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.