Some observations from online services I’ve watched and helped prepare
After having watched and engaged with the preparation for a number of churches as they moved to gather online this weekend, and then watch the amazing work leaders across the country did to reshape the central gathering of their church communities, below are some thoughts and observations for leaders to interact with and consider for the coming weeks and months.
1. Make Sure People Can Find You Online.
First things first, make sure people can find your online gatherings easily. In particular, this is going to mean redesigning some pages on our websites so that the landing page and gatherings pages point to both the times and the ways in which people can engage. You could put some simple click-through links with the following next steps: “Are you new here? We’d love to get to know you!” “Can we pray for you? Submit a prayer request.” “Do you need assistance? Submit a care request.”
This is going to need to flow through to our Facebook page as well, but most newcomers are going to be looking for the information on our web page. Wherever it is, make it clear how those who may not be in the inner circle of communication know how to connect with your church, particularly Sundays.
Churches are already a center for communication, allowing meetings and messages to be communicated to a significant number of people on a regular basis. Consider setting up a dynamic COVID-19 page: YourChurchURL/covid-19response
2. Clarify to Whom You’re Speaking.
At some level this is obvious. We’re still speaking to God’s people while acknowledging that there are seekers “listening in” (quite literally now!). But the situation, and the change of medium, should push us to reconsider how we “present” online. If we have previously livestreamed our services, they were the secondary audience to the one sitting in front of us in the room. So while we might give a nod to them being there, the focus was on those in the room. This is not the situation we’re in now. We find ourselves temporarily speaking primarily to those online.
This means that those with a microphone in hand (leading the service, making an announcement, leading the music) need to look down the barrel of the camera and speak as if speaking to one person sitting on the other side of it—not the other people in the room at the time helping make this happen. If you are doing an interview with someone, that would be the same as if you had an audience in the room, but instead of third point of eye contact being someone in the room, it will be the audience behind the camera.
This will feel strange for most, but for the sake of those watching on, this is absolutely key to helping them feel as if they are part of what’s happening, not an afterthought. Embrace the awkwardness and make it your strength.
3. Acknowledge the Difference and Set the Guidelines.
We do this naturally when we meet normally on Sundays (“Great to have you with us … if you’re new … stick around afterwards and have a coffee and chat.”) and we need to continue to do this as we livestream, but reframed so people understand the guidelines for this new way of meeting.
From watching a number of livestreams today, some initial suggestions are:
Acknowledge up front that this is a new way of meeting. It’s not the normal way, but it’s great to have people join you. For me, this is both to begin to establish rapport with those on the other end (see No. 2), as well as to point to a theological truth that it’s important for us to meet together, but that this is a compromise due to the current circumstances and hopefully we’ll be able to do it face-to-face together at some point soon.
Set up a countdown screen or waiting room to join. A few churches did this well—it created anticipation for the church service. It was great watching this with my kids. A better use of this promoted small groups in church life, streamed photos of gatherings and reminded people about youth church online or kids church ministry resources. It was a great way to communicate before the service started with a captive audience.
Help people see how they can interact and connect during the time together. This might be through the chat bar on the side, a Q&A time after the talk, or a time during the service for people to break out into smaller groups to say hello (a functionality on Zoom). Whichever it is, setting up these at the start, and indicators on the screen throughout, will help people stay engaged.
Allow time for people’s response. We want to work on the assumption (as we do when we physically meet) that there will be people there exploring what Christianity is. So when we ask them to fill in the online contact care we’ve set up (have you?) leave time for them to do that. A holder screen, the musicians playing, something that just gives them time to be able to do that is essential. There’s less chance of them doing it afterwards, so just as you would when you physically meet, do it when you meet online.
4. Create Intimacy and Connection.
One of the biggest differences I saw in the livestreams was how some made me feel like I was watching on, and some drew me in making me feel like I was there and involved. This was the combination of a number of smaller things that contributed to the overall feel (many of which I’ve covered or will cover in this article), but there are a few things that are worth pointing to that were powerful.
The first was the live interview. A number of services had live interviews talking to those who were affected. Some were prerecorded interviews (which were brilliant), but a number did live interviews. One of the things that I noticed about the live interviews was how much more attention I paid. I’m still reflecting on this, but I wonder whether—as we move online and increase relational distance—one of the things we’re going to need to push into more in these moments are the live, unscripted moments of connection that we get in real face-to-face interactions. This may well be true of preaching as well, but I noticed it more in the interviews as all of the preaching I saw was live. This dynamic of prerecorded and live is an area that needs to be considered and discussed more deeply in this period of livestreaming.
The second was the online chat during the livestream. This is probably a controversial one at some level, because we’ve certainly never been into encouraging people to talk (and even make jokes!) during church, but can I suggest that in the current circumstances we may need to reconsider how we think about this during livestreaming? I’m not suggesting we encourage people to start posting gifs during church, nor be a purposeful distraction, but I am suggesting that we provide more scope for freedom to mimic those moments in church where something resonates with us, where we’re moved by something, where we find something amusing, where we turn to the person next to us and give a knowing smile. How do we do that? I’m tentatively suggesting—as sacrilegious as it sounds—that the live chat did that for me. It connected the diaspora, it gave a sense of who was there, of the community that we are, and allowed us to celebrate our unity in Christ even as we’re stuck in our La-Z-Boys. Anecdotally, when Scott Sanders, executive director of Geneva Push, was speaking with a few people from his community group in the afternoon they all reflected the power of the live interview to bring connection with our shared experience (recorded and live)—so hearing from each other is important. Live chat may not be the answer, but on those livestreams that had it, I certainly felt more connected with both what was happening on the screen as well as those people who were experiencing it with me.
The third was the setup of the music. I believe there’s a strong argument for livestreaming with no audience for significantly paired down, acoustic setup of music. The big band sounds amazing, and it allows us to continue utilizing our full music teams as we did before, but it may not reflect the medium or situation. That is, there’s no one else in the room, we’re huddled around our computers, and we want to feel like we’re sitting in the front row as part of it, not in the back from a distance. I want to tread lightly here, as I recognize there will be strong opinions in this area, but from what I saw today it was the paired back, acoustic sets, where I was close to the musicians, that drew me in to engage with what was happening. Scott’s opinion differed slightly—he thought it was helpful to have the normal setup—keeping change to a minimum—but in the coming weeks it would be good to reflect on what we are trying to achieve in live church setup—leading people in singing together and modeling this, and important we see people’s faces
5. Pay Attention to the Aesthetics.
This is important. Probably more important than you think, especially as people try to engage in a medium that allows for all sorts of other distractions, without the normal restrainer of the social awkwardness of being caught. It doesn’t have to be expensive, it doesn’t have to be elaborate, but it does have to be thoughtful. Consider what “vibe” you’re going for, and replicate it thoughtfully. The stage might work for a normal church service (and still might work for this) but you might find that you can achieve your goal in a much smaller, more intimate environment where you can control the variables much better. Some thoughts that should be picked apart and put back together for your context:
From where are you going to preach? Standing up, sitting down … it’s entirely up to you and your context, but how does this decision fit with what everyone else is doing in the service and how they’re doing it?
How will your musicians (if you’re doing music) be set up? While on a large stage in church you can scan your head and see what’s going on, it could feel odd and distant to have a wide view of a spread out band on stage. If you’ve only got a one-camera shot, consider where you can position the musicians so you can feel closer to them, see them and take cues from them participating (if you want to). This can be achieved with a simple pivot of a camera on a tripod while there’s a transition slide, or a two-camera setup.
When you interview someone, how will those in the audience see and be invited into that? This is both a matter of the setup on the stage and with the cameras, as well how the interviewer/interviewee engage with each other and the camera, as well as the topic that’s covered. During the current situation, I wonder whether one of the most powerful things we can do as people watch on and into our gatherings is to talk about and give examples of how our Christian community is fundamentally engaging differently with those around us, not because we are good, but because God is. These moments of real people talking (as they always are) will be crucial in this.
How do you do transitions between parts of the service? If people are walking on and off screen, consider having a holder screen while they do that to make a smoother transition. This will be less jarring than someone walking out of frame and people wondering what’s happening and where everyone has gone.
Have you got enough lighting so it’s not distracting for those watching on? This isn’t easy to get right in a normal auditorium, which can be an argument for a smaller room dedicated to this livestreaming, but what can seem normal and natural in person can feel painful to watch on camera. Find someone in the church (or online—there’s lots of people willing to help) who knows what they’re doing and test it. That’s the only way you can truly know. It’d be terrible to get everything else right, only for the lighting to be so bad that people can’t stay tuned in.
You’re going to need to think about what you wear. For some this won’t be a problem. For others the idea of thinking about what they wear will feel like a waste of energy. But it’s important for the camera. Don’t wear checked shirts, even if it’s your normal uniform. Be all things to all people and wear a solid color. Once the crisis is over, you can go back to your plaid and your checked shirt to redeem the time you lost … but for the next little while, don’t do it.
It may not be that you’re particularly gifted in or inclined toward this area, but I guarantee you someone in your church will be. And people are looking to serve in this time of uncertainty, so we need to be willing to ask them to serve in order to love those who are tuning in online.
Again, this is a brave new world for everyone, and this may be one of the hardest areas to crack. My boys were in the room for the livestream of our church, and even though they’re a bit older they still struggled to engage for the whole thing. My initial thought during the livestream, and seeing how others did it was:
If kids are normally in the service at the start, they’ll be able to hold on for 10–15 minutes at the start of the service. It is worth considering (as it is with any of our gatherings anyway) what this first 15 minutes constitutes, and how we acknowledge the fact that there are kids watching even though we can’t see them.
If our kids would normally not be in the main service, or they would leave after the first period, we need to consider how we provide a space for them to engage in the online community as well. Protection and care for our kids is paramount, online as much as face-to-face. So we’ll need to use a slightly different approach for our kids program than we do for our main program. The two solutions that came to mind are:
First, using Zoom to first gather the kids all together, and then using the breakout rooms to break them into the groups they might normally go into. Zoom allows the restriction of families/kids into these rooms based on a password. Alongside this, churches can provide information during the week to families for craft or activities they might be doing that week, so they can get material (or church deliver it?) to do together online. The above will require churches to flag to those who are joining for the first time with kids what’s happening, and have in place some sort of procedure to be able to include them in the future, even if that can’t happen that first week. It’s recognized as well that the above approach makes it incredibly labor intensive for the parents, as at least one of them will need to be with the kids during this time.
Second, producing a parallel livestream for the kids program that doesn’t require interaction, but can be viewed by the kids with little intervention. This will be more like watching a TV show on the computer than their existing kids program, but is another option in the less than ideal circumstances. Scott’s observation was that some parents (them included) may have lots of time in the coming weeks at home with their kids. It will be important for churches to be resourcing families to be reading God’s word together. MBM Rooty Hill did this well with time in the service and resources outside the service (see here). My church (Scott) has a separate Kids and Youth program which meant the kids had the opportunity to connect with each other and connect with their leaders. This was hard to pull off this week but my sense is it will get increasingly easier as we all become familiar with the technology.
Third, sending activity books or sheets they can do themselves while the main service is happening.
Finally, we need to help our parents speak with kids about COVID-19. Hearing from church leaders about how to speak to kids about this difficult topic (and future difficult topics) is important. Keep resourcing parents to be teaching their kids. This article from Sandy Galea was very helpful.
Finally, some thoughts on the technology being used over the weekend. There’s been lots of helpful things written about how to do this, but below are some reflections on the experience on the other end.
First, Zoom is good for intimacy of community, but is confronting for those not on the “inside.” I felt more identified and exposed when I went onto a Zoom meeting than when I went onto a YouTube or Facebook livestream, and therefore felt less inclined to stay, listen and interact.
Second, having the words for the songs and the Bible readings on screen was really helpful. It’s a small thing, but it helped me keep my attention on the small little screen in front of me.
Third, if you use YouTube, all the controls on the YouTube video are enabled by the user. You might want to control whether they can turn the sound up and down, or whether they can pause the livestream or not, but it’s frustrating on the user end when they can’t do that for good reasons.
Fifth, prerecorded messages and entire services will work well and cleanly, but I do wonder whether in isolation people will be craving for something that they can feel like they’re a part of in the moment. If you’re going to prerecord, my gut feeling is you’ll need to consider releasing this at the time of your service, but it leaves the question of what you do if you’ve got multiple services—prerecord slightly different versions?
Lastly, it’s worth getting a dedicated internet connection, preferably 4G/5G. Great upload speed, and if it’s just for this livestream it (hopefully) won’t have anything interrupting it. No guarantees, but that’ll give you the best chance of having a clean livestream.
As I finish my observations let me say four things.
First, no matter the size of your church, this current situation is the great leveler. With the current technology available, and the access to wisdom from across the country and the world, pretty much every church can implement a livestream that presents the word of God to God’s people and those who are searching. I can think of few moments in my lifetime when there has been as great an opportunity to present hope, certainty and eternity to a world questioning those things as now. What we are experiencing is challenging, but we are more equipped to deal with it than we believe, and we have answers that will not just help people get through the next few months, but stretch into eternity.
Second, keep speaking into the current situation and providing comfort. It was great to see so many churches break their current flow of teaching to address what is going and see how the gospel brings hope. Alongside that, I saw lots of people flagging that the next few weeks of teaching is going to address the challenges and uncertainties that COVID-19 will bring. With COVID-19 shaping so much of the practicalities of our lives at the moment in such unique ways, we want to keep bringing God’s Word to bear on how we think about it, how we respond to it, and how we can help those in our churches talk to those around them about it.
Third, the next question will be around mission—many are the same questions we’d ask for a Sunday anyway, just with slightly different answers. How can people more widely find out about our online gathering? Are we doing something our church will feel comfortable inviting their non-Christian friends to? Will they feel included or excluded? How do we follow up with them and connect them to Jesus and the church? These will be the key questions we’ll need to start asking to help our church make the most of the opportunities afforded to us.
Fourth, I was so thankful to God for the way he has gifted his body the church to pivot so quickly and so well to keep gathering God’s people in a challenging situation, so they can keep gathering around his Word. Facebook this week has been alive with generosity and wisdom as people have worked out how to make this last Sunday happen, and it fills me with great hope that the coming months will see God work powerfully through his people and his church to turn a crisis into a moment where Jesus is clearly seen and glorified.
This article originally appeared on NewChurches.com and is reposted here by permission.