As of three weeks ago, the church I pastor is now holding weekly outdoor worship in our parking lot!
When the congregation’s reentry team started meeting (online, of course) at the beginning of June, we had much more glamourous sites in mind — perhaps a park with a pavilion or the pond in the middle of town. But gradually, our team realized that the most practical and feasible option was our own upper parking lot space (though not known for its beauty).
It has taken a lot of work to figure out how to get cars and people in there safely, and we have already tested a couple different times in the morning to adjust for maximum shade. We must accept that if it rains (as it did this past Sunday), we have to cancel and host worship via our Facebook Live platform only. People make reservations in advance to accommodate contact tracing (we’ve been using Eventbrite.com) and are welcomed by ushers with a touchless check-in. And while this has gone smoothly (we can easily contact the list for changes in parking or cancellation), many of us have had feelings of lament around asking people to register for a ticket (even though it’s free!) to attend church. Everyone wears a mask and bring their own chair, and we sit, stand, set up and stay six feet apart. And, as an added precaution, everyone is double that distance from myself so that I can speak without a mask on during worship (the mask muffled the audio significantly on the livestream). We still do not have the audio just right, but we are working on it. And, for those who find 8 a.m. outdoor worship inaccessible, we livestream the service and I do a separate 10-minute prayer service at 10 a.m. on Facebook Live.
There is humility in trying new things. Worship the last two weeks has been nowhere near perfect. As I mentioned, the audio on the livestream has had separate problems two weeks in a row. The sun takes over earlier than we would like. We can’t gather when it rains. We’re not quite sure how to accommodate our tiniest worshippers safely just yet. Some cannot come, because we have no restrooms available or sitting outside is too uncomfortable. We had to move the time up to 8 a.m. for shade and the cooler weather, but this is too early for some. We have had to find a new way to incorporate online prayer requests, because I now do not have direct access to the online comments.
But, there is much to celebrate too. We get to hear the beautiful music of our pianist throughout the service (we have a portable keyboard that our saints carry outside and set up each week). We get to be physically together and see each other safely (we wear masks and keep appropriate distance). Everyone is welcome just as they are (casual dress). And we get to be in God’s beautiful creation as a group who join together to praise, thank and pray before our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. I was not sure how it would feel to worship with masks on, but I recognize the Holy Spirit with us as we come together to worship God even in this strange way. I think we all love to hear and see one another laugh and to say “let us worship God” together in unison.
Like everyone else, we don’t know what the future holds, but we are glad to find a creative way to worship together in person for now. We are working on an indoor plan, but we are still unsure when it will be safe to implement. I am grateful for the ability to come together in this way during this time; if we do find ourselves back online only at some point, I am hoping this new, exciting, weird, non-glamorous season of worship will sustain us and keep us hopeful. I am grateful for the leadership and voices of our session, deacons and reentry team members that have been flexible enough and faithful enough to let go of visions of what we would like worship to look like and have accepted and embraced the imperfect options of the moment. I don’t think we’d be worshipping together outside in July, August and hopefully September if we were not all willing to sacrifice and expand our thinking on the details. I am thankful that the ability to meet with the Divine is not in the details.
The very first thing I noticed about the identity of this congregation is that they are a church that gets things done for Jesus. Even though there were times of planning during June and July where we all had to be patient and we worried we were running out of time to get outdoor worship going, the congregation has remained faithful to who God has called them to be. They are stubborn, enthusiastic and hardworking. And though it is sad to not be in the sanctuary, they have embraced our new space knowing that God is still with us … even in the non-glamour of the parking lot.
We are far from doing things the way we have always done them, but we are still getting things done for Jesus. And even though we have to sometimes stop and grieve all the things we cannot do well right now, we also have to keep moving forward and celebrate what we have been able to do through hope and faith in Christ and remembering and being who God has called us to be together.
JULIE RAFFETY serves as the pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Franklin, New Jersey. Julie is a violinist, aspiring writer, snowboarder, runner, identical twin and crazy about popcorn.