Is your online church service a poor cousin of your in-person service?
Obviously, for years, you designed your Sunday church service with the understanding that your audience is there in front of you. Depending on your liturgical style, the size of your congregation, your sound system, the seating arrangement, you have more or less optimized the experience for your members and for newcomers.
What about online? Are the online attendees an afterthought? Is your online service merely a placeholder until everyone can come back to the building?
If you have been thinking about cultivating an online ministry, there are some ways to make the experience more interesting, fulfilling and meaningful. The following suggestions presume the use of Altar Live-style face-to-face videoconferencing, as well as group chat and person-to-person chat.
1. Pre-event prayer
In my church, there is a group of people who gather prior to the start to pray for the service, for the musicians and preacher, that people will be reached, touched, challenged, encouraged. This is usually done somewhere in private in the building. During online season, this has moved to a zoom call. Either way, it is largely out of sight from the congregation.
By starting the event in Lobby mode, where tables are visible, name one or more tables “Pray for today’s Service.” This allows the prayer team to gather in the same place the worship will occur. It also provides some visibility to early arrivals that there is in fact a prayer team, and that they are actively in prayer right now. For some, this will be welcome news. “Have we always had this? I never knew!”
For others, it is a chance to discover a new opportunity to join the prayer group at their table(s). Without sending out invitations to join a group or add something to their calendar, attendees can organically take a seat alongside a prayer team member.
Beyond the efficacy of the prayers themselves, this simple visible demonstration of the prayer life of the church can be an encouragement and an invitation to deeper engagement.
2. Passing of the peace
I have watched many church services on Facebook. Now that many congregations have returned to at least partial reopening, it is not uncommon to see a joyous time of passing of the peace on screen. In a typical liturgy with this function, the leader will say, “Peace be with you,” and the congregation will respond, “And also with you.” And then the leader enjoins, “Let us offer each other the sign of peace.” What follows is a minute -- or ten minutes! -- of people turning to their neighbor, making eye contact, reaching out their hand, and reverently and smilingly offering each other Christ’s peace.
In some churches, people will actually leave their seat and walk to other rows and find a neighbor there as well. Especially in this season of finally being together again, it can be a delightfully raucous moment.
For the online viewers watching all this movement and direct person-to-person contact and engagement on Facebook, there is a second-best alternative to use the chat pane. It’s slightly awkward. You can say “Peace!” to the entire online congregation, which is fine; it just lacks all that eye contact and body language. Or, you can use the general chat and say something directly to an individual, “Peace be with you, sister Jacquelyn!” Such call-outs can be enjoyable, and can also encourage others to do likewise.
It can also be slightly discouraging, particularly for someone who is longing for a direct connection, but who is passed over. Perhaps they have remained anonymous, so no one is aware of her presence. Or, worse, perhaps she has posted a greeting of peace, and no one has responded back, leaving her more isolated than before. Communication in text is often misunderstood, and there can be all sorts of unintended slights or oversights.
When the congregation is visible face-to-face online, it may make sense to invest in an extended time of passing the peace. For those for whom a direct connection in this part of the liturgy feeds the soul, they can look someone in the face, smiling or perhaps through tears, and express unity in Christ’s peace.
Some will travel from row to row, making contact with many families and individuals. Others may prefer to simply remain seated and take a few minutes to “shake hands” with their row mates.
And others may choose to remain unseated, standing on the side. Their name is visible, but their face is off camera. This may be a simple preference, or it may be someone who is feeling isolated. A pastor or assigned greeter might reach out in a direct person-to-person chat, and if appropriate invite them to come sit together in a row where they can see each other.
In some ways, the online version of passing of the peace has advantages over the in-person experience. “Loners” are more easily spotted, and who might get much wanted attention as a result. For the gregarious among us, they can continue to pass the peace even when the livestream portion has resumed, since they are in a private group of just a handful of people. Their ongoing greetings do not disturb people in other rows.
3. Reflection questions
At the beginning of the pandemic, many pastors quickly learned that a 30-40 minute sermon does not age well online. With some uncomfortable belt-tightening, they squeezed their message to around 20 minutes.
Some pastors tried an altogether new technique: reflection questions.
These questions are left on the screen, without any voice-over. They invite the viewer to consider what has just been shared, and to apply it to their own lives and circumstances.
Not only does this break up the flow of one-person-talking-for-20-minutes-on-a-screen, but it draws the audience to incorporate more directly the message they are receiving.
On Facebook, attendees can sit alone and ponder. If they are with their family, and if the reflection questions are geared for family consumption, they can talk among themselves. And, sometimes, people can share their reflections in the text-based chat. Such chat conversation can be engaging and instructional. And, it can also be distracting and disruptive.
In Altar Live, with a small set of people who have specifically chosen to sit together, there can be a meaningful time or reflection. Presumably, those sitting together already know some of their seat mates’ back stories -- relational status and history, previous bouts with doubt or suffering, current challenges or celebrations. They don’t need to explain all of that context, but rather can share deeply how the message is reaching them right now.
It is worth pointing out that in an in-person setting, there is no real need or opportunity to do this. Adding multiple minutes to an in-person sermon might be received as an unwelcome innovation. What’s more, it would be noisy and awkward for the congregation to break into groups of two or more for sharing aloud.
In this case, there is something unique and special about the online experience.
In most churches, there is no time set aside during the service for prayer. There may be a time of corporate prayer, and sometimes petitions are shared, and perhaps a time of ‘popcorn’ prayer where individuals pray as the Spirit leads them.
Online is an ideal place to make this a key feature of the service. People can pray together visibly and audibly in their small group in a row, and can use the chat to share prayers and petitions with the entire congregation. In Altar Live, they also have the option of text-chat one-on-one or with a group of their choosing.
For churches who do not already have a time for prayer built into the structure of their Sunday service, this can be a welcome and highly engaging element.
5. End neatly
Most churches have a musical outro at the end of service. It works as part of the liturgy and experience. Some people linger to talk together, others take the outro as their cue to leave or to move to a room for fellowship.
Since on Facebook and the Church Online Platform there isn’t a lot of room for fellowship (does your church post “come join us on Zoom after the service”?), the musical outro at the end serves as an indication that the event has come to an end. It is time to leave!
As lovely and as spiritually fitting the recessional music may be, it may not have a place online.
In Altar Live, as a service comes to an end, the host can move everyone from the sanctuary to the Lobby. Everyone who has been sitting together in a row remains together, except now at a table. And, everyone -- seated and unseated -- can see where everyone is and who they are with.
I have seen the transition to the Lobby happen immediately as the service ends, and also slowly, while music plays on the livestream. When it happens slowly, people take their cue: “I guess it is time to leave. The service is over.” When it happens just as the leader is finishing the benediction, almost everyone sticks around for fellowship after.
Consider how your service ends, and optimize for moving people into fellowship, rather than duplicating the recessional format of your in-person service.
6. After-service sermon questions
In a previous post, we talked about Sunday-on-Monday -- a special repeat of the Sunday morning event set aside for those who are not able to make it to church at that time (neither in-person nor online).
To help make the “couldn’t make it on Sunday” event more than just a second-rate experience, some churches have their leadership present for a time of deepened reflection after the service. Instead of the regular coffee hour, pastors and other leaders make themselves available at a table in the Lobby specifically to discuss the message.
Such discussions are not necessarily mandatory, but can be a unique feature of the Sunday-on-Monday event that is simply not logistically possible in the physical building on Sunday.
7. Meet the musicians
In addition, this type of special after-service dialog can extend to the worship leader and musicians. How many times have you wanted to know how and why certain hymn and song selections were made? What is the meaning of the lyrics, and how do they correspond to that week’s scripture readings?
The throng that gathers in the church building after service has no such opportunity. By making it a feature of the online service, where a small set of people can more deeply explore the spirituality of the sung word, can be an enriching experience not only for the congregation, but also for the worship team.
Not Just Different; Better!
If your church were planning a sunrise service, you would probably think of the unique opportunities (the glory of nature!) and constraints (wind, cold, heat), and tailor the event accordingly. You would think of how to minimize distractions, and how to make the most of the environment.
Why would you not do the same for online, which has its own unique opportunities and constraints?