The current COVID-19 pandemic has a number of us wondering what church might look like this Sunday or the next. Perhaps your council has already decided to cancel your Sunday morning gathering, or perhaps you are holding out and hoping for the best. Either way, it is not too early to start thinking about how to plan a worship service online.
Back to God Ministries International recently hosted an online chapel service for CRCNA employees in the denominational building in Grand Rapids. From our experience, here are some tips on how to plan a successful online worship gathering.
1. Commit to making the most of being present together in virtual space.
The good news of the Gospel is Jesus Christ incarnate, God with us. The church embodies the presence of God in this world. For Christians, presence matters. But our world is increasingly virtual: we think of TV characters as our friends, we offer support to loved ones through text messages, and we find out what our acquaintances are up to by reading their Facebook posts. It is entirely possible to be genuinely present in virtual spaces. This is also true in worship. Once we have our minds around the very idea that we can be meaningfully present together in a virtual space of gathering to worship our risen Lord, we are a good portion of the way towards successfully doing so.
Your congregation won’t know to show up in a virtual space if they think you are meeting at church. Like in all things, communication is key. Plan to communicate with your members multiple times and in multiple ways (email? Facebook? church website? phone calls?).
What we did: We prepared a series of three emails announcing our chapel using only Zoom (a web-based video conferencing tool). The first email introduced the idea (and provided the link). The second email offered some FAQs (your members are as unsure as you are about what this will be like). And the third email was a final invitation, with the link and a reminder of our unique gathering.
You also want to have the team leading the service communicating well. Don’t assume your leaders will know what to do. Meet together, ahead of time, multiple times, preferably using the platform that your service will be on. This is the time to practice and get comfortable.
3. Decide on your platform.
Zoom. Facebook Live. Skype. BlueJeans. Hangouts. YouTube. There are so many options to choose from! If you already stream your services online, you may decide to use the technology you already have in place. Otherwise, you might be looking to try something new. A few things to consider: What platforms has your leadership worked with? How easy will it be for your congregation members to join in if they have never used the platform before? Where are your people already meeting digitally? Keep in mind that experience is helpful and that members may not want to pay for a subscription, create an account, or download an app.
Another factor is the number of people you expect to participate. Some platforms have much greater capacity than others and you don’t want to end up maxing out your platform’s capacity and turning away half of your congregation.
Finally, are you committed to a live worship experience, or are you open to simply recording a service that people can enjoy at their own leisure? That decision changes a lot for the rest of the planning process (particularly congregational involvement), but all forms can certainly be useful in their own way.
What we did: The CRCNA has a Zoom account that can host up to 100 people on a single call. Since most of us in the building have joined Zoom meetings before, and we did not expect to go over 100 participants, Zoom was the natural option for us.
4. Involve people who can help manage the tech side of things.
Not just anyone runs your soundboard on Sundays, because this behind-the-scenes role requires specific skills and/or training. Yet the role is critical: We have all experienced the distractions of obnoxious feedback or a microphone just a little too soft you cannot hear the preacher. The same is true for an online service: you need someone (or several people) who know your digital platform to be working behind-the-scenes to make sure things run as smoothly as possible. Obviously, it is best to find someone who has some experience with your chosen platform, and some level of confidence in navigating tech situations to serve in this role.
What we did: We designated one person from our team as the “host” of the Zoom call. He made sure people stayed muted (as host he had the power to mute anyone at any time if needed), he monitored the sound quality (feedback can be a real issue on a video call), and he was on stand-by to navigate any unexpected bumps along the way.
5. Determine what your options are for music, realistically.
We all have limitations. You don’t run your VBS program if you only have 3 volunteers, and you don’t ask your worship team to lead in a song that is outside their musical abilities. In the same way, recognize the limits of your technological capacities and adjust your expectations accordingly. One key capability to consider is whether you can offer live music or not. This will depend on at least two factors. First, can you gather enough people to make up a team? Can they meet at the church, or can instruments and equipment be brought to another site? If strict travel restrictions are in place or your music team is sick, this may not be an option.
Second, do you have the tech available to mix the musical elements to be output as a single-stream audio? On a platform like Zoom, simply relying on your computer’s microphone to pick up a keyboard, guitar, and vocals won’t work. Perhaps your organ can’t be projected well live, or the piano only sounds okay playing without singers. Try some different options and figure out what you can do with a reasonable level of quality. And if you do have a sound system that can mix several elements, play around and see how to set it up so it sounds good on the other side of a connection. If none of these work? Consider using pre-recorded worship music from YouTube and the like. (You would be amazed how much is available on YouTube.) Please also be aware of what your CCLI licensing allows you to do, as not all licenses allow for streaming use.
What we did: Back to God Ministries International has a soundproof studio in the Grand Rapids office, with the appropriate tech equipment (and guru!) to make a live worship band a realistic option. One person brought in a keyboard, another grabbed a guitar, and we had a couple of vocals. Another person’s sole job was to mute and unmute the sound from the studio. That role allowed the musicians to focus on the music and reduced the lag time when we moved into singing.
6. Think critically about what congregational involvement looks like.
All worship planning includes the work of thinking through what elements will be incorporated into this worship service. Certainly, we have many standard liturgical elements that we frequently return to: God’s greeting, call to worship, confession/assurance, responsive readings, prayer, singing, benediction, etc. For a regular, in-person service, we might look at our plan and wonder whether we have the congregation standing for too long or sitting too much.
We might also think about how the congregation is engaging: not just passively receiving the Word, but actively responding to it as well. It is important to think through these same sorts of elements for an online service, recognizing that the specific challenges will be different. (Imagine the cacophony of 70 people each singing from a different computer, with milliseconds of lag time on multiple sides!) It might seem easy to just focus on the leading, but how will your congregation actively participate? What makes it valuable that you are meeting together live instead of just watching a recording? And as you think through that participation, make sure you consider how it will actually work on this unusual platform!
What we did: Here are some of the elements we incorporated for active participation:
Greeting: Before the service started, we invited people to get familiar with the chat feature on Zoom by greeting each other and introducing any new staff. This helped make sure people were aware of the chat feature, and led to great use of chat all the way through the service.
Responsive reading: We started with a responsive reading of Psalm 46. By using screen share, we put up a PowerPoint with the verses alternating between the leader and “all.” Although we asked “all” to stay muted as they read their lines, we did have three people from our team on one computer to serve as the audible expression of our unified reading of the text.
Singing: We encouraged everyone to sing where they were, while staying muted on the call. Although we couldn’t necessarily hear the whole congregation singing together (we could only hear the group leading from the studio), we could see people moving their lips and even raising their hands as they participated in worship through music.
Prayer: Our chapel tradition is to take prayer requests, but we didn’t want to open it up for people to jump in verbally on this live call. So we moved the prayer requests into the chat feature! We invited prayer requests in chat well before our prayer time, and we had one person ready to pray over whatever requests came in.
7. Plan all the details.
Perhaps you do this already. Or perhaps your church service usually runs with a lot of glances across the sanctuary as you try to figure out if someone else was planning to do the next part or if you should step up. But here’s the deal: that “knowing look” or quick nod is a lot harder to do on a virtual call. So make sure you know exactly who is going to announce that song (or not) and which pastor is going to give the benediction. And then plan your back-up plan: have one go-to person ready to jump in if something falls apart. (It’s entirely possible that the person leading prayer lost internet connection minutes before she was supposed to pray.)
What we did: Our order of worship was created as a Google doc that everyone involved in leading the service had access to. We did not provide the worship order to all of the participants, but offered verbal instructions several times along the way. Unlike a regular church bulletin, we even listed in italics every time the “emcee” was planning to speak up as part of a transition. The emcee was also equipped to jump in at any point if necessary – even having a manuscript of the sermon in case our preacher lost connection! But it turns out there will always be more to communicate: We also made use of the “private chat” feature in Zoom a couple of times on the fly. [Lesson learned: Ask participants to show their video if possible. It’s easier to interact and be present with faces showing than with blank screens.]
Your music team probably meets before a service to run through the songs, and your preacher hopefully does a practice run of the sermon. But for an online service, at least if you are new to this, it is wise to get everyone together to do a full run-through. This way you make sure everyone knows how to get connected onto the call; you can hear if the worship team sounds okay coming through computer speakers; you get practice using the screen share option to share a powerpoint; and you figure out ahead of time the plan for every transition point.
What we did: We did a full run-through (minus the sermon) on Zoom the day before the scheduled chapel service. The practice helped us smooth out some transitions and even led to us switching up the order of a few things. It also allowed us to practice the screen share option for the powerpoint (exactly what does someone on the other side see?!) and convinced our litanists to have a physical copy of their reading in case their lines were slow to pop up on screen.
9. Consider options for fellowship.
The worship service itself is one thing, but the conversations before and after the service as your congregation sees each other again after another week are priceless. How do you encourage this fellowship of the Body when you are not gathering in physical space? Your Fair Trade coffee and homemade cookies are not going to work. But again, consider all the ways we can be present with each other in virtual space. Then create places and options for that kind of engagement. Do your small groups share prayer requests with each other throughout the week in a group text? Are your elders connecting with the people in their districts through phone calls or emails? Even a blog from the pastor with an active comments section can spur interaction and fellowship throughout the week!
What we did: Since our virtual chapel was a “practice” service and most people participated from within the same building, we opted to still provide snacks after the service and encourage people to talk about the experience of worshipping in this way. But for those joining us from a distance? We kept the call open and had a number of people from our team, including the preacher, stay on. You never know what kinds of conversations might happen in a space like that, after having come together in worship.
Virtual worship might not be anyone’s idea of the ideal. But that doesn’t mean it is not a good option at certain times. And when it is the best option, we can expect that God is still able to show up in our midst even when we have gathered from remote places!