Eerie. That was the predominant feeling in the sanctuary before we held our first service deemed “live stream only.” Only five of us were in the building: our organist and his wife who assists him with music, the screen/video/tech guru, myself, and one elder just in case the word did not reach someone about the service and they showed up. Usually, we are all at church before the crowds arrive, and I can generally sense what time it is by the influx of people and the filling up of the sanctuary. But not then. On a regular Sunday, some 350-400 worshipers fill up the pews over two services. Last Sunday (our first official live stream) there were 260. Now there were none. The doors stayed closed. The clock ticked by, the prelude started, the bells rang, and the red “now live” light started blinking. “Show time,” I thought with a bitter cringe, and proceeded apace with the service.
Since we are all experiencing the same challenges, I will dispense with describing the extraordinarily painful process by which we made this temporary decision, and the measures we are taking. (Others have written well about it, and you probably don’t need another 2 cents. Suffice to say my #1 priority is Word and Sacrament ministry, and I thank God that we live in a technological age that allows us to continue.) Rather, I write this to other preachers of the Word regarding my observations on practical techniques, challenges, and opportunities that come from preaching “live stream only.”
First, I encourage the people watching live to treat the service as if they are still here. Dress like you would dress for church, stand when I say stand, sit when I say sit, sing along with the hymns, cross yourself when applicable, and choose an uncomfortable seat as far away from the screen as possible so as to simulate your reserved seat in the back (*insert laugh track*). Encourage them to maintain the time of worship, too, so as to keep their church-going habits healthy.
Second, it is easy to get carried away with the length of your sermon because you cannot see anyone’s reactions. If your eyes are routinely buried in a manuscript, I have a different conversation for you some other time, but generally you will notice the “rustle” of a restless crowd. Bulletins come out, throats clear, pews creak. This is the preacher’s built-in “wrap it up” sign from the hearers. Online, however, it is impossible to tell when an unseen audience is no longer listening. I noticed that first service that I had more and more to say, and before I knew it my sermon far exceeded its typical time stamp. Not that length is the end-all consideration for a sermon, but you should consider the hearers’ attention spans vis-à-vis your sermon. Because they are at home, they are more distracted than usual. Their bodies in church subconsciously tell their ears that it is time to pay attention to the sermon. With their bodies at home, the ears have a harder time focusing. Bear that in mind as you consider the length and creativity of your sermon.
Third, movement is always something that should be considered when preaching, but even more so on camera. Because most hearers are used to sitting in a similar spot week after week, the angle of the camera is already strange to them. I am not necessarily referring to pulpit/no pulpit, but you should be aware that your movement on camera is easier to notice because the angle is out of the ordinary. Their eyes at home may not be directed up like they are used to. Because of the zoom, they are likely also to be closer to the screen version of you. If you are one to move apart from the pulpit, make sure your camera operator is good enough to follow you; jarring camera movements are distracting, and moving entirely off-camera is intolerable.
Fourth, eye contact is a unique opportunity on camera. I first thought that I should preach as if the sanctuary was full so as to keep as much normalcy as possible, but it immediately felt like I was playing make-believe. If the church were full on one side and empty on the other, it would be forced and awkward to preach to the empty side. People know when you are genuine, and when you are putting on airs, so pretending like nothing is different could distance the hearer from the direct communication of the preacher. Since the hearers are all on the other side of that camera, look directly at it. Someone at home is locking eyes with you, and the Spirit can use that to personalize an otherwise impersonal situation.
Fifth, use the angst of this situation to the church’s advantage. While you perform the rest of the service as seamlessly and professionally as possible, let your longing show in your sermon. Yes, project calm and hope, but also deliver the Word with the very real sense of Paul, who “longs to be with” his people (Romans 1; Philippians 1; 2 Timothy 1). I just got off the phone with a friend who worries about what this will do to the church’s attendance on a permanent basis. While I don’t have any answers, we must choose to be optimistic. I fully expect conversation regarding “live stream church” to blow up after this blows over, especially the theological conversation around the question, “Does this really count?” We pastors spend our whole careers telling people to go to church, and the normalization of electronic worship is a conversation for later. For now, however, we preachers of the Word can build up the tension of absence so that, when we do finally meet again in person, the unity of the body of Christ in person is that much sweeter.
Let these thoughts serve as the ice breaker for homiletical conversation regarding live stream only, and may God bless us all in Jesus Christ as we continue to minister and make difficult decisions in this crazy time.
Photo by Samuel Britton