This is, perhaps obviously, a mixture of both the opinions of someone that has sat through too many online sermons (even before the Age of COVID) and the trade of someone that has given too many online conference talks and presentations.
That said, as it pertains to preaching online...
Preachers: Presentation or Parish?
Is this an online-first presentation, or are you using streaming as a tool to connect to your parish? While some recommendations (e.g. worry about audio before video) are universal, many of the recommendations you'll read or hear or see online make assumptions about which of these styles of preaching is your primary goal. I'll do my best to call out those assumptions here, but nothing else matters until you know this answer.
For some folks this is obvious. For others it's a serious consideration. For others still, you'll need both at different times, and so you'll need to build two separate online preaching practices.
Presentations are, by and large, the simpler of the two. Speak to the camera, and use software to record or stream the output. There are dozens of simple tools like mmhmm and Zoom that are optimized for this style of communication, and there are seventy times seven takes online for how to improve them. I'll include a few of the less-obvious highlights and improvements regardless:
- Frame the camera so that your face is horizontally centered in the frame, but the center of your face should be a third the way down from the top. Place and zoom the camera such that you can see your shoulders.
- If you use gestures while you speak, make sure those gestures—and you—can be seen! It takes a lot of practice, but the same gestures can be given in a way that frame, rather than obscure, your face, with your elbows close to your side and your hands near your face. It feels weird, but it looks correct.
- Slides are simple to incorporate into a presentation format, but this is a trap: you're preaching a sermon to folks that are, by default, isolated from one another. Err on the side of connection, rather than just communication.
- I assume that the "presentation" format is preferred when your congregation cannot gather in the same place. In this case, they are "tuning in" (do people still say that?) from a variety of environments. Keep it short. You don't know what manner of distractions folks are dealing with, so the shorter and simpler you can keep your message, the better. (Even moreso than when in person.)
- Don't underestimate the lack of feedback. You might be used to "reading" the congregation's response to something, but that is just not feasible, even over "meeting"-style software like Zoom. You're largely on your own, another reason simpler will go better.
Connecting your parish is, in my opinion, significantly harder. You don't want to detract from the experience of those in the pews, but you don't want your online congregants to feel like second-class citizens, either.
The tech you choose (covered below) can certainly help, but your primary job—much like the presenters, above—is to reduce the impact of distractions to those joining remotely, and keep your connection to those online from being a distraction from the message. Keep the format simple to follow. The length of the sermon is, IMO, less of an issue when folks can join in person, but the lengths of the "chunks" becomes more important instead.
- If you pace while you speak, work with the tech folks to establish a boundary. Otherwise, you're liable to walk off-camera.
- I cover this below, but work with the tech folks to minimize the need to move or reframe or refocus any given camera. It's hard to do well, time-consuming, and requires skill and practice. In addition, a still camera can help create a sense of "space", thinning the "fourth wall" between you and your online congregation.
- For that matter, break the fourth wall. Smash it into tiny pieces, and sweep those pieces into the nearest bin. Acknowledge that you have folks online, and welcome them explicitly with your words and actions. Look at the camera on occasion.
- Microphones are a knowable thing, and the more comfortable you are with the microphone(s) you use, the better the experience will be for everyone. Do you know how to turn it on and off? Could you mute it if you need to cough or go to take a sip? Do you know how to adjust it, if needed? Do you know how to replace the batteries?
No matter the format—presentation or parish—work with your tech folks. Thank them. Listen to them. If your role includes the autonomy to do so, help them understand their budget. Their work might not be literal magic, but they will need your help to balance the hundreds of minor details it takes for the magic trick of making the tech disappear.
It's a touch counterintuitive, but when you're talking about streaming video, audio matters more. If you're going to spend a little money on gear, spend it on a nicer microphone before you spend it on a camera.
- Spend some time to make sure sibilants and plosives are clearly understandable without clipping.
- Have a second microphone that can pick up the preacher in addition to a lapel or lavelier microphone. This is especially useful for guest preachers, and can mean the difference between compensating for bad microphone placement and the AV person running up on stage mid-sermon.
- Unlike video—we'll get to that—there's no making up for a bad microphone. Get a trusted brand and model of microphone, and save your pennies elsewhere.
- Check the levels for the full dynamic range. Preachers like to be especially quiet or loud for emphasis, and will underestimate that range during soundcheck unless you tell them otherwise.
A little can go a long way. Often the main limitation with video is not gear, it's placement, focus, and lighting.
- Place the camera at or above the preacher's eye line, but no more than 15º or so above it. This should be intuitive; no need to get out a protractor.
- Move the camera as little as possible. It's better to have a second camera you can cut to than to try and reframe or refocus the same camera a dozen times during the service.
- Keep the preacher in the middle of the frame. Yet again, you could move the camera to keep up with them if they like to move around, but the easier solution is to get some "gaffer's tape" and make an X where you want them to stand. Or a box they should stay within.
- Make sure there are more lights in front of the pastor than behind to keep them from looking like they're in the Witness To Christ Protection Program. (This is especially relevant for folks preaching from home, an office, etc.) Lights should be level with the camera to as high an angle as 45º above.
Slides might be the hardest part to implement. Your goal is to make them as simple as possible to run.
The most important decision lies between cutting between camera feed(s) and slides, or trying to superimpose the slides over the video feed. Either requires tech to pull off, but both the slide design and the tech itself need to optimize for one or the other. (If you already know your software is solving this problem for you, skip this section.)
If you're cutting, you're turned a tech setup problem into a communication problem. Make sure the tech team knows when to cut to slides, and when to show the preacher. Some folks will find this intuitive, and others will find it completely baffling without a lot of practice. Pairing them together can help immensely, but doubles the load on your volunteers. Short version: watch the feeds, and cut to the slides when they change (especially if the preacher likes to read from them). Count slowly to 3 when they've finished talking about or referencing what's on the slide, and cut back.
If you're superimposing, you're going to sacrifice legibility for folks in the room. Update slide styling and templates to use the lower quarter-to-third of the screen, with a completely black background. Your software should be able to overlay this on the camera feed, or you can use a device like an ATEM Mini to manage the math. The result should be the text on the bottom, and the preacher behind and above. This setup can lower volunteer burden significantly, as the preacher can now control the overlay. If they're finished being bathed in text, they can transition to an all-black slide.
Other: Recording & Streaming
If you're considering a recording, the closer you can get to the "sensor" (the microphone, the camera) the better the quality will be. Recording from Zoom might be the easiest, but will also be the lowest-quality option.
A good middle ground is to record all audio you're sending (e.g. from the mixer) and the video feed, and combine them in software afterward.
- If you're using "meeting"-focused software like Zoom, make sure you mute everyone else. Including the "meeting host" or AV team. See if your software has a "Spotlight" feature for the main feed, and use it.
- If you have other elements you are streaming or recording, take a minute to check the level of the preacher's microphone relative to the other elements. Try to avoid having the preaching be significantly quieter (or louder) than the other elements.
- If you have a multilingual church, make sure you understand what the experience for translation is for online folks.
If you are live-streaming your sermon and the software has a chat feature, make it someone's responsibility to watch it. If you're connecting a parish, make sure they're in the room. If you're presenting, assign a leader or elder to moderate from their own connection.
- If you have a welcome time or a time for "passing of the Peace", consider using breakout rooms to pair people off randomly. Give them a 60-second warning before you bring them back to the main room. If you're presenting to an all-online congregation, consider adding a time like this if you don't already do so.
- Otherwise, consider kicking off a chat while folks greet one another in person. Cut the audio to that second microphone I mentioned, to give people a sense of how lively the room is, and lower the volume. If you have just a few folks connected from home, consider having the moderator speak up online, and welcome folks by name.
- I've never had it happen myself, but it's not unthinkable that someone would crash your live stream. Don't lose sleep over it, but make sure you moderator has a plan for what to do, just like you have a plan for disruptions in your sanctuary. (You do have a plan for that, right?)
A few specific recommendations
- The Black Magic ATEM Mini is a workhorse on the video side, and scales from a 4-input $300 model to a 16-in, 9-out, $1300 behemoth. Easy to use once you set it up, and Black Magic is a "household" name for video gear.
- Shure microphones are a good balance of price and performance. If you don't know where to start, look at the SM57, SM58, and MX153. For a bump of quality (and price) for the band, look at the Beta line. If and when you ever outgrow these, you'll know better what you're looking for anyway.
- You're not getting some unsustainable discount, but Sweetwater's support is second to none. If you're intimidated at all on the tech side, ask them for a "Sales Engineer", who will sit on the phone with you and talk through your needs. Again: you will pay MSRP for your gear. But if it breaks or it doesn't fit your needs, you have a living, breathing human with a name you can call for help. If not that, try to find a local shop to buy through. For these high-cost, niche purchases, Amazon is a minefield of scams and knockoffs. Avoid it.
Other: Closing thoughts
It is my personal opinion that the connectivity provided by the Internet is here to stay, and that God's global Church has been given the gift of gathering across our silly societal boundaries. I also know that these technologies are nascent and changing, challenging us to share solutions and give grace to one another while we figure out how to preach to God's people well in this present age.
Take these points with a grain of salt. Change them to fit your needs. Share them, if they helped.
God bless you in the incredible work you've been invited into.
26th of September, 2023