March 20, 2020

Beyond Livestream Worship: What we learned from our experiment with online worship

This blog is a part of a series. Read the previous post here. Read the next post here.

In our previous post we talked about how a faithful response to the current pandemic involves more than simply live streaming worship services (congregations do not live by worship alone), but involves finding creative and experimental ways to do and be all the things that churches (and other faith communities) are supposed to be and do, and especially how we exercise our “burden of care” to our neighbors and neighborhoods. And that our responses may ultimately lead to our congregations and the communities they serve surviving and thriving together.

Subsequent posts will deal with each of those things in turn. But let’s start with what we learned from our recent experiment with online worship (last Sunday), in cooperation with Church of the Ascension in Gaithersburg, which reached 51 people on Zoom and 900+ on Facebook Live.

So what did we learn?

Online worship is not enough. Not bad for a first try, but after literally patting ourselves on the back (because COVID kept us from patting each others backs) for a few minutes after the second of the two services ended, what we learned was that, while online worship was necessary, it was not sufficient, and there were so many other things we needed to figure out how to do and be while social distancing. And that realization led to this blog series.

Use a variety of “channels” to get the word out. Don’t just use Facebook, but Twitter, Instagram, and other social media. But don’t forget that not everybody is as “tech-savvy” as you are. Make sure you use email, phone trees, and maybe even postcards (to the neighborhood), and encourage parishioners to tell their friends, since their church may not be doing this.

Zoom or Facebook Live? The answer is “Yes.” After some discussion we came to the conclusion that some people like the interactivity of responsive prayer in real time, but that others people want to just hang out in the virtual pew, be digitally “fed” their spiritual food, and maintain relative anonymity. Both are valid choices. Zoom provides the former and Facebook Live the latter. In the midst of the Latino service, we began to realize that maintaining anonymity was important, even for those who wanted the interactivity of the Zoom session, and they took the extra precaution of covering their laptop cameras. Zoom’s interactive capacity is 100, Facebook Live is unlimited but one way, Google Hangouts is interactive with a capacity of 250, but with fewer controls. I’ve heard some discussion of pre-recording your service the day before, so you can do it over until you get it just right, then posting it on YouTube, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, I think most congregations will excuse a few imperfections in exchange for a real-time experience.

Prepare the worship team. Before your service time arrives, you need to both talk it through and walk it through. Putting the service together on the fly, we talked it through 3 days ahead of time, thinking we worked out all the kinks. Providentially, we agreed to get together 30 minutes ahead of time to make sure we knew our parts and how to work the technology. It was a good thing we did, as we were still stamping out bugs until 3 minutes of the hour. Our thinking is that the best rule of thumb is to allow two minutes of preparation for every one minute of worship. Make a list – check it (at least) twice!

Prepare prospective worshipers. Let people know what to expect. Start at Zero. Remember that you may have a lot more virtual visitors in online worship than your do in your normal services in your house of worship. Don’t assume they know anything about what you do or why you do it. Some of this you can do in your invitation, some of it at the beginning of the service. Also, don’t assume they know anything about the technology. Have a checklist of things you need to tell them: how to mute themselves, how to communicate in chat, how to turn off their video, how to keep their name private if need be, etc.

Format the Virtual Bulletin with Online in Mind. Use a larger font (at least 14 pt). Leave a blank page (even numbers) between every printed page (odd numbers), so the participant video boxes don’t obscure the printed pages. Break up all prayer responses and unison readings into short phrases, one line of text for each. Otherwise, people will lose the rhythm.

Lead responsive readings and prayers with Online in mind. For the same reason, read at a steady pace, and pause for a breath after each phrase.

Music and singing. Ask your music director to find just a few very familiar, very rhythmic hymns, and to keep it short and simple.

And then there’s Holy Week. And that discussion is a work in progress.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. Consider it a discussion-starter. We welcome you to send us comments about what you have learned and helpful resources you have discovered. We will add them to a special section we will be creating on the Resources menu of the FaithX site for the resources we have found and that others share. Meanwhile, check out this list of digital resources by Peter Turner of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington.

Watch for future posts in this series, which may include:

  • Tools and strategies for hosting online fellowship.
  • Tools and strategies for facilitating online bible study and formation.
  • Tools and strategies congregations can use to locate and reach populations most vulnerable to COVID19.
  • Tools and strategies by which judicatories can resource their congregations
  • Tools and strategies for giving opportunities for giving by mobile phone or online.
  • Things people can do to create a sense of community with their own neighbors and neighborhoods.

This blog was previously published on The FaithX Project.