You might call me a theological curmudgeon. I’m a bit of a grumpy ol’ fogey when it comes to the local church, Christian ministry, preaching and the use of technology. For several theological reasons which I won’t rehearse here, I would not ordinarily be inclined to broadcast sermons online. But these are not ordinary times. The COVID-19 global pandemic forces us all to adjust our models of ministry.
Together with the other elders of my local church, we have elected to record abbreviated versions of our services and to post them online on Sunday mornings in an effort to gather online with the members of our church. Most churches likely have made their decision to either provide online teaching and singing or to forego meeting until the pandemic lifts. Even those who chose not to provide an online service will likely have to revisit that decision in light of some estimations that stay-at-home, shelter-in-place and social distancing orders will extend into months rather than weeks.
I’m no pro at this. Others have been doing some form of online or livestream service for much longer. I’m certain they have greater wisdom. But even those previous efforts were livestreams that included actual audiences. Nowadays, everyone is in a more or less empty room. An empty room is a different dynamic for preaching and singing. With that in mind, here are a few tentative suggestions for people still figuring out their approach as I am.
1. Choose whether livestream or an edited video works best for you.
Either livestream or pre-recorded video could work, of course. There’s no right or wrong here, only what fits your resources and capability. For our part, we chose to pre-record a video. That allows us to put together a service that (a) maintains the highest level of social distancing and (b) involve a wider number of members of the church. We film the various elements of the service using iPhones and digital cameras and edit the pieces into a whole. While we’re not aiming for performance, the pre-recorded option also allows us to re-shoot segments if needed.
Some people who opt for livestream do so, in part, because of the live element of gathering that way. We wanted that element in our online gatherings as well. So, we use the “Premier” function on our YouTube channel. Essentially premiering the video allows you to set a time for the video to post, provides a landing page and a countdown. We invite everyone to join us for our regular 10am start time when the video premiers and we use the chat function to greet one another, comment and interact.
Again, there is no right or wrong here. Choose an approach that works effectively for you and your church.
2. Preach to the camera or to an imagined room?
A very practical question the preacher has to settle is whether to preach directly to the camera or preach as if the room is filled. The key issue is whether you want to appear to speak directly to the viewer or you want the viewer to have something approaching the experience of sitting in an auditorium watching you turn and move.
Again, no right or wrong here, but I think directly to the camera is best. Screens are a different medium than live in-person, in-room participation. There’s even a difference in viewing a live audience event on-screen and viewing an individual in an empty room. That’s why I think directly to the camera may be best.
Shoot a tight shot of the preacher—mid-section to head, wide enough for shoulders and gestures. That gives viewers the sense that they’re sitting up front rather than the sitting far away view of wide angles with lots of background.
As a speaker, speak to the camera rather than turning left and right as we’re trained to do when we’re looking at actual people in an audience. In live preaching, turning left and right establishes eye contact. On video, however, it breaks eye contact.
3. What about preaching tone?
Should the preacher preach as if it’s a regular Sunday morning or strike a more conversational tone?
You guessed it; no right or wrong here either. My general counsel would be to do what seems most natural to you as a preacher.
Some guys will preach on camera as if they’re in a room with the congregation on Sunday morning. They will use all the same tones and gestures to try to communicate a Sunday morning feel. They will attempt to communicate the same kind of passion an in-person gathering might include.
But for my part, I think it might be more effective to strike a more conversational tone. Everyone knows we are not together. Let that be a strength. The same teaching typical to your sermons can be delivered in a less performative and more personal way. Many viewers will themselves be in a room alone and few pastors ordinarily have enough time for lengthy conversation with all their members. This isn’t quite an individual in-person conversation, but it could approach that.
4. Can we get a few “Amens”?
Yes, I think we can. Whether live-streamed or pre-recorded, if you can, choose a broadcast and viewing option that allows some form of viewer interaction. Our in-person services tend to be dialogical. There’s call-and-response. When we gather in person, we encourage one another with impromptu “amen”, “preach” and “say that”. A good comment section or chat function can allow some element of this in the moment.
However, we can and should bring our “amen” into Monday through Friday. So, don’t stop with the chat section. Encourage the saints to do things in follow-up to the livestream or recording. For example, a couple people at our church have Google hangouts following the service to allow some interaction along the lines of the conversations we ordinarily linger in after service. We also send out a “Mid-Week Refresh” email to the church that gives a link to the sermon and 4-5 review and application questions to help people continue chewing on the sermon. Or, invite people to email the pastors or others a note of personal reflection from the sermon or encouragement of some sort. The best “amen” echoes through the week!
Perhaps the best way to conclude would be to say, “Have fun!” The pandemic has made each week at least unusual and for a lot people nearly unbearable. Lay-offs and furloughs have touched a lot of our members and their families. Sickness and even death visit our neighbors and congregants. We were made social beings and the isolation can lead to loneliness and depression. In many ways, life is hard right now.
But we get to rejoice in the greatness, love and presence of God our Savior! We still have the Good News and God has given us a way to continue sharing it with each other. So, rejoice! Make the most of a difficult situation and do so with a glad heart. Have fun as you figure out how to pastor in a situation no other living pastors have ever faced!