Holy week in the midst of a pandemic; Two practical ideas for your online youth ministry gathering

Photo by Karl Fredrickson

“… [T]he transformative stature of waiting is a profoundly countercultural act, a practice mastered only over a lifetime, that nonetheless may bear away some of the world’s pain.” —Sarah Coakley [1]

My friend Liz, a pastor, texted me recently.

“I have no idea what I’m going to do for Holy Week at this point.”

“Wait for the resurrection I suppose,” I wrote back.

“Or just wait.”

Maybe this resonates. We’re waiting, but for what? We don’t know under what circumstances we can relax our limitation on gatherings. We are blind to how this all ends.

What impact will this pandemic have on public health? On the economy? On our families? On our ministries? We just don’t know.

And neither do young people.

Some are longing for the day social distancing is no longer a thing—the day they can share a car with a stranger from the DMV, to pass the driving test, and finally obtain freedom.

Some are wondering, if prom is permanently cancelled, did junior year even really happen?

Some were looking forward to being the first in their family to graduate from high school. Does it still mean the same if they can’t walk proudly across the platform to receive their diploma?

These are not trivial adolescent laments. The grief is real.

In studying what makes young people resilient, Paul Tough used the work of psychologists to theorize that young people need spaces which facilitate autonomy, relatedness, and competence. [2] But in the space of a few short weeks, a global pandemic has robbed young people of all the necessary resources to persevere—and at the very time they need resilience most.

Theirs is truly the anguish of helplessness.

However, they aren’t the first.



Julian of Norwich is most well-remembered for being a fourteenth century anchoress—meaning she voluntarily sealed herself in a church closet and dedicated her life to prayer and contemplation, with no one to keep her company but her cat. Talk about social distancing.

She’s also probably the first woman ever to write a book in English. You’ve likely heard or prayed her most famous prayer: “All shall be well, all shall be well, all manner of things shall be well.”

Profound words from someone whose childhood and adolescence was shaped by a pandemic. The Black Death hit Norwich when Julian was just six or seven years old. As many as 12,000 neighbors died. Plagues continued to ravage northern England into her teenage years, wiping out another 23 percent of her hometown.

She became very sick herself. Her mother tended to her sores while a clergyman ministered to her in prayer. While on death’s precipice, she experienced a vision of Jesus, and after recovering wrote some of the most eloquent words in history about the love of a God who suffers with us.[3]

But how?

Julian waited without hope. There were no vaccines in the fourteenth century. No therapeutic drugs. No masks. No hand sanitizer.

She asked not for resurrection, but to know Christ more deeply. She asked to know him more—not in his joys, but in his grief. How many young people are suffering something right now? How many simply feel powerless? As ministry leaders we long to get to Easter, to gather (albeit online) with our young people, to sing, and to celebrate. But to preach “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming” during Holy Week might invalidate their grief, and our own.

So we should follow the wisdom of Julian.

This means prayer, yes.

It might also mean cuddling with our pets (they seem to be immune from the virus, after all).

Most importantly, it means drawing near to Jesus in his suffering. And that’s difficult. Especially now. And especially during Holy Week—for young people or adults.

Remember how Peter longed for autonomy when Jesus knelt down to wash his feet?

“No!” he said. “You will never wash my feet!” (John 13:8 CEB)

Remember how he desperately sought to demonstrate competency?

“Lord, not only my feet but also my hands and my head!” (John 13:9 CEB)

Remember how tragic his desire for relatedness?

“Lord, why can’t I follow you now? I’ll give up my life for you.”

And Jesus replies, “Will you give up your life for me? I assure you that you will deny me three times before the rooster crows.” (John 13:37-38 CEB)

Every young person is Peter right now, drawing on familiar resources for perseverance when Jesus simply wants them to wait with him in solidarity at the hour of his death.

Ironically, youth leaders are no different. We’re trying to demonstrate competency. We’re trying to find relatedness from a distance. And we’re trying to do it autonomously, all on our own.

We’re trying to persevere with our plans because we think that’s what young people need, but maybe we should just give up and wait with them, and wait with their parents, as we wait with Christ.

Two practices to consider when you gather with students this Holy Week

Part of our grief is in the loss of gathering in sanctuaries, and for good reason. There is safety in the presence of friends, and sanctuary is literally another word for refuge or safe place. But despite the novelty of our virtual gatherings, let us not forget how much power these two realities—place and presence—hold in ministry.

Place

Gathering virtually from homes offers a unique opportunity to recreate the Last Supper together. Think about inviting your students to prepare a simple meal for their families, and asking them to join your gathering from their dinner tables. If you’re comfortable with written prayer, open with the words of Julian of Norwich below. If written prayers aren’t really your thing, consider using it as a template for your own:

God, of Your goodness, grant us Yourself; for You are enough for us, and we could not ask for anything less to be for Your glory. And if we ask for anything less, we shall still be in want, for only in You have we all.[4]

Presence

Just as Julian’s mother was, parents today can be a living, breathing witness to Christ’s presence in the midst of their children’s grief. Many churches read from John 13 and wash feet during Holy Week. Consider finding a way to do the same. You could encourage parents and children to wash one another’s feet. Twenty seconds of hand washing maintains our physical health, while 20 seconds of foot washing may do the same for our spirits.

Open the floor for family listening. Encourage questions rather than instruction around tables. Consider asking the following:

  • What awaits Jesus and his disciples after the Last Supper? How do you think that felt to Jesus while he shared this meal?
  • Why do you think Peter found it difficult to wait in Jesus’ presence? Are there ways in which you’re finding it difficult to wait right now?
  • Where is the presence of Christ with us during these uncertain times? How might he be speaking to us as he spoke to Peter and the disciples?[7]

Consider closing with the hymn, “Give Me Jesus.” You should be able to easily find a version that fits your tradition, style, and context. If not, by all means, create your own.

Tell families it’s okay to be sad about the losses they’re experiencing, or the worries they hold. It’s okay to be uncertain. And it’s okay to cry. Even Jesus wept.

Julian first experienced the love of God not in healing, but when her mother and her pastor gathered around her and waited as the Body of Christ in suffering. In moments of deep anguish, we’re often so hopeful for future deliverance that we miss the gift of God’s presence in our current grief.

Resurrection power never belonged to us anyway. It belongs to God, to use in God’s time.

Amen.

Tweet this: Despite the novelty of our virtual gatherings, let’s not forget the power of place and presence. Try these 2 practices with your students this Holy Week.

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Stay connected during COVID-19 with a collection of free and digital resources to help you move your ministry online.

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Related links:

Faith in an Anxious World: A 4-week High School Curriculum

Doing youth ministry during a pandemic

Naming loss and gratitude with young people in these uncertain days

Navigating new territory: Moving ministry online

How to show empathy with teenagers when they face disappointment


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[1] Sarah Coakley, “Deepening Practices: Perspectives from Ascetical and Mystical Theology,” in Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life, ed. Miroslav Volf and Dorothy C. Bass (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2001), 93.

[2] Paul Tough, Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why, Reprint edition (Mariner Books, 2018), 60-64.

[3] Janina Ramirez, Julian of Norwich (SPCK, 2016).

 [4] Be sensitive to students whose families don’t practice the Christian faith. Perhaps this is a good time for them to invite their families to a virtual gathering. Perhaps not.

If the latter, consider calling them to mourn the fact that Christ’s Body, the church, cannot physically surround them during this time. Perhaps you could talk about Christians who have been called, due to circumstance, to follow Jesus alone. Or you could discuss that Jesus himself was left alone at the Garden of Gethsemane in his greatest hour of need. What is God up to in those moments? If they must wash their feet alone, how does Christ in them join in that ministry? Perhaps honor them by asking for their help in your service. Step in as their spiritual parent during listening portions. Above all, leave room for them to decline joining your virtual gathering. That’s okay.