Making the Shift – Online Worship + In Person Worship

Note: I started writing this post when things seemed to really be opening up here in Texas. With some alarming data coming in, many churches that had or had planned to reopen are rethinking it. However, at some point, we will all be trying to figure out how to make the slow shift back to “normal.”

Okay, this next part is going to be weird.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, most churches in the U.S. were clearly focused on the Sunday gathering for worship. I realize that is painting in very broad strokes. That doesn’t cover all churches or the variety of expressions of church and worship. Still, I believe it is a fair and accurate generalization.

A growing number of these churches had already added some type of remote option whether it be sermon audio, sermon videos, recorded worship services, or live streaming. But these were, at best, seen as secondary, or even experimental.

When we found out that we all needed to stay home, everybody had to scramble. Even churches that already had some form of recorded or live-streamed worship hadn’t really designed it around the idea of everyone being at home. Churches without any type of recording or streaming capabilities found themselves scrambling to get started while others tried to find ways to upgrade the experience for at-home worshipers. There was such a rush on equipment that online retailers quickly ran out of the most common products I usually recommend to churches.

The Canon XA-11, a popular option for church live streaming, was hard to find for a while.
The Canon XA-11, a popular option for church live streaming, was hard to find for a while.

But what is next is going to be even more confounding. When this all started, no one was really thinking about what it would look like for everyone to come back. Of course. We were still desperately trying to figure out how to deal with the problem at hand.

What no one was putting much thought into was the fact that we wouldn’t likely all be coming back at once. I mean, I guess we kinda knew that, but it was the least of our issues at the moment.

What we are seeing now is that people are going to end up coming back to church in waves.

What we are seeing now is that people are going to end up coming back to church in waves. While some congregations are going to wait it out until most everyone can go back, others are slowly allowing people to enter the worship space on Sunday mornings. Many of those that are reopening have occupancy limits in place. However, that is not really an issue because not everyone is coming back right now. Some people are getting more comfortable going to the store and engaging in some other more public activities. But not a lot seem to be ready to come rushing back to church.
They may continue to want to play it safe. Especially in urban areas in Texas, where right now, things seem to be getting worse.

So, When Will People Come Back?

We don’t know. Maybe Sunday morning, in-person worship will see a slow and steady increase in attendance. But perhaps it won’t. Possibly our pews will remain mostly empty until a vaccine is developed. Even more likely, most churches won’t ever again see attendance levels like those before COVID-19 hit. That is a discussion for another time.

What Do We Do Now?

For right now, churches that are beginning to open back up are going to have to deal with having at least two distinct worshipping congregations. There will be even more for congregations with multiple services. In most cases, churches went from an in-person crowd with a secondary, and much smaller online audience, to a completely online congregation. The next step will be an online congregation with a secondary, in-person gathering. What that will look like may be one of the hardest parts of this whole thing. Based on what churches have been doing while everyone is staying home, there seem to be several possibilities.

Pre-Recorded Online Worship + In-Person Worship

This may be the simplest option for congregations that have been recording their services earlier in the week and posting them on Sunday morning. These churches can continue doing the exact same thing while adding back a live, in-person Sunday morning service. I imagine this will be the case in many congregations.

Live Streaming + In-Person Worship

PTZ cameras, like this one from PTZ Optics, are very popular for church live streaming setups.
PTZ cameras, like this one from PTZ Optics, are very popular for church live streaming setups.

This is what I am getting the most questions about. If a church will be offering worship on Sunday morning, it makes sense to capture the service so other people can see it. Recording it is excellent except that people won’t be able to watch until later in the day. Often, that is much later in the day once you account for the amount of time it takes to edit and upload the sermon. Quite a few churches are going to be making the leap to live streaming in the coming months. Unfortunately, live streaming is a bit more complicated than merely recording, especially when there are people in the room.

Pre-Recorded Online Worship with a Live Congregation

I know Christians love worshipping on Sundays. However, with a limited number of people wishing to attend at this point, what would happen if a church recorded services on Thursday, Friday, or Saturday and invited a small number of socially-distance worshippers to attend? It would provide an opportunity to those who really feel they need to come back and probably help create a more engaging recording. I have talked to several pastors who are still having trouble preaching to an empty room when recording, so this might be a solution for some.

We still have a long way to go, and I am sure some creative solutions will appear along the way. How is your congregation handling this in-between time? I would love to hear about it in the comments.

4 comments

  1. Thank You!! Very timely. We added a PTZoptics mounted camera at the start of live streaming one service, early Sunday Morning to avoid the demands on the internet and Facebook Live. We upgraded our Internet service speeds as well as our internal network structure. Last week we moved to Streaming two worship services (9 and 11) and allowing more members to be in the sanctuary creating the very scenario you described in your section on In-person and Live Streaming Worship. We currently use Sling Studio with the PTZ camera, with an Iphone and tablet on 2 tripods. Can you expand on what we need to be considering as things re-emerge?

  2. Jim,

    It sounds like you have come a long way in terms of equipment. Upgrading your internet may have been the most critical move! I think for churches like yours, the next step may be less technical and more people-oriented. We have been thinking for years about how to keep people engaged in worship in the sanctuary. Now, how do we keep them engaged online? And, perhaps even more interesting, how do we connect the in-person and online worshipers? Do we think about camera shots that show the people who are gathered to the people at home? And do we consider using tools like Zoom or even prerecorded pieces to show the people at home to the people in the church? That is where things are going to get really creative.

  3. Thanks for your prompt reply. I am not too familiar with Zoom and not sure how it would be used in a worship setting. We did try to create a music piece having each person record the song from home and then edit that into a choir. It was very effective in allowing folks to “see” each other but not as beautiful musically as you can find on YouTube. Is there a way to do this that you recommend?

    1. Some churches are using Zoom so they can log on a bunch of people at home to a video conference. That way, they can see each other and, if projected on a screen, everyone in worship can see them. By just adding a webcam in the worship space, the online folks could see everyone in the sanctuary.

      The virtual choir concept is excellent, but incredibly labor-intensive. Someone has actually put together a website to help people figure it out. It is a ton of work, and results will certainly vary. https://www.virtualchoir101.com/how-to-create-a-virtual-choir-performance/

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