By Dave Kirkland
“Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!” These are the words that will be used throughout our community as persons attend Easter worship services on April 4. Some churches will have in-person worship, some will have drive-in, or outdoor, worship, and others will have online worship.
The leadership of Dulin Church and I have decided that we will have our Easter worship services, as well as Holy Week, virtually. It is all about health and safety.
Dulin’s last in-person worship service was March 8, 2020. Since then, we have provided a weekly, authentic and purely online worship service. The response has been excellent. People from all over our community, nation, and world view our worship services. The average weekly in-person attendance of 200 has doubled to an online attendance of 400. We have been able to reach a new demographic of people who seek to know about the ministry of Jesus Christ.
Being a United Methodist Church, we are part of a global connectional church. We have a multi-layered bureaucratic system which places restrictions on worship. Each United Methodist Church in the Virginia Conference creates protocols for worship using a Technical Assistance Manual (27 pages, single spaced) giving guidance on creating a Healthy Church Team, as well as requirements for Childcare, Drive-in worship, in-person indoor and outdoor, non-worship gatherings, Holy Communion, and congregational singing. This protocol for worship is then sent to denomination officials for approval.
While initially I called this Technical Assistance Manual “onerous,” over time I have simply called it “overwhelming.” Through a series of revisions, we have moved from a 2.0 technical manual to 2.2. Dulin Church has opted that we would like to see the guidelines for worship be closer to 3.0, the new normal, before we have in-person worship. Online worship is manageable for us. In-person, or outdoor worship creates more layers of responsibility in terms of safety and health.
Health reasons are part of the decision to not have an in-person Easter worship service. For me, it’s personal. In United Methodist clergy circles, there are signs of fatigue and exhaustion, and many clergy have lost the ability to keep a sustainable pace. There have been increases in requests for leave of absence, increases in mental and physical illnesses, and more early retirements. I am doing my very best to keep a sustainable pace of holding together all of the responsibilities of pastoring a church, while at the same time allowing myself the proper self-care.
Online worship is manageable for me at this time.
The second reason is safety. There are risks of infection. We are required to report any infections from persons attending worship services to various health and denominational officials. Contact tracing occurs. Remedial actions must be taken to insure a safe building and grounds. There are fears of surges of infection due to people being in closer proximity due to warmer weather and spring break of schools. Only 16 percent of Virginians have been fully vaccinated. I am not among that group.
Yes, in-person Easter worship provides a sense of community, but at the same time, social distancing, wearing masks, no singing, registration and seating of participants, Covid-19 variants and surges as well as getting the building ready is a monumental task. In outdoor worship, participants are at the mercy of the weather, creating additional planning logistics. Maundy Thursday and Easter liturgies include the sacrament of Holy Communion. That raises its own logistical issues.
We at Dulin Church will provide three services during Holy Week. Thursday will be a zoom worship service with three other United Methodist Churches in the area. Good Friday will feature an online worship service where Dulin disciples offer reflections on the Seven Last Words of Christ. Easter will be an online/virtual worship service recorded earlier in our sanctuary. Join us on our website!
So this Easter Sunday, Dulin disciples and guests will worship online/virtually. We will have a virtual choir complete with instrumentalists and vocalists. We will sing to the rafters in our homes. Families will sit next to each other. We will not wear masks. We will view a baptism and welcome a new disciple. We will hear preaching about the disciples and Mary at the tomb of Jesus. Holy Communion will take place. Worshippers will give electronically to support Dulin Church ministries.
While Dulin disciples and guests will miss each other’s presence, we will all feel the power of the presence of Christ in our homes and whatever virtual location we choose to worship- safely and authentically. Eventually restrictions will lift, and we look forward to worshipping in-person as well as virtually. Digital church is here to stay.
Whatever format of worship churches use on Easter, we all will proclaim the same message, “Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!” And that, my friends, is the Good News!
Dave Kirkland is the pastor at Dulin United Methodist Church