What Advice Would You Give Churches Livestreaming Their Services?
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On Wednesday, March 11, our church’s elder board met and decided to join our nation’s unprecedented response to COVID-19 by suspending the physical gatherings of our church. We also made the decision to begin livestreaming our morning service. That wasn’t a hard decision for us; in an extreme situation, we don’t believe we’re violating any scriptural commands by doing so, and we think it’s an undeniably good thing for people to hear and meditate on the Word of God. So we have a small team of musicians who sing a few songs, we read Scripture and pray, and I preach—all from the Main Hall where we normally gather. If your church has decided to make the decision to livestream, here are some pieces of advice you may find helpful.
1. Don’t try to convince everyone that this is great.
It’s not great. It stinks. The music is thin and suboptimal, there are half a dozen people singing when the church would normally be raising the roof, and it’s no fun preaching to a basically empty room. So be honest with your church about that. Mention every once in a while how you long to be back together; mention how un-fun it is to be apart; and above all, don’t try to gin up enthusiasm by telling people how awesome it is to sit in your pajamas and eat cinnamon rolls while you go to church. If you’re not careful, they may just start to agree with you!
2. Try to include many subtle reminders that a livestream is not a substitute for gathering.
For example: On a normal Sunday morning, our bulletins say, “Third Avenue Baptist Church, gathered on Sunday, April 19.” The first Sunday we livestreamed, we sent our bulletins out by PDF, but they read “Third Avenue Baptist Church, Sunday March 15, 2020.” The word “gathered” was gone, and our people noticed. It was a subtle but poignant reminder that we weren’t together, and that’s a sad thing. Beyond that, we’ve tried to avoid phrases like, “Welcome to this gathering” or “We’re glad you’re here with us” or other similar phrases. It’s hard; the mental program just runs sometimes! But as much as possible, we try to remember to replace those phrases with something else so as to remind ourselves—all of us—that livestreaming isn’t gathering.
3. Don’t make it too slick.
By God’s grace, we actually have the technological capability and expertise to create a pretty slick production—with little graphics and text and fade-in music, and . . . other stuff (I’m not the one with that expertise, obviously!). But we’ve deliberately decided to keep the whole thing looking very rough, with no editing, no graphics, no bumper music, no camera angles, etc. Why? Because we don’t want anyone mistaking this for television. We don’t want our people to settle into an all-too-familiar “TV stupor.” Rather, we want them to be constantly aware of the fact that this is not normal, it’s not supposed to be slick, and it’s not a fraction as good as being present together.
4. Don’t hold back in your preaching.
That’s been hard for me, honestly. Preaching to an empty room is no fun, even if I remind myself that people are being encouraged by it. It’s really hard for the whole thing not to feel, well, empty. But still, I pray each time that the Lord would help me glorify Christ, and then I stand in the pulpit and give it all I’ve got. It’s not the same. It won’t be until the church gathers again. But it’s still good for me to open up the Word for the church, and I pray the Holy Spirit uses it to convict, comfort, and encourage.
Ultimately, I think we’re trying to walk the fine line of creating, at the same time, both gratitude and longing in our people’s hearts. We want them to be grateful to God for technology that allows us to keep the rhythm of church life and of hearing the Word preached weekly. But at the exact same time, we want them to long for the day when the church gathers again, when their singing voices rumble through the walls again, when they can see and embrace their brothers and sisters, and worship God . . . together.