaps the interruption in worship as usual is an opportunity to embrace doing things differently.
The time that’s passed has changed us. When we regather, some will be grayer, with new wrinkles. Some will be taller, with voices that have dropped in pitch. We will have gained new skills and lost interest in others. We will be tempted to put other community members back into old roles while insisting on new opportunities for ourselves.
Those actions could create tension — not unlike siblings gathering again and falling into the usual childhood identities. Add to that the fact that all of us have experienced trauma.
Most of us insist we want to gather again. We can say we crave social interactions, but will we feel comfortable sitting next to each other in the pews? We can say we want to sing again in four-part harmony, but will we be comfortable doing that — inside? We can say we long for the comfort of ritual, but have our rituals (like habits) changed after a year of doing things differently?
Where does this leave us as we think about regathering in our sanctuary? If we compromise on any of our wishes for gathering, will we feel cheated and disappointed? Will these disappointments cause us to withdraw and reject the community?
Priya Parker in The Art of Gathering asks us to examine our purpose for gathering. She encourages us to dig deeply — beyond the obvious answers — for the reasons to gather in person. She takes the reader through a thought experiment aimed at getting to the core reasons for gathering.
Parker’s exercise mirrors a creativity exercise I used with students during my teaching career. “The five whys” prompt us to ask why something is the way it is.
Based on children’s natural curiosity, this exercise has been developed into a corporate problem-solving technique by Toyota. In application, our questions (and some answers) might look like this:
Why do we gather in a church building?
To worship God.
Why do we need to gather to worship?
Because Jesus said where two or three are gathered, there am I.
Because the church is really the people.
Because Mennonites rely on the community of believers to discern direction.
If church and worship are about the people, why does worship look the way it does?
Because that is the way it has always been done.
Because ritual gives us comfort.
Because the familiar order of service helps us find the mindfulness for worship.
If church and worship are about the people, why is the space arranged facing “the front”?
Why should worship bring comfort and not surprise or challenge?
Notice that I have stopped providing possible answers. Churches and communities might answer all of these questions — especially these last questions — very differently. The journey is one of discovery for each community. The next step is to move from discovery to action. What do we do with the information to create the new normal?
For this step, I turn to Warren Berger, author of A More Beautiful Question. He finds that a certain series of questions drives the problem-solving process and have been the basis for much of our innovations. His series starts with the “why” questions, just as we have done. He asserts that this question helps us understand an existing problem. Then, to explore new and fresh ideas, Berger says we should ask “what if?” questions. They might look like this:
What if the purpose of gathering and worship on Sunday was to do something with the morning’s message?
What if gathering and worship focused on connecting participants, not sitting and listening?
“What if?” questions can lead to outlandish answers. That’s OK. The playfulness of wild ideas frees us to find unique and satisfying solutions.
Getting to the solutions takes one more type of question. According to Berger, the “how” questions force us to test our ideas and move them from possibility to reality.
How can we create a meaningful gathering, keeping in mind the trauma we have experienced over the past year?
How will we connect people who have, by now, internalized a 6-foot personal space?
How will we create a reason to gather in a church building when our need for meaningful worship has been met in living rooms and on back decks?
How will we make worship as easily accessible as our video worship?
How will we find a purpose for people to come back?
One purpose for regathering came out of an adult Sunday school Zoom conversation. We have been reading Wendell Berry’s book Fidelity. The story, “Making It Home,” describes a World War I soldier who walks the final miles home after his tour of duty. We see him recognize the changes and spot the familiar.
Class members observed that getting home is only the first step to being home. We talked about the trauma soldiers experience and the difficulties they may have fitting back into families and communities. We wished for a ceremony of celebration and support to welcome them home.
We have rituals for other transitions in our lives: marriages, deaths, child dedications. Our conversation then turned to the trauma we all have been experiencing during the pandemic, and we wished for a ceremony of celebration and support when we regather. We envisioned a service that would acknowledge our fears and loss, pledge support and understanding to people who hesitate to participate, and celebrate the ways we have been enriched by online worship.
This type of service would meet many of the criteria mentioned in The Power of Moments by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. They outline four elements of defining moments — experiences that have an extraordinary impact on those in attendance. Defining moments rise above the everyday, help us understand ourselves in a new way, celebrate our best selves and connect us to those around us.
As we regather, will we insist on returning to normal? Or can we dare to create defining moments for a changed community?
Carmen Shelly, a member of Rainbow Mennonite Church in Kansas City, Kan., retired last May after 36 years of teaching in the De Soto Unified School District.