As we approach the anniversary of our physical distance from one another (something we will honor during the worship service on March 14), I thought it might be helpful to update you on our preparations for return.
We continue to monitor the COVID-19 infection rates and are heartened to see that they are trending in the right direction. While we have not set a firm date for re-opening, we hope to gradually begin worshipping together in person sometime this spring. As it stands, our plan is to use a phased approach to returning that maintains, for a time, our 11am worship as a virtual-only service and adds an earlier in-person service. In the beginning, the in-person service will have to be different than ones we have experienced in the past. For the safety of the community, we will have limitations on hymn singing, pre- and post-service fellowship, and where we can sit. Nevertheless, I am so looking forward to the day when we can see each other face to face (even if it is with a mask). I’d ask for your prayers as the COVID-19 Task Force works through the details of our return.
Regardless of when we return, we recognize that this year has changed the way that we worship, maybe forever. While many of us plan to worship in person (as soon as it is safe to do so), our worshipping congregation has grown during this time. By God’s grace, Asbury First is no longer confined to the walls of our buildings nor to the Rochester region. We now have regular worshippers, givers, and active members of our community who live outside of this area, many of whom have never been to our sanctuary. In addition, we have been joined by many who are in Rochester, but unable to leave their residence, regardless of the pandemic. We are grateful for all who have found a home here.
As a people of faith, one of our most important jobs upon our return will be to continue to extend Christian hospitality to those who are not physically present with us. Like never before, this last year has highlighted—day by day, week by week, month by month—that the church is more than a building. Still, there are things we can do in our building to remind us all that there are more who are a part of this congregation than the people who sit in our pews each week. As I shared during a town hall meeting last fall, we believe it is time to add a means of formal participation for those not physically present for worship on Sunday morning. To that end, using other prominent cathedral churches around the country as a model (St. Patrick’s Cathedral in NY, the National Cathedral in Washington DC, and First UMC of San Diego, among others) the Trustees developed—and in December approved—a thoughtful and tasteful plan to add unobtrusive monitors to the sanctuary.
To be clear, there will be no drop-down screen covering the rose window—these will be low-profile television monitors hung on the stucco on the aisle pillars (not into the stone). They will only be used for special moments in our services and will not remain on all the time. In fact, our hope is that most of the time we will not even notice them. In the end, this is simply a means of remaining open to all (our first value as a congregation) and a way to “see” our virtual members from time to time through scripture reading, candle lighting, and other liturgical participation. This will remind all of us—inside and outside the sanctuary—that we are more than the people we see on Sunday morning.
Some will know that I have argued against this idea in years past. Indeed, my doctoral dissertation made a forceful argument as to why adding screens was not necessary for congregations to attract new members. I still believe that. However, the circumstances have now changed and so must I. The reason for adding screens is now different and much more compelling to me than my previous apprehensions. I pray others with similar apprehensions will join me in setting aside our personal preferences for the sake of the gospel.
Technology is best when it is used to facilitate connection, as we have learned over this last year. I am grateful to all of those on our tech team who have made it possible for us to worship together during this strange time and to share the promise of life made known in Jesus Christ with the world.
I look forward to the ways that we will continue to do more good in the years to come.
Grace and Peace,