Disciple: Bringing Order Out of Chaos
There is a theme running through the biblical narrative that shows a pattern in the ways God brings order out of chaos. It is a theme that begins with the creation story, is included in the Exodus saga, extends to the period of judges and kings, and is prominent in the exile, as well. It is a theme near and dear to the hearts of most of us who call ourselves Episcopalian. We love order.
Back when I was studying at Virginia Theological Seminary in the mid-1980s, the message about Episcopal Church worship was that it should conform to the standard of being conducted “decently and in order.” The opposite was also considered to be true. Worship that was disorderly was considered indecent.
As we enter yet another phase or stage of the pandemic, one could say that our worship life has, over the past 18 months, felt, at times, chaotic and disordered. We have struggled with the challenges of combining online and in-person services. We have wandered in the wilderness of the hybrid landscape, and we have lamented and grieved our inability to gather in person, for periods of time, when the spread of the virus has been at its worst.
To say this has been disruptive would be an understatement. More accurately, this time has felt like a period of major upheaval of such proportions that we wonder sometimes if we will ever be able to recover.
A recent commentary in The New York Times noted that livestreaming worship had a tendency to benefit larger churches and denominations with deep technological resources and more “symbolic views” on the sacraments, thus allowing online offerings to focus on areas that were more teaching- and music-based. The author noted, “[y]ou can’t program the body and blood of Christ in 1s and 0s of digital code.” 
The writer goes on to argue that the church is not the church unless we gather in person, and that the very nature of our faith, as incarnational, demands that, in worship, we be face-to-face. As much as I feel deeply the sentiment of this argument, it leaves me wondering if there is not a both/and to be embraced here, instead of an either/or.
CONTINUING TO CONNECT AND EXPAND
At this stage in the pandemic, I hope and pray we do not ever have to return to services that are offered only online. That being said, I do think we can and should continue to develop this other way of connecting and expanding our common life.
Part of the gift of enhanced online worship is the opportunity for the church to expand its reach. We have heard throughout the pandemic anecdotes of regularly homebound worshipers able to join their worshiping communities. We have heard of family members spread across geographical locations able to gather online and worship together once more. We have heard of former parishioners able to worship once again with beloved congregations left behind when a necessary move to a new location took them away. We have even heard of congregations adding new members who have yet to visit in person because worship was found online and felt like home.
Why wouldn’t we explore the possibility of connecting online even as we return to in-person worship? The one is not a substitute for the other. I personally believe nothing will ever replace the compelling power of the community gathered in person. But many churches were broadcasting services online even before the pandemic. That is, in part, what enabled us to pivot when we needed to and offer services on the multitude of available platforms.
What we never anticipated was that this modality, for a time, would become our primary means of gathering and connecting. And here is where the challenge of bringing order out of chaos seems the greatest for hybrid worship because combining the two can feel strange, unfocused and even disorienting. We are unsure where to place our emphasis, how to include those who are joining us from remote locations, how to lead when we have a congregation in our space and another community gathered online for the same service.
The gymnast Simone Biles used a word to describe the cause for her withdrawal from some of her Olympic events that may be useful here. She said she had the “twisties.” It is not a term I had heard before, but I find it helpful as we consider the challenge of navigating this hybrid world of worship where we now find ourselves.
For clergy who are leading worship, attending to both congregations at the same time can give us our own ecclesiastical version of the twisties. We can feel, in any given moment, that our leadership role is pulling us in one direction and yet another, simultaneously. This rapid worship whiplash can set our heads spinning and leave us wondering which end is up and how we can serve both constituencies effectively.
For people attending, either in person or online, they can feel disconnected, disengaged and even detached from one another. How do we find ways to weave the two congregations together, to bring these disparate communities onto common ground and to bring order out of the chaos created as these two worlds, in person and online, seem to collide?
FINDING THE COMMON GROUND
As a branch of the Body of Christ that places the sacraments at our center, conversations are beginning around the Church that raise the question: How can our liturgy, and, more specifically, the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion, help us to join the two congregations, to bridge the gap, to bring a new order out of this current chaos? This may be our incarnation of the new normal.
We are in the early stages of these conversations, but they are central to the life and future of our communities of faith. I have often said our comfort zone is defined by what is familiar. But the Church, when it is living into its missional identity, is responding to God’s call to move outside our comfort zone into areas that initially can feel confusing, chaotic and “twisty.” But it is in these spaces we begin to discover, or rediscover, as the familiar hymn puts it, that “new occasions teach new duties.”
It will be a time of exploration and a time of trial and error. It will be a time of experimenting with the new ways we welcome each other into our communities while upholding the traditions that bring us close together. It is a time we will navigate together, with open hearts ready to receive the unexpected gifts a new way can bestow.
And this process of bringing order out of chaos, of finding common ground, of building bridges, of seeing God making a way where there is no way—this is our sweet spot as the Church. This is at the heart of our mission. This is our call in this time and in this place. This is what it means to build and to become beloved community.
 “What We Lose When We Livestream Church” by Collin Hansen for The New York Times, August 8, 2021
Tags: North Carolina Disciple