Judah Manoraj (left) and Denny Tawas (right) lead worship remotely. (Photo Courtesy of Calvin)
Judah Manoraj (left) and Denny Tawas (right) lead worship remotely.

Photo Courtesy of Calvin

Worship at Calvin continues despite COVID-19

May 15, 2020

Judah Manoraj sits and reads Daniel 3 to a closed window, face lit by both his screen and the afternoon light that filters through his suitemate’s empty dorm room. The passage is 880 words long, and consists of words like “zither” and “Nebuchadnezzar” and “Abednego,” which spiral the 880 words into thousands as the video takes increase. The song they sing repeats in its refrain, “I count the joy come every battle cause I know that’s where you’ll be.”

Judah Manoraj is a Worship Apprentice (WA) for the 2019-20 school year, and his role in leading the Calvin community in worship has been turned on its head by the COVID-19 pandemic. Where Manoraj once stood side-by-side with the student body, he now sings to a screen and prays that there’s someone on the other end who benefits from his message.

“If I’d known about this, then I would have gone more all out,” Manoraj laments, “instead of doing what I expected a worship service to be.”

The Calvin University chapel building can be seen from almost anywhere on campus, its white spire pointing over the masses of red oak, white pine trees, and brick prairie-style buildings. Normally, there would be signs positioned on main paths announcing the day’s theme and speaker. The doors would be opened by friendly greeters, and the seats would slowly fill up to become a congregation—a direct, physical and immediate visual of the body of Christ in the here and now.

The shift to an online presence being the safest version of “coming together” has impacted the Calvin community down to its heart.

Now, it’s a virtual, pixelated presence of the body, attempting to connect through screens despite the distance.

Houses were the most common place for corporate worship for early Christians; Paul talks about these gatherings in 1 Corinthians 10 and 11 using the same phrase over and over again: “when you come together.” In the time of the Stay Home, Stay Safe order, gatherings have once again returned to homes; Calvin’s worship atmosphere attempts along with millions of other religious communities to compact the kingdom work done inside the chapel walls into video format or live streaming. The shift to an online presence being the safest version of “coming together” has impacted the Calvin community down to its heart: the vulnerability in worship that creates possibilities of fellowship, connection and encountering the living Savior has changed with the shift onto digital platforms.

Pastors and religious leaders are busy cancelling their plans, coming to the realization that the practices of sharing meals, performing baptisms, anointing with oil and simply passing the peace are possible ways for COVID-19 to spread. The average American church has already converted at least 20 percent of its ministry to online, and about a quarter of Protestant churches in the U.S. have already been working with live streaming, according to LifeWay Research. Churches across traditions are taking advantage of YouTube, Facebook, Zoom and other specialized services to participate in sermons, connect with those in need of prayer, and worship together.

Manoraj grew up watching his father, who is a pastor, and his mother lead worship. Worship music CDs and tapes were scattered everywhere in their house. He learned piano and practiced to a congregation on Sundays, and is still learning how to be Jesus’ hands and feet on the keys and pedals today as a WA. 

In the dorms during the Stay at Home order, he doesn’t have access to a piano.

Sitting with headphones in and fellow WA Denny Tawas on guitar, they spent upwards of 24 hours working on a short, 12-minute chapel video — 10 times the amount of preparation necessary for a regular chapel.

“If you’re doing live worship in person, like a church on Sunday morning, then if you mess up a little bit, you know within five minutes we’re all going to forget it. If you record something, then it’s there for people to see,” Manoraj said, shaking his head. “That’s a lot of pressure, cause, like, how perfect do you want this video to be? Which raises the question of where’s my focus? Is my focus on creating a good worship atmosphere for whoever watches the video? Or is my focus on putting out a perfect video that, you know, sounds good and has no mistakes? It’s more focused on yourself rather than God, which is a sad outcome… you’re focused on how you appear as a worship leader, cause you can literally see yourself. Whereas if you’re in person, you just see the congregation.”

Saara Spitzer, a former WA and an RA for the 2019-2020 school year, laughed about it sadly. “That’s a huge difference, because you now have the freedom to make it perfect or as perfect as you want it to be.”

Other Worship Apprentices—current and former—are pulling together from their own homes or dormitories to create a consistent and beautiful space to worship at home. Spitzer sits in front of guitars, hand-drawn portraits, and a dark blue curtain. Kelly Adamovicz sits in front of a cream couch with floral pillows. Andrew Deters is haloed in a bright lamp’s light. Lauren Holwerda is framed by an oak bookshelf filled with books. Carlos Lemagne chooses a blank wall. 

“Come as you are,” balances with “doing your best for the glory of God” as these homemade videos flood Calvin’s Facebook page, where anyone, even people outside of the Calvin sphere, could be touched by them.

“In some ways there’s a common ground, a common season, to think about what is God doing in this season right now? How do we need to learn how to speak to God in this situation and in this season? And these are questions that people are asking all across the world,” Spitzer said.

Pastor Paul Ryan is part of the first line of ministry as a worship pastor and director of Calvin’s Campus Choir. 

“When we gather together in worship, we come in contact with the physical body of Christ, sisters and brothers who we know and love and who in turn know and love us. This encounter combined with the worship arts opens us up to possibilities of deep fellowship, emotional connection, and imagination for the kingdom of God,” he said.

…they’re not able to participate in all the diverse worship leadership opportunities that our chapel pattern provides.

“I’m grateful now for the two people who were closing their eyes and raising their hands. You know, little, little miracles,” Manoraj said, thinking of the extraordinariness of ordinary praise and lament he was and still is a part of.

Ryan lists the ways the Worship Apprentice role has changed: “Some things remain the same: regular contact with their Chapel teams, making music, reading scripture, and saying prayers for online chapels, and weekly WA team meetings for learning, fellowship, and managing tasks. But the WAs no longer have the opportunity to arrange and rehearse music with their Chapel Teams, they aren’t planning full worship services for LOFT, and they’re not able to participate in all the diverse worship leadership opportunities that our chapel pattern provides.

“Being a worship leader in any way,” Spitzer emphasized, “whether you’re writing a prayer, whether you’re leading a song, whether you’re choosing the format for worship, or whether you’re preaching or whether you’re sitting at home in your congregation, passing the peace through a hug to a family member or through a text message to a friend who you know is worshiping alone — I think in the little moments like that, that’s where we can lean into the sacredness of the vulnerability.”

The definition of worship today has become an outlier; it no longer checks traditional boxes. Being digitally together has changed us, but it has not changed God. He meets us where we are, in our bedrooms, desks, dorms, hotels, garages, gardens, work places, hospital rooms.

Spitzer folded her hands in front of her, looking away from the camera, deep in thought. “I think in this season when our lives are reduced to things that we may not have expected to fulfill us, like long days of staring at computer screens, listening to lectures or finding yourself on YouTube for the 10,000,000th time that day… I think there’s some space in this season to see anew that our hope is in Jesus.”

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