Responding to Reality: Worship Planning as Innovation Lab

August 31, 2020

Khalia J. Williams

As Candler School of Theology starts the 2020-2021 academic year in a hybrid model due to the coronavirus pandemic, the school’s Office of Worship (OOW) has been hard at work planning meaningful online worship for the community. For Assistant Dean of Worship and Music Khalia J. Williams and her team, it has been an opportunity for creativity and innovation.

“This is making me rethink how we do worship in so many ways,” Williams says. “What do we use, what do we have, what imagery, what sound, what ways can we manipulate this technological tool that we have and use it in a worshipful way? We’re a lab,” she says.

Candler’s customary Tuesday and Thursday worship services will be virtual, broadcast live on FacebookYouTube, and the Candler website at 11:30 a.m. each week (note the time shift from previous years), and available afterward on Vimeo and Instagram. Services will typically run for 30 minutes. The OOW will also continue what it started when quarantine began and share “devotion moments” on social media at the start and end of each week.

Williams says the upheaval of the spring semester called for a quick pivot. “What we did in the spring was exactly what our community needed. Now, as everyone’s lived into this for almost six months, we can move and expand a bit more. We have this rich worship life at Candler, and we wanted to be sure that we stayed connected to that, but also pull it forward.”

The variety of streaming options aims to meet people where they are, and what platform is easiest for them in the moment.

“We have alumni and friends who are used to going to the website. There have been people who have gotten used to seeing us on Facebook,” Williams says. “One thing we worked hard to think about was the students who might be in class on campus, and that class ends at 11:20 a.m. — will they have a chance to get somewhere, sit down, open their computer, get to the website…?” Using Facebook and YouTube for live worship allows for that flexibility. “If you’re on the go, worship on the go—that’s okay!”

A record 20 students are working alongside Williams this year, and their duties now run far beyond mapping out hymns and Scripture readings. “They’re not just planning worship anymore, but also thinking technologically: how do we use this, how do we pull together what we have, how do we produce new content? How do you use video editing as a worshipful tool?

“I want to think of this time as an opportunity for us to lean into this tool of technology in a worshipful way and recognize the gifts that it brings to us, and the ways in which we—with our own human capabilities—can use our creativity to enhance it.”

Williams emphasizes that in planning online worship, “we’re not trying to replicate what we would have done in Cannon Chapel.” The semester will feature a varied schedule of archived music and sermons, but more new content from preachers—both guests and faculty— including some who had been slated to preach last spring. Services sponsored by Candler student organizations, a staple of worship in a normal year, will also be featured.

“We’ve pulled together a ton of content from past services that can be highlighted,” Williams says. “We might have an older sermon from past years paired with a new student reading the Scripture lesson, or new music recorded by one of our choirs—a way of blending the old and the new in creative ways.”

Candler-Worship-Recording-Session-4.JPGIn the vein of blending old and new, Williams has also connected with two Candler alumni to assist with video editing and other related projects throughout the year. She says both were excited to once again be involved in helping with worship, which had been a highlight of their Candler experience. “Even this expands the ways in which we connect our community. That makes me hopeful.”

Williams spent the summer collaborating with different churches, speaking and learning about different ways to approach virtual worship. Elements of this work have spurred questions and ideas as the Candler school year gets underway. For example, “How do we think about greeters in a virtual way?”

Going virtual, Williams says, opens up your worship audience much more broadly than simply those gathered in one physical location. She thinks that will still be important on the other side of the pandemic. “Even when everyone goes back to the building, you can’t ignore that connection, and you’ll still have to figure it out. It’s important to teach our students—how do you do it, and how do you do it well? They’re going to go into a world where this is a normal part of worship and congregational life.”

As Williams and her team of students gear up for a Candler worship season unlike any other, she knows one thing: “There’s hope in this. It’s going to be crazy, but it’s going to be hopeful.”

Bottom photo: Williams films Marla Frederick, Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Religion and Culture.