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When you can't be at the church, the church can come to you online

When you can't be at the church, the church can come to you online


Many United Methodist churches throughout Florida and beyond offer live streaming of regular worship services for those who can’t attend in person. What happens, though, when the service itself is anything but normal?

Churches everywhere face that challenge now because of COVID-19 and health guidelines that include limiting gathering to 10 or fewer people. Churches are shutting down live corporate worship and instead offer online services. That presents technical challenges for those churches who may not have provided live-streaming, and it also forces pastors to think differently when planning those services.

How long should the service last? What about music? How many people can participate in person? Can you superimpose graphics on the screen to aid with things like scripture and the call to worship?

“We need to focus not so much on how we stream as compared to what we stream,” said Lakeland First UMC senior pastor Rev. David McEntire. 

David McEntire

Churches have been grappling with that issue since Florida Resident Bishop Kenneth Carter recommended they suspend in-person worship through the end of March. Recent COVID-19 developments may force an extension of that date.

“We decided to move from four services that we regularly offer to two – one contemporary, and one traditional,” McEntire said. “We’re minimizing who will come (to participate in-person) to keep people safe. At our 9:30 (contemporary) service, we will have someone there to do American sign language, and other churches have asked that we let them know about that because they may have people who need that.

“Basically, we keep it simple. Don’t make the mistake of trying to entertain. People will want to see familiar people like their pastor or familiar places. We’re including elements like the call to worship, and we’ll put the words to the songs on the screen because we know people will be singing at home.”

The Florida Conference offers links to the streaming services of more than 100 churches throughout the state.

Pastors and singers used to being in front of a congregation may find it disconcerting at first to see nothing but empty pews.

Patina Ripkey

First Oviedo UMC Associate Pastor Patina Ripkey said she would compensate by sitting in a chair while speaking to avoid moving around.

“I’ll try to make it like I’m teaching a class,” she said.

McEntire said he would stress that speakers look directly into one of two cameras located on the sides of the stage. There also are other techniques, including a novel one by the pastor at Mayfield First UMC in Mayfield, Ky.

After hearing concerns about preaching to empty pews, a member went into the sanctuary and attached paper plates on some of the benches facing the pulpit. Some of the plates had smiley faces drawn on them, while some were weeping or even had surgical masks.

As Rev. Joey Reed would turn his head while on the stage, he focused on a plate as if it was a person.

“It was a very much needed laugh when I walked in,” Reed told the Mayfield Messenger. “That’s indicative that we all need a little laugh in these difficult times.”

Don Youngs, the Florida Conference Web Site & Video Production Consultant, has tips for churches that may not have a lot of high-tech video gear. He spent 20 years as a freelance film and TV production specialist, working extensively with companies like Walt Disney World and Universal Studios.

“The first thing to determine is what video platform you want to use,” he said. “A lot of churches use Facebook Live, and that’s a good one. It’s also free.”

Facebook Live can work with an iPhone or Android.

Once that’s settled, Youngs said, focus on camera placement. Users will want to secure the camera on a stable platform instead of having someone try to hold the device. And be sure to set the camera sideways instead of vertically. If it's vertical, the shot will look like it was taken in a silo.

“You also have to recognize the area that the frame shot covers,” Youngs said. “Pastors tend to walk around sometimes, and in this situation, they might walk out of the shot. It might be a good idea to have a couple of marks on the floor with tape, so they know how much area they have to move.”

Streaming with a phone or an iPad can present challenges with sound quality. If the camera can be positioned close to the speaker, the embedded microphone should work well. A safer bet, however, is to attach the phone to an external mic. There are adapters for that.

And one word of caution for live steam events: Users need to be aware of the potential issues of streaming copyrighted music.

Yes, it’s a new world for churches, and no one can be certain how long it will last.  But this time also should be seen as a chance to reach a new audience.

“It’s time for the church to rise,” Ripkey said. “We’ll try to keep the services interactive. We may build in a short break so that people can get a cup of coffee or whatever. We’re talking about having a way for people to send us questions while the sermon is ongoing.

“We’re just going to try things and see what works. It goes against our nature as Christians not to be in the physical church on Sunday, but we have to look at this as an opportunity too.”

--Joe Henderson is News Content Editor for the Florida United Methodist Conference


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