Synod’s groundbreaking, soil-tilling service draws worshipers from many time zones

The online world and the world of worship mingled in new ways Sunday as the United Church of Christ opened its national meeting with a high-definition video experience.

Sound, sight and spoken word, woven together and pushed out over the internet, proclaimed the General Synod’s biblical theme, “Rooted in Love.” People tuned in from throughout the U.S. and around the world – and responded via social media.

It was a bold embrace of the possible, and it happened mainly because of COVID-19. The pandemic caused the Synod, which normally gathers thousands of people in person, to move online for the first time ever. The service – and two more like it, airing on Wednesday, July 14, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, July 18, at 6 p.m. EDT – was the product of more than a year’s work.

‘Enter with holy curiosity’ 

This was not a traditional service recorded inside a church building – or even on a grand convention hall stage. Rather, it offered vistas, voices and many styles of music, edited into a whole. Scenes were shot outdoors and indoors, in rural and urban settings.

These excerpts give just a flavor of the 90-minute, online opening worship service of the 33rd General Synod.

“Ninety percent of this video footage is original,” said the Rev. Tracy Howe, Synod worship director. “We’ve done something here that has never happened before, sending teams on location and working with artists to create this. Even these songs: Most of them are original, written for this Synod.”

A recurring, pulsing instrumental theme connected sections of the 90-minute service. Hymns and other musical offerings came variously from 

  • a solo upright bass, 
  • a guitar-voice duo, 
  • a string trio, 
  • entire choirs, whose singing faces appeared in galleries of squares, and 
  • many more combinations of musicians, seen and unseen. 

One of the service’s writers, the Rev. Phiwa Langeni, urged worshipers early on to “enter with holy curiosity. Stretch your heart- and your head-space to welcome God in our various spaces.” 

‘Put your hands in the soil’ 

Familiar marks of worship were there, sometimes subtly and always with fresh twists. Among them:

  • A welcome from the three national officers of the church – with their words and images creatively spliced together. 
  • A scripture – read aloud in Zulu. 
  • Hymns – with lyrics displayed on-screen and an invitation to “sing from wherever you are!”  
  • The passing of the peace – urging worshipers to connect “with someone, or some nearby creature, or even a huggable plant,” or by sending a text or writing a note.
  • An invitation to give – by texting “UCCRJ” to 41444 to support the UCC’s racial justice work.
Opening worship focused on “rootedness,” “soil” and “rural and environmental issues.”

Each worship service is taking a different three-part cue from the Synod’s thematic scripture, Psalm 1:3a, “They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season.” The opening service focused on “rootedness,” “soil” and “rural and environmental issues.” 

Soil appeared on screen often: blessed by sacred Indigenous dance, tilled with a hoe, planted and smoothed by hand. Songs referred to it often: 

  • “Break up your fallow ground,” sang a virtual choir. 
  • “Put your hands in the soil,” urged a soloist. 
  • “We’re grounded and rooted in your love,” sang another. 
  • “May your roots go down deep,” intoned voices just before the benediction. 

Environmental justice 

The preacher, too, picked up on the theme. In his sermon, “Faith, Justice and Love Matter,” the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. recalled 1982, when the dumping of toxic chemicals was discovered in “the most predominantly Black, rural farming county” in his home state, North Carolina.

“That’s where they were going to dump 40 tons of cancer-causing PCBs – wanted to dump it into a landfill,” said Chavis, who at the time was on the staff of the UCC Commission for Racial Justice. “We thank God that United Church of Christ member Dollie Burwell and hundreds of others lay down in the streets in the attempt to stop the truckloads of PCBs from dumping that toxic waste in the earth in the heart of a Black community. Over 500 people were arrested, including me. 

In this sermon excerpt, the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. recalls UCC efforts in the 1980s to resist toxic-waste dumping in North Carolina.

“But now, look how God is good all of the time. Out of that local protest led by the United Church of Christ in Warren County, the environmental justice movement was born … an effective national and global movement for justice.” 

People say ‘amen’ – virtually 

The sermon and other aspects of the service drew online reactions (“Amen!” “Preach, sir!” “Yes!”) – and organizers encouraged them.

Langeni urged worshipers, separated by miles and time zones, to strive for a sense of community. “Being together in this format calls on a different set of skills. Recognizing that the language of social media is new to many people, we still want to invite you as you desire to participate in real time by using the hashtag, #UCCSynod, to share your prayers, respond to what moves you, and contribute to sharing the sacred space that we are creating together.” 

As worship streamed on Facebook live, the comments section there took on a bit of the family-reunion feel of an in-person Synod. People greeted each other from Hawaii to Florida, from New Hampshire to California, from many states in-between — and from Korea and Jordan as well. “Alleluia, y’all!,” posted an Ohio pastor. “It’s so good to be together as Synod again!”

Mainly, though, they reacted to the service:

  • “Love the music!”
  • “Amen! We are called to be stewards of the earth/ of all of creation!”
  • “I can feel the spirit moving and speaking to and through me through the beautiful music and all of the beautiful words that have been spoken as we continue to center ourselves in preparation for the week ahead.”
  • “I’m grateful for all the languages of prayer and arts that have already been part of this multimedia worship experience.”
  • “This feels like and IS the Kin-dom! Thanks be to God!”

Bulletins available 

Synod worshipers, wherever they may be, can download worship bulletins and “sacred time” supplements to aid in following and enjoying worship. The bulletins also identify the musical selections and the dozens of people who appear in and/or helped create each service.  

Those resources, along with links to the online services, are in these places at the General Synod website: 

As the three officers said in the opening service – just before the formal launch of a longer-than-usual, eight-day Synod – “Our hope is that all of us will find something in the next hour that will sustain us through the night, the next couple of days, the week and beyond.”

Categories: United Church of Christ News

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