Worship in a pandemic

Tabetha Degroot—Staff Writer

Imagine, if you will, a typical week in 2019. Unmasked faces greet you as you walk down the sidewalk. You high five a friend as you pass them and maybe even stop for a conversion, less than six feet apart from each other. It’s time for chapel, and a huge crowd of people funnel into the BJ Haan. Students and faculty alike sit close together and sing freely. 

Similarly, on a Monday night, students cluster together in the choir room. The atmosphere is heavy yet refreshing as the soft strumming of a guitar wafts through the dimly lit room. Students sit in groups, they form prayer circles, they rest their hands on a friend’s shoulder. 

On a Thursday night, they gather in the Campus Center. Some stand close to the stage, almost face to face with the worship leaders. They brush up against friends and strangers and interact with them freely in the low-key atmosphere. The blue lights glow as they sing and pray for each other.

But now it is 2021. A multitude of things have changed, and that includes how we worship. Masks, social distancing, and changing locations have led to a new and different chapter in the Worship Arts department. The closeness we once experienced in worship is no longer, and the virtual has replaced the physical in many instances. 

Across the nation, churches and Christian universities have altered the way they approach worship, with 72 percent of regular worship attendees going online, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in July of 2020. Those not completely online have had to implement COVID-19 restrictions.

Dordt University is among the many institutions that have experienced change. Dr. Jeremy Perigo, director of campus ministries and worship arts, arrived this year at Dordt not knowing anything different. In London, where he had been teaching before, everything was even more locked down, so he was excited to be in an atmosphere where people were able to worship together. 

“I think the biggest challenge for me is leading worship for people with masks on” he said, “I haven’t seen Dordt worship unmasked yet and I long for that day…You’re not able to see the expressions on people’s faces and sometimes you’re not sure if they’re actually singing.”

Even though it has been difficult to feel as engaged as before, there have been some unexpected blessings to come out of masked worship. Perigo explained that worship teams have tried implementing some acapella singing just to get more of a sense of participation and it has worked out well. 

“I’ve had some goosebumps in those moments… it’s been beautiful.” 

Another upside to chapels being streamed and broadcasted due to COVID-19 is that a wider range of people are being reached. “We’ve had to limit numbers, but actually more people are participating in chapel than ever before,” said Perigo. Parents and alumni are able to tune in and experience chapel like they did as students. 

“I want us all to be in there, but now we are able to lead within the big Dordt community too.”

Senior Damon Groen has been leading worship, particularly in chapel, since his freshman year. 

“Wearing a mask doesn’t really bother me most of the time,” he said, “However, I know for some people it really bothers them, so I could see how it might cause them to reconsider coming to chapel in person.” He also expressed a similar sentiment to 

Perigo when it comes to a lack of connection between leaders and worshipers. 

“From a worship leader’s perspective, it is harder to gauge people’s engagement or investment in a worship service, because half of their face is obscured.” 

Groen also leads the Monday night worship sessions, which continue to take place at 10pm. They meet in the BJ Haan now, but if the number of people is under twenty, they move into the choir room like the old days. 

“I think worshipping with other people is incredibly important” he said, “We as a people of God are the temple of the Holy Spirit collectively, and we become that when we gather together to worship God.”

This has been a year of ups and downs, and praise and worship is no exception from that. Nicholas Hembrough, who co-leads Thursday night praise and worship, noticed the effect of the pandemic on attendance. 

“At the beginning of the year, there was some low attendance but… we kind of saw it fluctuate up and down and with the infection rate being low now there’s quite a few people coming.” 

The atmosphere of praise and worship has also changed due to its change in location from the Grille area to the BJ Haan, leading to a less intimate setting. 

“From a leading standpoint, we’ve had to be much more intentional about what we’re doing..so I don’t think its necessarily a bad thing because we’re actively trying to make it feel like more of a community event” said Hembrough. 

As far as people getting out of the habit of regularly attending praise and worship, he said, “I’d rather it be a conscious choice for people than have it be a habit… I’d rather people choose to go to praise and worship even if they’re not doing it as often.” 

Normality seems to be on the horizon as praise and worship plans to go back to the Campus Center and chapel attendance remains steady. Soon, the blue lights will greet us again in the air that still smells slightly of hamburgers from the Grille. For now, we join our friends for spiritual refreshment and praise as well as we can through our masks.

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