As COVID-19 continues to disrupt and distress people around the world, it has been necessary for many churches to cease gathering on Sunday mornings. For all churches, this transition has been difficult. But pastors of smaller churches, which usually do not regularly livestream services and do not have a professional audio-visual team, the transition has been especially difficult.
The good news, however, is that small-church pastors can still put together a helpful worship service and livestream it from their home office without any professional equipment or electronic expertise. It might take a few trial runs for things to go smoothly but a home office can be prepped for livestream in a few hours or days.
As it happens, I was a guinea pig for this process. Just a couple of days after North Carolina’s governor banned large public gatherings, such as my seminary’s classes, I was scheduled to begin teaching a one-week intensive Ph.D seminar. On the spot, I had to switch that course’s medium from an on-campus seminar room to a ZOOM video conference session. I had never hosted a ZOOM session, much less taught a 40-hour course in a one-week time frame via livestream.
As it turns out, the seminar went well, as did the 30-hour D.Min. intensive I taught by ZOOM the following week. Now, a PhD seminar is not the same thing as a church service but there are many similarities when it comes to setting up for livestream. For this reason, I am offering seven insights I gained in the process of switching courses abruptly from on-campus to online. I offer them in a Q&A format.
Q: How should I set up my home office for an online class session?
You’ll need to start by downloading a livestream app such as ZOOM onto a computer that has a built-in camera. If your computer doesn’t have an in-built camera, you can purchase a webcam that plugs in or download ZOOM to your smartphone. Make sure your computer is near the Wi-Fi router and that you are comfortable before you start the livestream. Decide whether you will be more comfortable sitting or standing. It’s perfectly fine to deliver your sermon while seated. House churches across the globe and throughout the centuries have preached and taught the Bible while seated in a room with their congregants. Turn the volume off on your cell phone and click out of any computer apps that might deliver audio notifications. Make sure that you are lit from the front so that congregants can see your face. Conversely, make sure there are no windows or significant light sources behind you.
Q: What kind of technology will I need?
You don’t need much. If need be, you can get away with using your computer’s in-built audio and video and some homemade lighting such as a lamp. If you want to upgrade your microphone, it is relatively inexpensive to acquire a very good mic, such as the Yeti Blue. If you want to upgrade your lighting, you can avoid purchasing expensive lighting systems by acquiring a pair of LED clamp lights from Home Depot and clipping white coffee filters over each of them to soften the glare (avoid incandescent lights that could set the coffee filters on fire). In ZOOM, you may use built-in functions such as the “chat” feature to field questions from congregants.
Q: What difficulties might I encounter?
Be prepared to encounter some difficulties during your trial runs. You’ll need to keep a task list of things to remember: Turn on your camera. Turn off your phone’s sound. Put the camera’s video at eye level so that people aren’t staring up your nose during the service. Put lights in front of your face so that you are clearly visible. Ask your congregants to mute themselves during the welcome, the prayers, the sermon. Ask them to unmute themselves during corporate worship or responsive reading.
Q: How can I help my congregants to remain committed to our church?
On the one hand, offering livestream services itself is a way of helping members remain committed to our churches. It is a way of saying, “We might temporarily need to suspend service to avoid accidentally killing some of the very people we wish to minster to, but we refuse to sit on our hands. We refuse to let the Lord’s Day pass without worshiping him together.” However, on the other hand, we also want to say, “But we will never permanently cease our in-person corporate worship. Right now, as the Bible says, our ‘ox is in the ditch,’ meaning that we have an emergency situation (Lk 14:5). But we will never remain content with online services. God intends for us to worship together, in person. So, what we are doing right now is holding an irregular form of worship, but as soon as possible we want to return to our regular form of worship, God’s ideal, which is in-person corporate worship.”
Q: How might I adjust our worship itinerary for online worship?
That depends. You’ll have to decide how you want to handle worship through song. Your only musical instrument might be human vocal chords. You might have a musician who can lead in worship. You probably will not be able to greet one another. The Lord’s Supper will have to be offered in an irregular manner. The sermon might be delivered while you’re seated in a chair. Your delivery and intonation will be more conversational, as have the delivery and intonation of a hundred million house church pastors over the years. Yet, other elements of the service can be performed in a very similar manner. The public reading of Scripture, the prayer, and the missional sending remain the same.
Q: How can I explain to my congregants why we are obeying the governing authorities?
We can say, “State and local governments are working hard to ensure the safety of the individuals and communities under their jurisdiction. Together with epidemiologists, medical specialists, and other advisers, they have determined it best to briefly suspend public gatherings of a certain size. The best thing for churches to do, therefore, is to follow the guidelines given by our national, state, and local governments. We should thank them, actually, and recognize that their actions help protect us—especially the weaker or more vulnerable among us—so that we can worship for many more years to come.” And as soon as we are able, we will return to God’s ideal for his church, which is in-person corporate worship.
Q: How can I evaluate my effectiveness and make improvements?
The good news is that congregants generally will not expect you to be a “pro” online preacher. They will give you a lot of grace. And you can share a laugh together when you encounter problems. Still, you should evaluate your progress every week or two. Ask your congregants to offer feedback on what is effective and what is not. Ask help from pastors who are experienced with livestreaming. Consult website resources that offer “best practices” for online instruction and facilitation.
A Final Encouragement
Moving your church’s corporate worship to an online environment may not be intuitive or easy for many of us. Switching abruptly from a physical location to an online environment was not intuitive for me. But I did it and things worked out very well. Rest assured: you can do this. You can continue to shepherd your flock during this difficult time.