Friday, May 8, 2020

Online/Remote Worship Is Here to Stay

As we’re already seeing, once Safe At Home orders are rescinded, it doesn’t mean a return to what once was.  Restaurants, shops, music venues, theaters, and places of worship will continue to be affected by social distancing measures and limits to the number of people on premise.

This means churches will continue streaming worship services and pre-recorded services to provide for those unable or unwilling to attend physical worship services.  It’s possible that some will prefer this new way of “doing church” and welcome being able to watch live or recorded services at their convenience. It seems new habits are being formed.  In the world of music, a recent survey found that 74% of music fans plan to continue watching live streams from musicians even as the live-show circuit resumes.   

How long before sanctuaries open? Many are watching public health guidance for how to handle worship and other congregational gatherings in the next few months.  As we are already seeing, federal, state, and local authorities are staging or phasing reopenings based on improving COVID-19 metrics.

Forward-looking worship leaders wanting to plan ahead will want to check their own state’s opening plans, as well as information shared by regional church leadership.
Whether you like it or not, there's no stopping it!

In my own region, the Wisconsin Council of Churches has offered specific guidance for the months ahead, drawing from Wisconsin’s reopening guidelines. You can find the Council’s very helpful  document, “Returning to Church” here:

In a nutshell, the Wisconsin Council of Churches recommends to its churches that online worship continues well into the future. Even when public worship can resume, social distancing and attendance limits will keep some people at home.  Others may simply prefer online worship, now that they’re used to it, and still other higher risk individuals (defined as people over 60, and those with underlying conditions) will be advised to continue to shelter at home (and experience worship remotely) until an all-clear is sounded.

This means churches will want to plan for online/remote worship for a long time forward.  In case you haven’t done this yet, you might consider getting a proper license for streaming worship.  There are several companies who offer these licenses, and the streaming video license is often simply added to the music license your church already holds.  

A Podcast/Streaming license permits both pre-recorded content and live-streamed content to be posted to your website, YouTube, Facebook, Zoom, Vimeo, Instagram, and other similar online platforms.  Check with the company whose license you already have for music, or simply search for church streaming licenses. One License and CCLI are examples of two licensing companies who work with churches.

The good news is that you’re probably getting quite good at screen-based, online worship!  If it’s still a struggle, consider these improvements:

--enlist others to help out by reading, submitting photographs, offering live music
--get people up and moving with physical responses to prayers and songs

--keep it visually interesting: offer full-screen visuals that keep your theme or main message in front of people

--don’t forget to promote different ways of giving, and do your usual offering rituals of song/prayer/ and thanksgiving

--check your denomination’s growing worship resource library for videos/music/imagery

--make sure you have your proper licenses and display your license number on screen

--keep the service time short: many are finding they just can’t process so much on-screen information

-- focus your theme and message: remember something as short (and focused) as a 30-second commercial can be interesting, memorable, stimulating, amusing, and persuasive. 

Monday, May 4, 2020

Show and Tell In Worship

After 7-8 weeks of offering church services online, many churches have settled into routines, typically changing little from their usual in-sanctuary church service.  What this means is that people sit and listen (churches are primarily auditory spaces: see my article on this here). In a visual culture where people are also used to watching fast-paced images in advertising, films, and television shows, just seeing one person talking isn’t going to grab their full attention. Showing what you're talking about goes a long way towards helping your viewers understand the heart of your messaging.

One great irony of worship in the time of Covid-19 is that churches have now turned to screens to broadcast their services, and yet some have missed the point that a screen is meant to show something more than one or more people talking to a camera. When the screens that people use each day are rich in visual content, we in the church need to pay attention to that, and try to figure out ways to visually enhance your viewers' experience.

Finding ways to keep people visually involved can be challenging. Sure, we are seeing one another if we’re using Zoom and other visual tech, and we’re seeing the worship leaders and the backdrop they’ve selected (the worship sanctuary, maybe a home office) but there are ways to add more visuals to worship.  

One way, with Zoom, is to Share the Screen and put up a PowerPoint or Google Slides program that not only shows the words to prayers and hymns, but also integrates visual
Green arrow=Share Screen
arts.  Some churches are doing a fine job asking church members to submit photographs during the week that can be shown during worship, or asking children to draw pictures that can be uploaded and added to the slides.  Other churches are adding original video or online video to the slide set to illustrate messages.  

For those churches using their sanctuary for video worship, and who already have a screen and projector in place, the leadership could position themselves near those screens and project the imagery and lyrics that would ordinarily be used in their service. Many churches are doing this effectively.

One caution is that while churches may enjoy a worship exemption in US Copyright law around the proper use of copyrighted material, these protections do not automatically extend to your broadcasting these materials over the Internet, radio, or television. Until there is further guidance on this matter, you’re better off using materials that you know are in the public domain, are original to you and your members, or have been already cleared through some of the online sources you may be using.

A key question for worship leaders planning to upload their services to visual platforms is this: how can we SHOW what we're talking about? Sometimes this means we set aside our natural bias to TALK about something in church, and instead find a picture, a video, a film clip, or a drawing to show the point you want to get across.

This will increase your viewers' comprehension of your message, enhance their memory of what you're doing, and stimulate their response.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Couch Potato Church in the Zoom Era

Back in the 1970’s someone (maybe a cartoonist) used the phrase “couch potato” to refer to those watching long hours of television while sitting on couches or easy chairs, maybe eating potato chips, and possibly turning their bodies into a potato shape for the lack of exercise! 

The phrase came to me again on a recent Sunday as I sat on my couch and watched a Zoom-based worship service. Since I could also see other participants sitting on couches and chairs, I realized, I’m a couch potato in a couch potato church service!

Like many who have been “safer at home” for these past 50 days, I have done a lot of sitting.  I also know I need to get up and move around more frequently. After participating in several recent Zoom-based worship services, one thing I’ve come to notice is I can’t just sit on my couch for more than 20-30 minutes without needing to stand up.  Sure, there is lots of sitting in a typical in-sanctuary service, but even then those who are able are invited to stand for singing, praying, and greeting each other.   

With sympathy to all those who are scrambling to adapt their church services and ministries to these days of Covid-19, I’d gently suggest worship leaders ask people to stand during the livestream (or recorded) service, even in the comfort of their own home. 

Stand to pray together, stand to sing a hymn or song, stand to do some sort of unison action (maybe an echo pantomime where the leader calls out a phrase and demonstrates an action, which then the rest say and do).  

Of course, with video church seen at home, the participants have the freedom to get up or not, but I think worship leaders could find ways to keep people more physically involved in worship. 

It’s just a small detail that has been overlooked in the effort to provide worship experiences in this strange time.  I hope worship leaders will find a way to bring standing/sitting/even kneeling back into at-home screen-based worship.

Post Script: I shared my thoughts about "couch potato church" with the pastor of the church I've been attending, and in this morning's service he invited us to stand four times during the one hour service: during a short prayer/doxology at the start of the service, for a short song he taught with hand motions, as a stretch time before the sermon/message, and at the end of the service to repeat the short song and hand motions learned earlier. These were simple ways to get the Zoom congregation up and moving and to be more physically engaged.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Screen Preaching: Everybody’s Doing It

When I Google “screen preaching” the first thing that comes up is an article from 2013, “Why I Object to Screen Preaching.” Curious about why someone so strongly opposed projecting hymn lyrics, prayers and theme-related imagery on a screen in a sanctuary, I had to read further. What the writer was objecting to is a practice where a church that doesn’t have a preaching pastor puts on-screen a live or taped video feed of a preacher speaking from another location.  The writer prefers preaching that comes from a live person who is physically present. He left open the possibility that a live preacher might use a screen to boost participation and understanding during a worship service.

There have been other objections to using screens in worship, but all of that has faded in the face of Covid-19 with stay-at-home orders to flatten and crush infection rates. Now, most preaching is done via screens. Even churches who once adamantly refused to use screens
in worship are now making their services available on all the screens available to them: computer screens, smartphone screens, tablet screens.  For now and the immediate future, screen preaching is the primary vehicle for congregational worship.

Clergy and churches have had to scramble to adapt to this unique situation.  Some have turned to platforms like Zoom, Facebook Live, Skype, and YouTube to broadcast their worship services.  For many congregations, worship means setting up a camera in a sanctuary and live streaming/recording a typical Sunday morning worship service. For others, the recording is done via computer or smartphone from the comfort of a pastor’s study or home office.

A quick survey of YouTube videos of Sunday services shows clergy in full clerical garb preaching in their worship sanctuaries, often with some live or recorded music to accompany hymn singing. Some have added slides with the words to prayers and hymns to the video. Some of these churches include other socially-distanced worship leaders in the sanctuary (depending on their state’s policies) or later edit them into the recording.

Some clergy, rather than live-streaming or recording from the sanctuary setting, are presenting services from their homes or offices, using visual foregrounds and backgrounds including lit candles, colorful flowers, fabrics, sacred objects and symbols to provide an attractive and visually rich environment. 

As worship leaders know, there are immediate technical challenges everyone has faced in the quick transition to screen-based worship.  Once these are overcome, and this is still an ongoing process, a next objective would be to steadily increase the quality of worship by tightening thematic focus, adding visual interest and opening up more participation of others. 

One of the unexpected benefits of all of these adjustments, is that if you are sharing your religious services via social media platforms, they are now accessible for the whole world to see, and your outreach, and potential support network, has increased in ways you might never have dreamed.  

While at first the focus for many was to show members the familiar backdrop of their worship sanctuary, it became clear that with online sharing of the service, people from all over the country and world are tuning in online at their convenience. What once was a local worship experience now is reaching a global audience!  This means wider participation in your message and ministry and might also result in the expansion of your support base with online giving opportunities. 

Having a wider audience might spur you to consider how to make your services more visually interesting and thereby memorable, and it might mean you’ll plan to continue your new online worship presence as a way to keep reaching new “members” of your worshiping congregation.

With every indication that Covid-19 will be with us for the foreseeable future, at this writing most federal and state health guidelines anticipate a gradual and phased reopening of public spaces.  Even with this phasing, older church members, those 60 years of age and more, will likely need to stay away from public gatherings for a longer time, perhaps until a vaccine is widely available. 

This likely means you’ll be keeping your screen preaching ministries for some time.  You will continue to provide for the needs of those who must still minimize their public exposure, and it will continue to open your churches to a national audience. 

Over twenty years ago, when I started demonstrating to clergy groups across the country the many ways to effectively use screens in worship, one participant at one of my workshops asked me, “is this just a flash in the pan, or will this be around a while?”

I said it then and I say it now: screen preaching is here to stay.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Streaming Worship With Imagery

In the months before the Virus became news and affected church activities and worship services, I'd noticed a few things about church use of screens, projectors and the display of content.  It seemed there were four kinds of churches: those who did not use screens at all, and who continued to provide worship that at times felt to me the way it was done back in the 1960's (lots of music and sermons without visual illustration); churches who had installed screens but weren't using them; churches who were using visuals in worship to project hymn lyrics and words to prayers; and churches displaying lyrics and liturgies, as well as adding photography and art as a visual enhancement to sermons.

A few months ago I attended a university-sponsored program that featured four professors, each of whom took full advantage of a projector and a large screen to provide ample visual illustration of their content.  Not only did they provide readable summaries of their main points, but they provided pictures, logos, graphs and symbols that helped move their presentations along.

What I thought would be a long hour and a half of verbal presentations became a fast-moving, content-filled evening.  The speakers were able to capture the audience's attention and help us comprehend their material quickly, through the use of colorful, engaging, and informative visuals. 

The presentations were informative, persuasive, visually pleasurable, and memorable. I wished clergy had been present to see the possibilities for how they too could use projector and screen to enhance their messages.

This was before the Virus hit.  Now we're in a completely different situation.  Churches are closing their doors to protect members from a spreading virus. Worship services have been cancelled, and some congregations are moving services to video streaming platforms like Facebook, and recorded video to platforms like YouTube.

Ironically, all those churches are now using screens, the screens of our computers and mobile devices, to share their messages.  Yet the content is presented in a usual way: we watch a lone pastor present a verbal message against the visual backdrop of a worship sanctuary.  If the church has a screen behind the pastor, it's blank.

It'd be nice if the pastor could add some visuals to that screen, but now there is a problem: the legal protections in place for materials shown during a service of worship are not extended to a broadcast, live or recorded, without permission from the owners of the material.

My suggestion is that those clergy who wish to add visual interest to their streaming and/or video recordings of a worship service do so by projecting their own original material, and/or that created by church members who have given their permission for such use. Original prayers you have written, and imagery you own (for example, photographs taken to illustrate the content of a message) may be displayed on the screen during a broadcast.

Adding imagery to worship does take a little extra time, but it can be as simple as taking your own pictures or even drawing 3-5 images to help lead your message along.  Enlist others in the congregation to do this for you, and you'll continue to engage members of your congregation as you co-create worship materials while in isolation.

I wish you well as you plan and provide worship, while meeting the challenges of designing streaming/recorded worship that captures attention while being visually interesting, easily understood, persuasive, and memorable.