Paul and his companions travelled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. Acts 16: 6-10
I wonder if we can identify with Paul and his companions here? Despite our best intentions, despite our call to minister, despite all the accumulated expertise invested in the vocation we identify with, we find our way blocked; our ministry stopped in its tracks. Luke does not go into detail of what circumstances stopped them, only offering an interpretation. The Spirit stopped them from continuing in the path they had planned for.
In March 2020, the pandemic effectively halted the ministries of Sunday church worship in its tracks, and Ministers, elders and those in parishes up and down Scotland found themselves in a strange new place for worship. Adapting, pivoting, scrambling, innovating, building de facto teams to cope, trusting others, breaking old scripts, inviting participation and different voices, connecting with a world outside a church building, leading worship from attics, lounges, back gardens, and hilltops, lochs and busy streets. And yes, with that went stressing, over-working, zoom fatigue, guilt and uncertainty.
Then finally the way appeared to open up again. But what is the vision calling us on? What did the Spirit want us to discover as those conducting worship in the Church of Scotland?
A few fragments from where I am located in ministry education and pastoral studies
- We learned that we could adapt; quite radically in fact. An online live presence for churches is no longer odd or the preserve of the mega-churches. A resource church like Sanctuary First https://www.sanctuaryfirst.org.uk/ was ahead of its time for the Church of Scotland, but exactly where it needed to be within culture and provided us with much valued expertise and modelling alongside others both in and beyond the Kirk.
- People are willing to share in the leadership of worship if they are consulted and offered support and training. The professionalisation of ministry in one person was found wanting. Ministers are no longer the stand alone expert in everything but need to become a player-coach, modelling good practice and enabling others to play. The shift to a worship team approach is imperative in the new mission plan era. Check out Iain McLarty & Pill Mellstrom or your local Presbytery who will be rolling out worship team training workshops in the coming year. Several Colleges and Presbyteries have launched accessible worship training courses. Here at Trinity College we now offer a nine week introduction to designing and leading Christian worship https://www.trinitycollegeglasgow.co.uk/designing-and-leading-worship A Preaching course in short course accessible format is launching with Doug Gay this Autumn. trinitycollegeglasgow.co.uk/preaching-in-church-contexts
- Our styles of worship are cultural, time bound and not absolute. Changed circumstances result in changing expectations. The Pandemic exposed many worshippers to a much wider repertoire online. Some sacred cows may no longer be quite as sacred. So many resource sites are available today to expand the repertoire, inviting us to be flexible within theologically informed parameters. Check out UK based https://engageworship.org/ that aims to resource local churches for creative and world-changing worship. We also benefit from wise guides as there is sub-optimal online material that needs sifting for our local contexts. If you are not musically savvy then Iain provides assistance here https://www.trinitycollegeglasgow.co.uk/songs-for-sunday
- Worship is a moment which is both sacred and deeply human and we need to hold these together. Gathered worship is a different kind of moment to all other moments (and we struggled to replicate that online). It is also a deeply human moment of connective tissue. We need to attend to that tissue which has been strained to breaking point and taken for granted in some of our prior patterns of worship. We need a fresh vision of participative and embodied worship.
- There are implications for curation of space, the use of the visual and art, and the aural. Yes, our A grad listed buildings may be part of the straight jacket we experience. Yet there are creatives who have shown us the way through responsive liturgy and singing https://www.wildgoose.scot, use of symbol, worship & prayer stations https://jonnybaker.blogs.com/jonnybaker/alternative_worship, art installations https://www.gardnerandgardner.co.uk and other materials. This Autumn Carol Marples teaches an online practical course resourcing the intersection of liturgy, worship spaces and contemporary art. https://www.trinitycollegeglasgow.co.uk/visual-art-and-worship
- Research demonstrates children and young people struggled to engage with our online worship offerings https://scriptureunion.ca/wp-content/uploads/Multi-national-Childrens-Ministry-Report-2021.pdf. However, it also exposed our assumption that customary ways of gathering in worship were doing it better. Others are better equipped to address the opportunity here. Register for our Children & Young People’s eNews
The Spirit leads us into uncomfortable spaces and encounters (Acts 16). Are we venturesome like Paul, to adjust and grow, now the old normal is no longer the vision to call us on?
Rev Dr Mark Johnston
Acting Principal, Trinity College
Pastoral Studies Tutor, University of Glasgow