Coming Back to the Heart of Worship

Illinois Great Rivers Conference Guidance on Safely Gathering

Download the Entire Plan Document (16 pp, PDF)

As we continue to minister with and serve our communities during the COVID-19 global pandemic, we are seeing our churches transform and adapt in amazing ways. When faced with the specter of this disease, the United Methodists of the Illinois Great Rivers Conference have innovated and adjusted their ministries to continue to proclaim in word and action the good news of Christ’s love and the healing power of God’s grace. Now, we are beginning to plan for how we will continue our ministries when it will be safer to gather people in our communities and church buildings. This document is intended to provide assistance and guidance to church leaders as they consider their ministries. Our goal, in all things, is to follow the Lord of Life as we do all in our power to ensure that our communities and congregations are healthy and well.

Why and How Do We Worship?

In 1997 Matt Redman, the prolific and popular worship music composer, joined a challenge from the pastor of his church. As worship leaders, they had become concerned that worship was becoming too focused on the performance of the musicians and preacher and not enough focused on the participatory worship of the congregation. Together they determined that they would stop their regular worship experiences for a season and refocus on the core purposes and practices of worship. During the time that the congregation was simply gathering for shared testimony and prayer, Matt Redman wrote the popular worship song “The Heart of Worship” to describe his hopes and prayers of what it would be like to return to a fuller worship experience. He wrote:

When the music fades, all is stripped away, and I simply come,
Longing just to bring something that's of worth that will bless your heart.
I'll bring you more than a song, for a song in itself is not what you have required.
You search much deeper within, through the way things appear;
You're looking into my heart.
I'm coming back to the heart of worship, and it's all about you; it's all about you, Jesus.
I'm sorry, Lord, for the thing I've made it, when it's all about you; it's all about you, Jesus.

During the last few months as it has been unsafe for groups of people to gather, churches across the world have been asking themselves similar questions about what makes up the heart of their worship gatherings. The necessary pause has invited church leaders to innovate new worship practices, new ways of connecting people to each other and to God, new ways of telling the good news of Christ’s salvation, and new ways of offering praise and prayer.

As we begin to prepare for a gradual easing of public health safety practices, some churches will want to quickly return to the previous traditions and habits of their worship. We know, however, that we cannot simply restart everything that we’ve done before. These guidelines offer the best available direction on keeping our congregations and communities safe. We’re following the guidance provided by public health officials in the Restore Illinois Plan. You can find the details of phased easing of safety practices in the later sections of this document, but some things to initially consider are:

  • We likely won’t be gathering people into groups larger than 10 for quite a while, and even then we won’t be gathering people into groups larger than 50 until our communities are clear of COVID-19 or there is a widespread and effective treatment.
  • Social distancing practices of wearing masks, keeping six feet apart, and avoiding interpersonal contact will continue to be the norm.
  • People over 65 years old, those with compromised immunity, those with respiratory illness or injury, or others who are at a higher risk of dying from COVID-19 will want to remain isolated and avoid gatherings of any size until they are given the all-clear.

Given these general precautions, most of our churches should not simply return to their previous patterns and practices of worship. We must, instead, focus on how we can worship safely and in new ways. In John 4:24, when the Samaritan woman questioned Jesus about the changing worship practices of her day, he reminded her that “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” In this moment, leaders of worship in our churches are being invited to rethink and re-envision their worship practices so that all of the people of our congregations and communities can be invited to worship God in spirit and truth.

Some churches are already beginning this re-planning and re-engagement with how they will gather people for worship in order to provide a powerful, encouraging, and engaging experience that offers praise, prayer, and thanksgiving to God. Some of their ideas include:

  • Continuing to offer online or other broadcast worship experiences for those who are at high-risk and cannot safely gather in person.
  • Setting up house or neighborhood small group worship experiences, so people can gather more safely in groups of less than 10.
  • Offering drive-in worship, where worshippers remain in their vehicles.
  • Offering daily worship experiences for smaller groups throughout the week.
  • Remaining solely online, and not offering in person worship experiences until they can safely gather their entire congregation.

In this time of preparation and planning, our church leaders are being invited to consider how and why they gather for worship. What is at the heart of your church’s worship? And how can that be done safely for all people? Many of our churches have worked hard at following the Spirit’s promptings to reach out in new ways through new means to their congregations and communities. What have you learned from this? And how will you continue to serve those whom you’ve newly engaged through your new practices? The Spirit is blessing our church leaders with new tongues of technology to speak to new generations. How will we continue to practice the new skills that we have learned?