Making it as good as you can

I was sent a copy of a tweet which said: ‘Pray for pastors as they attempt to make this Sunday’s live-stream not look like a bin Laden capture video!’

Well – yes indeed. In our nervousness of doing something new like preaching online, we can forget to smile and come over as grim and forbidding figures on screen at a time when our people need reassuring.

We are not professional film-makers but with the restrictions now in place because of the coronavirus pandemic, many of us as pastors are having to venture into the wonderful world of preaching our messages online. We are trying to feed our flock faithfully, but it is not an easy business. A Youtube video circulated of a vicar talking to his congregation from his study when his pullover briefly caught fire from a lighted candle just behind him. It was salutary to say the least!

Streaming and video conferencing

Some churches are streaming online services on Sundays using a skeleton crew of technicians and musicians at the place of worship. It is essential that we try to keep the weekly routine of the Lord’s Day as best we can. But already the restrictions are tightening and more and more will have to be done just from the pastor’s home as the government rightly insists on strict social distancing to minimize contagion.

So what are some things to bear in mind if we have to do this? I am no expert, but I thought it might be useful to put together some of the tips to be found on the web about how to make the best of our video preaching.* There is a lot out there to be learned from business about how to present an online seminar well.

Audio matters

Test your Wi-Fi beforehand. Our normal browsing of the web uses a lot less bandwidth than a video call or conference. Being closer to the router can make a positive difference. It might be worthwhile to try different rooms in your house to find which has the best reception. If all else fails you may have to invest in the appropriate cable to connect to the router.

If you are simply streaming on YouTube then make sure everyone knows the time you will begin and has straightforward instructions as to how to connect. An email to all with a link on which to click is great.

If you are both a small church and you are using a video conferencing app like Zoom, then you have the advantage of being able to be more interactive. You can welcome different people by name as they join the conference and their faces appear on everyone’s screens. People not only see you, the preacher, but each other, which is important at a time like this. Maybe you can have some moments for each one to share news as to how they are getting on and those pieces of information can be included in the prayer in your little online service.

But when it comes to your exposition from Scripture it will be best for everyone else to mute their microphones so they can hear you with no distractions from others. Some recommend the use of an external microphone rather than relying on the microphone in the laptop. They can be of better quality and can be placed nearer to the preacher.

When we are nervous we tend to speak more quickly. It happens each year at school Nativities when a youngster is asked to read a Bible passage for the first time. Slow down. Don’t gabble. And there can be power in a well-timed pause or two to let people catch up and process what is being said.

Visual practicalities

There’s no need for make-up! But do perhaps look in a mirror before appearing before your people.

There is need also to think carefully about lighting. Obviously the light needs to come from in front of you rather than from the rear.  Don’t set up with a window behind you. Bouncing light off a nearby whitish wall can be better than pointing a bright light directly at your face.

Don’t wear stripy, check or very bright coloured shirts. On screen, these tend to distract or even annoy those with whom you are trying to communicate. Solid block and sedate colours are best and they need to be distinct from the colour of your background. You are not meant to be in camouflage!

Speaking of the background, it is best to use a plain wall. Distracting clutter should be removed. And to broadcast with your library of theological tomes behind you may look erudite, but may lead your viewers to be more interested in what books you have on your shelves than in what you are saying to them.

The advice seems to be to keep the webcam slightly above eye-level. (You don’t want to look down on people). If you are using a laptop you can place it on top of a few volumes of Matthew Henry or Charles Hodge to achieve the height you need.

It is also helpful to look at the screen (and hence at the people) as much as possible while you are talking in order to keep your audience’s attention. Two inches from the top of the screen seems to be the recommended focus point. This leads to a couple of other tips.

If you are broadcasting from home, having someone sit on the opposite side of the screen to whom you can address your remarks could be advantageous. It feels more like speaking to someone in the ordinary way. Preachers who keep their heads down looking at their notes all the time can be hard work for viewers. With this in mind we need to know our sermons inside out so that it is not a problem to raise our eyes and speak as naturally as possible. Rehearsal and practice have their place.

A gentle use of hand gestures in communicating can maintain interest and help with getting a message across.  But this, like all else, needs to be natural and spontaneous.

Love them!

As in all preaching, love for Christ and for your hearers is the most important thing. It will show on our faces. Smiles will break out with a gracious warmth. In his Five Christian Leaders of the Eighteenth Century, J. C. Ryle writes of George Whitefield: ‘He was eminently a rejoicing Christian, whose very demeanour recommended his Master’s service. A venerable lady of New York, after his death, when speaking of the influences by which the Spirit won her heart to God, used these remarkable words: “Mr. Whitefield was so cheerful that it tempted me to become a Christian.”’

Love can come across on the screen just as surely as Paul’s love came across in his letters.

We don’t want our broadcasts to be reminiscent of ISIL. Maybe its time for some men to lose your Old Testament beards and let your face shine like that of an angel! (Acts 6.15).

* I am very grateful to my friend Peter Rush for his help with this.

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