thoughout this pandemic season 2

Throughout this Pandemic Season

by John Pentland

I believe we aren’t through with COVID and its effects on individuals and communities. We are in many ways emerging slowly from the tomb. Many are exhausted, bewildered and discouraged. It was tough on everyone, and churches, like all institutions, were shaken to the core.

However, when I sit back and reflect with others I am aware there were many gifts and learnings we have discovered. One of the biggest silver linings is discovering the breadth and depth of online church. Technology is a gift! It is essential in relevant church life and will always be important, no matter the size of your church. Church online invited us to connect differently. Here’s how:

1. We Churched Outside the Box
As ministry groups began meeting on Zoom and Sunday services were broadcast to YouTube, we suddenly learned to ‘unmute’ ourselves, ‘raise a hand’ with an emoji, and chat in the chat room. As we learned this new way of being together, we started to think outside the box and connect differently.

In online worship, we struggled at first. This was a new thing — behold! As we found our groove, we realized we were able to create innovative worship experiences online. We prerecorded the service on Thursday and we held worship from crazy places like the dog park, a raft on the Bow River, park benches, and even a bicycle. The possibilities of who could be at our “pulpit” blew wide open! Suddenly, we could interview fantastic guest speakers like Jann Arden, Brian McLaren, and Harry Maier.

We tried outdoor worship at Thanksgiving and drive-by communion during Holy Week. We held a baptism in the river and celebrated Christmas with an outdoor nativity, paper-bag lanterns, and hot chocolate. We tried new things and celebrated these playful and creative Sundays.

2. It’s Not All About Sunday
Our church’s tag line, “Whoever you are, wherever you’re at,” took on a whole new meaning as people could truly join us from wherever they were. We also found that people didn’t necessarily worship on Sunday mornings. Instead, many chose to view the service mid-week.

Membership classes and congregational meetings saw record attendance as people joined from the convenience of their homes or watched afterwards. We held online weddings and funerals where loved-ones could attend from a distance. Our congregation

welcomed 100 new members during COVID that included people from other parts of Alberta, BC, and Ontario. What a gift!

As we were no longer bound to a location, new ministries emerged and grew: A BIPOC Spirituality group started with people meeting from across Alberta, and our 7:00 am Mindful Mornings Meditation grew from 10 people to 20 overnight (it’s much easier to log into Zoom from your PJs instead of trudging to the church!) Online connections could be intimate and meaningful . . . who knew?

Meaningful book clubs and intimate pastoral care conversations took place over Zoom. Wildly, we even called a new minister online, never having met in person as a Search Team. Who would have thought it possible?

3. Languishing in the Liminal
Lastly, we learned about living in what Susan Beaumont calls liminal space. This is the threshold experience of being both not “where we were” and yet not “where we are going.” Languishing also describes the COVID-19 space we were all in. There is still weariness, confusion, frustration, excitement, and indeed, even gratitude.

The pandemic took its toll on each of us. It was excruciating. Loss of loved ones, of relationships, of jobs, and of dreams. Many adapted and found new ways of connecting through this grief. Lots couldn’t. It is no one’s fault. Even in the process of re-gathering with our church community in body, I believe we remain in this liminal space still discovering as we go.

During COVID, I have worked the hardest I ever have in 30 years of ministry. It has also been the most rewarding time ever. The church celebrates incarnational connections centred in the person of Jesus, the Word made flesh. I reckon we met Jesus during the pandemic in surprising online encounters. I also believe we will continue to meet him as we emerge from this COVID-19 season and reconnect, in the flesh, with others beyond the tomb.

Dr. John Pentland is Lead Minister at Hillhurst United Church Calgary since 2004. Ordained in 1988 he has served a three point charge; Deer Park United, United Way of Calgary, and Hillhurst United Church. John was on the Board of Governor’s of VST from 2008-2017.