[This article is based on an interview that can be viewed here.]
As the COVID-19 pandemic escalates, increasing numbers of churches are forced to adapt their
worship experiences amidst new social distancing, lockdown, and shelter-in-place orders. In the
face of this new normal, we have a rare opportunity to reimagine how we connect with each
other and create space for community.
Over the past several weeks, I have scoured the internet for resources and watched dozens of
livestreams and virtual worship services from across the country—some were far better than
others. I brought what I observed and learned through this process to my own church leaders, and
it has greatly transformed how we now engage in worship.
I offer these tips to create more effective and meaningful virtual worship in hopes that they may
spur the same creativity for your virtual worship that it has for ours. These recommendations
come solely from my own experiences, research, and observations.
Consider how people are watching your virtual worship. Here at Royal Lane Baptist Church, we
find that the vast majority of congregants are watching on their mobile devices or on their smart
televisions. We need to recognize that we are being streamed into peoples’ living rooms,
kitchens, and bedrooms—all of which are intimate settings. Our worship, therefore, needs to take
full advantage of this more intimate medium. We must adapt our worship to be more like house
The next time you watch a talk show or a televangelist, take note of how they create this sense of intimacy.
Move your camera closer. Physical distance translates to emotional distance. Your best shots will be head-on (not from above or below) and as close as possible, rather than from afar. Frame your shots as close as possible. Note how televangelists use the camera to create intimacy despite often being in a massive arena with thousands of people.
Look into the camera. You may find this awkward because there is nobody looking back, but
consider what your audience is seeing. By looking at the camera, your congregants will see your
eyes looking directly at them as they look at their screens.
Be intentional about creating your virtual worship space. If your church has a single camera,
like ours, avoid unnecessary panning and zooming. Designate the things you feel are critical to
conducting worship, like a table, lectern, and musical instruments. Then consolidate those items
into a smaller area. Keep your physical footprint as small as possible. For a more relaxed feel,
consider using a “living room set” with couches, tables, lamps, and plants. Keep things more
Avoid physical barriers. Nothing creates separation between a worship leader and the audience
quite like standing behind a massive object. Get out from behind pulpits and tables and use open
body language. When possible, stand in front of your table. If you are a manuscript preacher, like
I am, then consider using a smaller lectern, a music stand, or try preaching from a hand-held
tablet. Have you ever noticed that some televangelists preach from a clear plastic lectern? That is
Less formality is better. This is a tough one for high church congregations like mine. The pomp
and circumstance of worship is great…when you’re worshiping in person. I assure you, it does
not translate well to the small screen. Ditch the robes, vestments, banners, and symbols. Consider switching from the organ to piano or acoustic guitar. Pare down what is on your table. Perhaps a sole candle, Bible, and communion elements will suffice. Think carefully about what is
necessary for the worship experience. And remember…all this is temporary. Remind those who
are uncomfortable with the changes that their “normal” worship experience will return when you
gather again in person!
Most church livestreams do not offer the viewer much opportunity to engage in the worship
experience. I use the word viewer deliberately, because there is an almost voyeuristic nature to
this type of livestream. To be sure, having something is probably better than offering
nothing—but we can do better than a pre-recorded or livestreamed worship service devoid of any
Greet your congregants by name. YouTube Live and Facebook Live, among other commonly
used streaming services, allow you to enable live chat features. Use them! As you begin worship,
encourage people to greet each other. Have someone on camera monitor the livestream
comments on a mobile device and greet people verbally in real time. Acknowledge their
presence and welcome them to worship by name. Consider using this technique during your time
of prayer. Invite people to lift up names in the live chat before you begin and allow time to read
those names out loud during your prayer.
Promote virtual participation. In the days leading up to worship, invite your congregants to
create a table with everything they will need to participate. Light a candle at the beginning of
worship and invite those following along to light their own candles from home. Consider moving
to weekly communion, asking congregants to provide the bread and wine—or whatever they
have readily available in their homes—so they can share in communion with you.
Simplify your liturgies and songs. While you may choose to provide downloadable versions of
your order of service, keep in mind that many people will not bother to download and print them.
Try using simple and repetitive phrases in your responsive readings to increase participation.
Also consider using well-known songs or hymns that are more likely to be sung from memory.
Allow time for comments. Preaching to a camera when you are accustomed to preaching to a
room full of people is perhaps the most difficult part of virtual worship. It is awkward for those
of us who rely on verbal feedback from the congregation. Consider asking questions throughout
your sermons and invite people to leave their comments in the live chat. These comments will
show up when the video is replayed later, so consider watching your sermons and making note of
the comments. Address those comments later in the week through some additional virtual
offering, like a Bible study or prayer meeting.
Allow time for virtual giving. If you do not yet have online giving or text-to-give set up, now is
the time to do so. There are many platforms available. Some are even free. Be sure to include an
offertory time in your service. Inform people on ways to give (including mailing a check) on
your website, and direct people there in your verbal instructions.
I am always interested in hearing what is working well for other churches. If you have feedback
or ideas, I want to hear them. Below, you will also find some additional resources that have
helped me reimagine worship during this uncertain time.
Marcia McPhee, creator of Worship Design Studio, is offering some free resources:
Worship Ways (UCC) Coronavirus Worship Resources:
United Methodist Church Online Worship & Music Resources for Livestreaming;
UMC Discipleship Ministries, The Online Communion Dilemma:
Tim Schaefer serves as minister to youth at congregational partner Royal Lane Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas.