Leaning Into the Connection: Churches Collaborate on Worship


United Methodists in the North Georgia Conference are proud of our connection. We have built a strong system of support between church leaders, pastors, youth and children’s ministers, university and college students, and countless other groups. But no one could imagine how important that connection would become. No one could imagine how “leaning into the connection” would take on a whole new meaning and new life when faced with a shelter-in-place mandate caused by a global pandemic.

Knowing that several churches in their area were likely struggling with exactly how to offer meaningful worship during this crisis, Rev. John Mattox of Griffin First UMC and Rev. Cyndi McDonald of Barnesville UMC set out to help. A team from the Griffin District put together a six-week worship series in which they provide a full worship service that churches post online or send as a link to their congregation. They also provide worship elements from the services that others can draw from to augment their own worship.
“Churches can pick and choose how they want to use the material,” explains John.
The series includes sermons by Rev. Richard Winn, Rev. Susan Landry, Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson, and Rev. Phil Schroeder. Each service is based on a scripture from Acts, so that congregants can learn from some of the first Christians.

“All their ideas about ‘normal’ were turned upside down,” adds Cyndi. “And yet God used this time to build a church!”
Churches in the Conyers/Covington area have also found a need and a way to lean in to connection. Rev. Dave Benson of Conyers First UMC and Rev. Julie Schendel Crossroads UMC decided to come together and develop worship material jointly with other area churches. Seven churches, in fact, held Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services together via technology, taking different parts of the service and melding them together so that all the congregations took part and shared in one worship.
This connection has addressed something more than the current crisis. Julie and Dave both admit that even without the global pandemic, ministry can be hard. hard.
“Especially in our tradition when you move from church to church,” says Julie. “Thankfully, we are able to build relationships with other clergy that continue throughout our ministry, so the idea of connection isn’t anything new. It just feels more important now, because we’re having to rethink so much.”
Connection isn’t new, but sometimes leaning into it might mean using gifts that aren’t exactly part of your day job. That’s exactly how it happened for Rev. Tavares Stephens, Assistant Pastor at St. James UMC in Alpharetta when he joined forces with Atticus Hicks, Oak Grove UMC Director of Modern Worship.
The two met at a North Georgia Conference MLab event in 2019 and became part of the Modern Worship Leaders Network that Atticus co-founded last year. The group came together to connect, support each other, and share resources even before they knew just how pivotal that coming together would be.
In the weeks leading up to Easter, Rev. Blair Zant of NGUMC’s Center for Congregational Excellence asked if the group might come up with original music as a way to share their gifts with other congregations in the Conference to use without copyright or other barriers. With an emphatic “yes!” Atticus quickly pulled in Tavares and others to create what became, as he describes, “an anthem of the other side of everything we are going through right now.
Arise was written on a Zoom call with me sitting at my piano and Tavares ideating and scribing on a Google doc,” explains Atticus. “Yet, it is rooted so deeply and literally. We read from the Bible and took notes on phrases that jumped out. We wanted the message of the song to be a way to lean in to what we already know to be true. Through song, we lean in to connection, but also to what scripture means in our lives today.”

Listen to the song here: https://vimeo.com/406185465
"The process and what came out of it speaks to something beyond what is happening now," said Tavares. "Every time Atticus and I would see each other, we shared similar ideas and our intention to collaborate somehow. Only now, as a response to what is happening, did we finally get placed within the same space.”

Once the song was written, Michelle Alexander, Stephanie Newton, Davis Cook, Stephen Miller, Natasha Williams joined with them to perform the song.
The song Arise got well over 3,000 listens on North Georgia Conference social media and website and was included in Easter worship services around the Conference.
Tavares best sums up how connection has worked in all these churches: “I believe this reminds us that whatever we thought was our best effort we can bring to the table, God makes it even better than we could ever imagine. That is the power of the leaning in.”

Rebecca Wallace is a communications consultant (and United Methodist) in Atlanta.