As we continue to navigate this new, coronavirus-initiated, shelter-in-place world, many of us are attending worship services online. While this new method of ‘gathering’ in front of a computer or television screen for worship via livestream, Facebook Live, YouTube and other platforms certainly has its challenges, I thought I would give you a peek at some of the challenges on the other side of the screen.
From In-House to Online
As a pastor of a large church with HD streaming capabilities already in place before any of this started, the truth is that my reality has not changed as drastically as it would otherwise seem. While many churches had to scramble to figure out what to do when public gatherings were shut down, our technology was already in place, and many of our members were already used to worshiping online when they were on vacation or at home sick, so there was not as big of an big adjustment. The biggest logistical issue was identifying members without the ability to livestream, then recording and delivering to them DVD’s of the services.
My worship responsibilities have not changed much, either. While most are figuring out how to adjust to worshiping from home, I’m still here, inside the church. Together with key members of our “essential” worship team, I’m still up front and leading the worship that you see when you log on. The biggest difference is that while you can see us, we can’t see you!
Our Contemporary service is probably the least challenging musically because of the comfort with having a song leader or leaders. We are able to have a vocalist on guitar together with a drummer, which produces a full-enough sound that translates both in-house and online. The bigger challenge is in having limited personnel, which means there are no vocal harmonies, no bass or additional guitars. That limits the fullness and versatility of the sound that is produced.
Hymns, on the other hand, present a different challenge. Because the Traditional service is not used to song leaders, it can be difficult for those at home to know how to sing some of the hymns, especially since projecting the music line along with the lyrics does not look great on-screen. Our solution was to add a song leader who sings the hymns on a mic for the people to sing along with at home. But it is more difficult than it seems, because hymns were written to be sung by large congregations – if the tempo between the singer and the organist are off the tiniest bit, or if the vocals are a little too loud or a little too soft, the difference becomes magnified through the system, and it becomes very difficult to sing along.
Chanted liturgies are still more difficult, for the same reasons. There are a host of wonderful benefits of worshiping as part of a large congregation, and one of them is that everyone sort of covers for each other when some of us aren’t exactly sure how to sing our parts. When all of our voices blend together, led by the more experienced among us, that’s when you get that wonderful congregational sound. Which means that a lone voice in an empty sanctuary chanting a very long response, no matter how good that voice is, is simply not the same as the sound of a full sanctuary.
It may surprise you to know that many pastors still have to work to overcome a fear of public speaking, even though we do it for a living. For myself, however, it has never been a struggle. I love speaking in front of a classroom/congregation/audience! And the larger the crowd, the more I enjoy it. So, while it may seem as though preaching to an empty sanctuary might be less pressure for a pastor, for me, it is extremely challenging.
I feed off of the energy of the congregation. Seeing people react helps me to gauge how a particular point landed – and whether I might need to clarify or say it another way, or perhaps leave some silence for it to “sink in.” I can feel the excitement building at certain times, and my own excitement builds in turn. Or, I can stop people in their tracks by turning a laugh at something someone else might do into a convicting statement about themselves. Even though I am the only one speaking, the people are speaking back to me both inaudibly with their body language and facial expressions, and also audibly with a laugh, a gasp, or an occasional “Amen.” In this way, the entire sermon is for me a conversation with my congregation.
All of that is absent in an empty sanctuary, where I have to imagine the people who are listening in their homes and try and anticipate how they might be reacting – without any feedback at any point as to whether or how they did! It’s a lonely feeling that holds an awkwardness you just have to fight through.
And as much as we may hate to admit it, we pastors do very much appreciate the feedback we get from our church families. We may tease from time to time about hearing “Good sermon, Pastor,” but it does feel good to know that the sermon you have poured yourself into has landed with the people you are called to shepherd. Especially when someone comes up with mock anger or real tears to ask how you knew to preach on exactly what they needed to hear that week! Although we don’t preach for recognition, that feedback means more than you might think – especially when you can’t receive it because no one is there in person to give you a hug or a handshake.
“It feels like a television studio in here.”
Because our only ‘audience’ is invisible to us, we spend most of each service watching ourselves, which is very odd. There are monitors set up inside the church that show us what you see online. That, along with signals from our livestream camera and sound board operators, help us to know which camera to look at and when, or when to replace the batteries on our microphone packs. It also helps us to know when we are off camera, in case we need to communicate with each other about any changes we want to make, for example.
While this gives us great freedom to be able to produce the best worship service possible, it also makes it easy to forget that we are in worship. Because we spend time “off screen,” and because we are focusing so much on our upcoming responsibilities, it can be difficult to remember to be in the moment, rather than looking ahead. While we want the online worship experience to be top notch, we also want to remember that we are there to worship God, too. It can be easy to forget that “out of sight” does not mean “out of mind.”
We all know how quickly comments and chats can go “off the rails.” But the Chat function has quickly become our way of staying connected during worship, and for the most part, people have stayed positive in the comments. Sending along prayer requests, giving an “Amen” to the prayers and sermons, and sharing encouragement along the way has contributed greatly to feeling connected. We have incorporated hosts for the chat who are able to handle difficult questions, pray with someone right then and there, or take a deeper discussion “offline” into a private chat. We can see now that this is a need moving forward, because even a return to in-house worship will continue to be accompanied by worship online, as our church family has grown to include people across our country and even around the world. These people may never be able to gather physically with us – but they belong to our church, regardless. We are the Church, wherever we are.
We miss people
As thankful as we are for the ability to gather online, it’s still lonely and empty on this side of the screen, where we are even separated from our own families, who worship online at home. In spite of our new reality, there is nothing that can fully simulate or replace the power of gathering together in person for worship. We know that our church family is staying positive, praying for us and encouraging us as we all engage in this new (and indefinite) reality, and it keeps us going, by the grace of God. We are so thankful for the technology to stay connected when we are apart, but we so look forward to when we are able to be brought back together. I can hardly wait to hear voices once again fill the empty sanctuary, and see the people’s tears of joy through my own, as we gather once again in the same space, together as One Church.
Until that day comes, it helps to know that the Church is not a building, it is God’s people. We are Church, wherever we are – and whatever side of the screen we’re on.
*Author’s Note: I apologize for the late publishing of this and last week’s posts. Posts that were originally scheduled to come out during this time have been temporarily placed on hold in order to write on some topics that are more timely right now, and that has put me a bit behind. Thank you for your understanding. Ever, RevErik