‘Doing Church’ Online: Some Insights

By Dr. Marcell Silva Steuernagel
Assistant Professor of Church Music and Director, Master of Sacred Music Degree Program

An interesting dynamic emerged at Perkins School of Theology amidst the Covid-19 crisis. Even as we talked about what to do with our own chapel program (a shout-out to Dr. Mark Stamm, chapel elder extraordinaire), we were contacted by several churches looking for guidance in this transition to online community life. In the last few days, I’ve talked to church leadership across Dallas, in other parts of the US, in Scandinavia, and in Latin America. I’ve coupled the results of these conversations with several online dialogues (thanks to all the Liturgy Fellowship people who have been intensely discussing the subject on Facebook!), and would like to offer a few insights about how to “do church” online in a variety of ways.

First things first: there is no ONE definitive way to establish an online presence. The Internet has certainly been overflowing with all sorts of church-related content in the last few weeks. Depending on what content you have engaged with, you might be thinking: “why is my church not doing this?” Well, you might not have to. The question is not what you can replicate, or even what looks and sounds better in digital format. The question is: what is the right format for your community? For some of the bigger churches that have the technology, know-how, and personnel to pull it of, high-quality video productions of a full service might work well (in fact, I talked to one worship leader who reported increased attendance; more than Christmas Eve!) Your church might not have the necessary parts in place to pull this off, and I encourage you to consider different possibilities. Here at Perkins, we’ve settled on a regular rhythm of daily prayer via Zoom; a circular format that allows us to center into our community life twice a week, even if remotely. In any case, for most midsized and smaller churches, simplicity and practicality are paramount, because you must be able to churn out content on a regular basis.

Second: watching a talking head online for forty minutes is not fun. When congregations gather to hear a sermon, they are surrounded by communal expectations about what they are doing. We come together to study scripture, and this face-to-face dynamic anchors us into place. We can go longer. We might laugh at a witty joke, respond to the preacher, pray together as we go about it. These dynamics are completely different online. What was a pleasurable, participatory “live” experience becomes a digital ordeal. Preachers, remember that your congregants are sitting at home in front of a screen. If you don’t find ways to interact and engage with them, they may “tune out” and go make have espresso instead. As Anthony Diehl says in a Facebook post: “less is most certainly more when live-streaming into a living room. Smaller bands, simple use of graphics, little or no camera switching, and shorter services all felt appropriate.” One pastor mentioned the “rom-com” timeframe as ideal. While some families might be able to sit down in front of a TV and watch a sermonette together, others–especially those with smaller children–might take advantage of putting the kids in front of a cartoon for twenty minutes while they listen to a sermon.

My third point raises a question: how do we define “rich engagement” online? Think, again, of a face-to-face community experience. When we talk to people live, all sorts of minute interactions happen: micro-gestures, posture changes and other body language, touch, smell, laughing, background sounds. “Live” interactions are rich in a unique way. When we move online, communication may at first seem too dry, because it is not colored by these same interactions. So we need to find ways to make them rich. The pastors at my church have been peppering their sermons with quotations of children’s Sunday school songs, overlays of meme reactions to their witty remarks, and cross-references from one week to another. Are you allowing for participants to give feedback, either synchronously or asynchronously? Can people chat amongst themselves during the week, or even during the sermon, to process whatever prompts they’ve been given? Ask these questions as you think of format and delivery for your online content. One church here in Dallas is paying careful attention to the passing of the peace during the liturgy, allowing Zoom participants to say a word about who they are and how they’ve been coping with the quarantine. Another is taking advantage of Facebook watch parties, which seems to be a great way for people to gather online and go through content together.

Fourth: practice! It doesn’t matter if you’re delivering content live on Facebook or pre-recorded on Vimeo; make sure you practice. Preaching and/or worship leading for a camera provides unique challenges. One challenge is the lack of immediate congregational feedback or buy-in. One worship leader I talked to mentioned the importance of rehearsing through your transitions. How are you moving from Scripture slides to headshot (and remember, what looks good on a 30-foot screen can look really cramped on a small tablet screen)? If you move around, do you carry your iPhone around with you? Fixed camera or moving shot? How do you cue other people in if you’re editing multiple pieces into a final product? Ask yourself these questions, and then practice before recording.

My fifth and final point is a personal perspective on all of this. It is my impression that developing a community narrative is more important than delivering pristine content. Having to go online for one week only is one thing; doing it for consecutive weeks is a different ballgame. You want to make sure that whatever you’re doing, you are doing it in a way that weaves together a narrative that can help sustain community life throughout this difficult period.

The good news is that there are a TON of great resources out there to help first-timers get started, and the rest of us improve what we’re doing online. Sarah Bereza’s latest podcast, called “Keeping contact with your congregations and choirs” offers a number of insights into how to keep the ball rolling.1 Churchjuice can help you navigate the mysteries of Zoom and social media.2 Barna’s State of the Church website offers a toolkit and the latest news about how churches are going online.3 Hannah Cruse, one of our own M.S.M. alumni, started a “Covid Choir Hymn Sing” on her Church Musician’s Assistant YouTube channel.

There are many more resources out there, and we at Perkins have compiled some of these, along with posts by our own faculty members, on our own website. View the Perkins resource page here. We are living a unique moment, and the learning curve involved in this transition might be uncomfortable for some of us. Stay committed. People need Jesus’s message of hope and love as we move through this season of confinement and uncertainty. While it may seem as if congregations are pulverized and diluted, we need each other. As Lillian Daniel says in This Odd and Wondrous Calling, “Practicing our faith is like dance. Each even tis unique and unrepeatable, but we are moving in patterns and steps of a tradition and a people.”1 It’s time to learn a new dance. We’ll figure it out.

1 Lillian Daniel, This Odd and Wondrous Calling: The Public and Private Lives of Two Ministers (Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), p. 3.