Nobody really put a lot of forethought into online worship. It is just sort of something that we fumbled into. That is especially true for many churches right now.
This is a super weird time for me. I am on leave from the church and running my own business. However, my phone is ringing a lot from churches needed help getting set up to live stream or at least record their services. No one had really expected a situation where people couldn’t physically come to church.
Oh, wait. They did. However, they didn’t anticipate a station where no one could physically attend church.
Some churches have been at this a while. But think about how most churches approached live streaming in the first place. They took what they had been doing for years inside the church and did their best to capture the audio and video. In essence, they created a setup where people at home could watch what was primarily designed for the people who were in the room. But now things are different.
Think for a moment about daytime or late-night television. If you are watching Stephen Colbert, The View, Jimmy Kimmell, or any other show that is filmed in front of a live audience, the situation is reversed. That show is being produced primarily for a television audience, and the people in the studio gets to watch. It may seem like a subtle difference, but it is significant. Except for the occasional effort to involve the studio audience, the host is primarily playing for the at-home audience.
Now watch the average church service online. If the church is paying attention, the pastor or worship leader may take a moment to welcome those watching online. However, the rest of the time, their attention, energy, and attitude is focused on the people in the room. It is unusual to see a pastor look into a camera. In fact, the pastor may not know where the camera is or, in complex setups, know what camera is on.
But now we are facing a shift. I don’t think the change is intentional. Some churches that don’t already have live streaming set up are getting creative. Since they don’t have cameras already in the sanctuary, some pastors are recording sermons in their offices or living rooms. Because it is just them and the camera, they are looking right into the lens and speaking directly to the people at home. I have even seen some more creative interpretations.
One church put a camera on the chancel, set up their worship team in a circle, and panned around to focus on the person leading each particular segment of worship. The impact of these shifts is significant. I have witnessed a lot of online worship. At its best, it is almost like being there. In these cases, since the focus is on those at home, it is being there.
I have seen even more creative approaches. Some churches that are holding strictly to social distancing are offering worship with multiple leaders all in separate places. Using video conferencing software like Zoom, they are interacting with each other and the congregation via video. It can be super awkward at first, but once everyone gets comfortable, it may be a more authentic experience than simply watching people worship via live stream.
I even saw one church welcome the congregation to join in the video conference to interact and respond. It was a mess! But a beautiful mess. I am sure we can figure out how to clean that up.
Some churches will begin offering digital-first worship. This is worship that is specifically designed to engage people who are worshipping from a distance via a computer or smart device.
So, here is my prediction. When this is all over, some churches will realize that this is actually a great thing. Of course, we will be excited to get back to worshiping in person, and that will be amazing. However, there will still be people who choose to or are required to worship from afar. Instead of just allowing them to look on as we worship together, some churches will begin offering digital-first worship. This is worship that is specifically designed to engage people who are worshipping from a distance via a computer or smart device. Maybe people will be in the room as well, but it won’t be designed for them. It will be designed to engage with people from afar and use creative ways to allow them to have an authentic experience of worship.
This is going to be fun to watch.
If you need some help getting started with live streaming, check out some resources here.
Isn’t it interesting, indeed! Just have to give a shout out to the pastors who participated in some of those early online workshops you offered and immediately began putting into practice all that they were learning. Good for them and for their churches who are now slightly ahead of the awkward curve. Though you are “on leave”, thank you, Will, for caring enough to offer support.