What we learned from our first online service

Like thousands of churches all over the world, last Sunday we took our services online only. Here’s what we learned:

Community is vital

Church is more than listening to a sermon. Rather than live-stream using YouTube, we used Zoom. That allowed the whole congregation to see one another and chat together. For many people, especially those who had been self-isolating, this was one of the highlights of the meeting. As a smaller church, this worked well for us (we had about 40 people from around 20 families join us), but larger churches could host a series of smaller ‘services’ of 60-100 people each.

At the end of the service, we used Zoom’s Breakout Rooms to split us into even smaller groups so we could chat more easily. Online meetups work best when only one person is speaking at a time, and that’s hard with even 20 families connected. We found small groups with around 6-8 families worked best.

Practical tips:

  • Zoom is free for up to 40-minutes per meeting. If you want longer meetings, it costs just £14/month – a very worthwhile investment.
  • In Zoom, Breakout Rooms need to be enabled in your account. There’s no charge for this.

The sermon is vital

I found that preparing a sermon for an online service was no different to normal – but preparing a sermon for a congregation anxious about the future and struggling to adapt to the new normal was very different. I settled on 2 Chronicles 20:9, (“If disaster comes upon us, the sword, judgment, or pestilence, or famine, we will stand before this house and before you—for your name is in this house—and cry out to you in our affliction, and you will hear and save”), and spoke on the importance of coming together, crying out to God, and being confident in Him. Other pastors preached very similar truths. When we looked into God’s word, we found truth and hope. They’re both precious commodities, especially at the moment, and last Sunday, God’s people loved to hear them.

Practical tip:

  • When preaching, try and give eye contact to those watching. That means looking at your camera, not your screen. Put your notes as close to the camera as you can.
  • Zoom will switch to showing each person who is speaking. If you want to override this or make sure it stays on only one person, use Zoom’s Spotlight feature.

Singing is vital

We tried to keep the service as close to normal as possible, so included several worship songs to remind us of God’s love and care for us. Online it’s not possible for everyone to hear everyone else singing (if you attempt this, it gets out of sync and sounds awful, trust me). We, therefore, ‘muted’ everyone for the service which made sure we weren’t interrupted by pets or babies, and also meant that people could sing along without becoming self-conscious.

To compensate for this ‘muting’, as we displayed the song words on the stream, we used recordings of real congregations singing, so that when people joined in at home, they felt as though they were part of a bigger congregation. Again, it was a part of the service that many people said afterwards they particularly enjoyed.

Practical tips:

Prayer is vital

Part of our Christian responsibility at the moment is to cry out to God for mercy and help, and our church services are the perfect place to do that. Zoom also works brilliantly for prayer meetings, house or cell groups, or even prayer between friends and families.

Children are vital

We’re fortunate to have children in our Sunday services, so it’s essential they’re part of our online plans too. Our children enjoyed the children’s talk, and we’re planning an online Sunday School/Children’s meeting this week, too.

Practical tip:

Non-connected people are vital

Not all our church can get online, so not everyone could benefit. It’s vital, therefore, that as a church, we make every effort to stay connected to our elderly members through the technology they can access. Phone calls from the pastor and church members are the most significant help and much appreciated, but we’ll soon be offering other ways of helping our elderly folk connect into a service. We’ll soon both allow members to join our Zoom meetings by phone, and we’re also creating DVDs of the Zoom service and posting them to members.

Practical tip:

Testing is vital

Although Zoom is easy to use, making it work in just the right way for your church requires a bit of practice. We ran a test with a couple of volunteers a few days before our first service, and learned loads. Without that test, the service could have descended into farce.

Support is vital

As a small church with many older members who were venturing into the unknown just by connecting online, I decided to plan and execute the first service myself. That meant that as well as preaching, praying and leading the service, I was also switching screens, adjusting volume levels, and ensuring the right song lyrics were being displayed. Here’s what I learned: (1) I’m not a good multitasker. (2) The congregation are very forgiving. (3) Next time, I need to ask for help.

Practical tip:

  • Ideally, the audio/visual jobs should be separated from the preaching/leading responsibilities. That’s quite easy with Zoom – but you’ll need someone fairly comfortable with technology and able to concentrate throughout the whole service.

Demand is greater than you think

An hour before our first service, I put a link on a small WhatsApp group I’m part of, inviting some of my non-church friends to join. To my surprise, two of them did, and another has promised to ‘come’ next Sunday. There’s a spiritual thirst at the moment, and our online services can help to meet that need.

Practical tip:

  • Some churches have reported that streaming on YouTube can bring in lots of visitors (although doing so means you miss out on the interactive nature of Zoom). The best option, if your participants are comfortable with it, might be to set up Zoom to broadcast to YouTube (or to Facebook) simultaneously. You’ll need a paid Zoom account to do this.

In conclusion

One pastor messaged me jokingly on Sunday afternoon, “We should do this permanently. I’ve never had so many thank you messages after a sermon.” (At least, I think he was joking!) But that reminds us that (a) God is in this. (b) People love the sense of connection and peace that our church services bring.

We trust it won’t be too many weeks until we’re back in our church buildings and seeing one another in the flesh. When we do, we’ll be even more thankful of what we’ve been enjoying all of our Christian lives – meeting together in person. But in the meantime, virtual gatherings that bring people together and proclaim God’s truth in word and song are not only vital, but they’re knowing God’s blessing. Let’s pray that God would use them.