March 8, 2020 my husband Jeff and I set up one of our cell phones on a tripod to livestream our first worship service after making the decision to move worship fully online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The internet connection in our sanctuary was atrocious. We had to stop the service multiple times to reconnect to Facebook live. We had cords all over the floor in front of the pulpit and lectern. It was a mess.
The chaos of our first livestream attempt matched the frenzy in my own heart. I felt both overwhelmed and numb. How could I preach to an empty sanctuary when the church is about being the body of Christ? Where was the joy and energy of the people gathered together in common purpose and worship? And, more practically speaking, how could I focus on leading worship when I also had to worry about the WiFi dropping out or Facebook getting overwhelmed with the sudden surge of Sunday morning livestream attempts by churches all across the country (and world)?
It wasn’t long before we realized that livestreaming from our cellphones was not going to be sustainable for us (as the pastors) or worshipful for the people online. Something had to change. We bought a video camera and began pre-recording our services. Jeff grew adept at video editing (after hours of trial and error), and we worked together to provide whatever music we could and whatever creative opportunities for engagement we could think of. Meanwhile, we knew we were excluding many people who did not have computers at home or who were unsure how to navigate this technology that was new to them.
We began printing out copies of our sermons and mailing them to people who wanted them. We burned DVDs of the recorded services and asked members of our care team to deliver them to people in their homes and care facilities (in whatever COVID appropriate way we could). We started receiving notes in the mail from people who were so grateful for the efforts our congregation was making to ensure that no one was excluded.
Meanwhile, Jeff and I were exhausted. We were spending hours learning new skills and countless sleepless nights worrying about the safety of our people. We wondered about people we hadn’t heard from in weeks (or months) despite our efforts to reach out and connect. We changed and tweaked each week’s service in response to feedback we received on what would help people best enter into worship or on what people missed from our in-person services. We would upload our recorded services and then have them flagged for copyright infringement, even though there was nothing in the videos that should’ve violated copyright. (You’ve never lived until you stayed awake until 2 a.m. worrying that the worship service won’t air because Facebook thinks you’ve stolen something for your video from the Pakistani Super League.)
Jeff and I would muse over dinner about the simple days when we weren’t also tech gurus trying to troubleshoot everything while also preaching and parenting our two kids. We longed for the days when things were simpler for us, or at least for the days when we didn’t feel like we were always burning the candle at both ends.
Our church leadership made the decision even in the midst of this uncertainty and burnout that livestream was here to stay. We fully supported this decision. We knew that the day would come when our weariness would be over, when people could safely gather together again, when life looked more “normal” than it did right now. We imagined loved ones being able to attend funeral services from around the globe, weddings streamed to people who were unable to be in our sanctuary in person for whatever reason. And, we had a growing stack of evidence that our livestream services were expanding our ministry, not limiting or cheapening it:
- People who had been unable to participate in worship for years were joining online – and even participating in things like the annual congregational meeting!
- New opportunities for pastoral care arose as people discovered the online services and reached out
- Our college students began checking in now and then from their dorms
- People who were ill or recovering from surgery could still watch the service and be encouraged
- When local nursing homes and care facilities were unable to find someone to come in and preach at their weekly services, they were able to share our worship service with their residents
Our church had wanted to begin a livestream ministry for years, but had lacked the resources and opportunity to implement it. When the pandemic made virtual gathering the only option for us, we seized the opportunity and have worked for the last two years to make our worship service as accessible as possible.
While we were still pre-recording and editing our services, Jeff reached out to some other churches and received guidance from their tech people on how to install a more permanent livestream system. He spent more hours than I care to remember running ethernet cords and standing on tall ladders to install cameras. He and I would go over to the sanctuary at 10 p.m. and stay until almost midnight testing to make sure the audio was working. One of our members agreed to become an expert at running the system, and now he is training others in our congregation to run it too. We have spent countless hours and energy on livestreaming not just because we need it during a pandemic but because we believe accessibility is important. Having a livestream system (for us) is like having an elevator, or accessible doors, or wheelchair access to restrooms. Livestream helps us to be as inclusive as we can be.
Recently, I have been hearing a call for churches to drop their livestream option for worship. In response, I want to offer the following for consideration:
- Not every church is in the same situation. The pastor of a congregation of 7 people with no tech resources and limited finances may not be able to sustain their livestream ministry. We should give them the grace to do what they can do with what they have. My congregation has a system in place, people to run it, and a passion for continuing this livestream ministry. We are not going to discontinue it because we are able to keep going.
- Not every community is in the same situation. One reason I’ve heard for getting rid of livestream is that cases of COVID are on the decline. This is true in some areas of the country and world, but it is not true for my community. In the last seven days, my community has seen the largest caseload of new COVID cases that we’ve ever had. While it may make sense for some communities to loosen restrictions or have more people gathered for worship, other communities are facing surges of the virus unlike they’ve ever seen before. We need to stop painting churches with a broad brushstroke. Not every community is the same. Not every congregation is the same. We all have to be faithful in the best way we know how with the resources we’ve been given.
- It does not have to be either/or. Should we drop our livestream option and step up our efforts for people to offer visitation and in-home communion to those who cannot attend in person? My response is this: why does it have to be either/or? The people in my community who rely on our livestream services know it is not a substitute for in-person worship. They know they are missing something by not being with other believers. But, this is what they can do right now. Why not offer this livestream worship option to these beloved children of God while also stepping up our efforts to care for them in their homes?
- Church is not just what happens on Sunday mornings. Yes, corporate worship is important. Yes, we need to be with each other and be encouraged and strengthened by each other. But, church is more than one hour a week. When we offer the option of livestreaming to our people and our community, we are not removing ways for them to be the church. We are offering them a way to hear the Scriptures and be fed, to listen to hymns and prayers, and to be encouraged and challenged to live as the body the rest of their week.
Are there still days when I remember how much easier it was before I also had to know how to run a livestream system? Sure. (Especially on days like this last Sunday when the internet inexplicably quit working at the end of the service.) Do I want to go back to those days? No. For me, in my congregation here in Nebraska, livestream is here to stay. Instead of dropping our livestream option, we are going to keep working to find ways for our members at home to be connected to our worshiping community and to the unique ministry they have been called to where they are.