By Ben Brown
They live in the same city, but Sterling Severns and Art Wright could not meet in the same room on March 19, 2020, due to social distancing. Sterling Severns is the senior pastor at Tabernacle Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia. Art Wright is the theologian in residence for CBF Virginia.
Instead, Severns and Wright talked on Zoom about the ways the church is adapting due to the Coronavirus pandemic, recording their conversation as a resource to churches near and far.
“It’s a time for both creative and theological thinking,” said Wright, as they discussed the technological and other adaptations made to worship on Sunday, March 15, 2020.
Only ministerial staﬀ were present in the Tabernacle sanctuary. The historic church on the corner of Grove and Meadow live-streamed their worship service to empty pews, but worship leaders didn’t “perform” for the camera.
“One of the natural temptations when we’re physically in our
buildings together is that worship is already somewhat of a consumeristic thing, where we come and just watch,” Severens said. “And now, out of the necessity of going online, if we’re not careful we’re just creating low quality television shows—religious programming, that may have its place; but that’s not what worship is. Worship is coming together with God as the audience.”
Wright and Severns stressed the participatory nature of worship, and then adapted to involve participation even with empty sanctuary pews. “We made heavy use of the chat feature at various points in the worship service in order for people to pass the peace and greet each other; for people to share prayer concerns that were on their hearts during the pastoral prayer moment. We also posted words to the songs that we were singing,” Severns noted.
The two mentioned several technological resources and strategies for live-streaming or for recording a worship service, challenging other pastors with those talents and access to technology to share their resources. “If you’re spending all of your time as a pastor right now trying to figure out how to worship technically, it probably means that you’re missing the mark. Right now is the time that shepherding is desperately needed,” Severns said.
“I want to encourage anybody that has the know-how and has these tools in place to oﬀer invitations to some smaller churches that just don’t have that sort of stuﬀ figured out yet…and for the right motive,” he said.
The theology of being church has not changed, and Wright and Severns expressed the importance of pastoral care—especially for the most vulnerable and isolated. “We need to avoid this being the moment that we oﬃcially leave the vulnerable behind. This is modern-day leprosy,” cautioned Severns. He shared the necessity for teachers, leaders, deacons and others to be reaching out and compiling a list of prayer concerns. He even mentioned a simple strategy of having conference calls through smart phones as a way to keep senior adults engaged and connected.
One of the greatest fears cited by Wright and Severns is that the most vulnerable and the least connected will be forgotten during social distancing, unable to participate in worship through a webcast, and who feel abandoned when it may matter the most.
Wright mentioned the potential for increased spiritual maturity and growth for the church through the traditions of solitude, silence, stillness and dwelling in the wilderness. While the wilderness can be a place of renewal, the Israelites also became more selfish in their wandering.
“If this is the time that we turn inward and just take care of ourselves, and even just each other in the church, we have ceased to be Church,” said Severns.
The conversation between Severns and Wright is intended to be a resource for any and all congregations and is available at the Tabernacle Baptist Church website.
The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship has also created a resource hub for the benefit of individuals and congregations in these uncertain times. Bold Faith Resources features original and curated resources for children, youth, adults, worship, missions, prayer, spiritual care, Spanish speakers and digital ministry resources for churches. This hub also includes all COVID-19-related news and updates for the Fellowship. Learn more at www.cbf.net/boldfaith.