A microphone looking out over an empty room

Preaching online

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:

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.

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.

Tech: audio

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.

Tech: video

A little can go a long way. Often the main limitation with video is not gear, it's placement, focus, and lighting.

Tech: slides

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.

Other: Moderation

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.

A few specific recommendations

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.

(Photo by Matt Botsford on Unsplash. Love that site.)

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