The church online: staying connected
How can churches sustain an online expression of church in the long-term?
Ever since the pandemic hit in early 2020, churches across Japan have had to grapple with the challenges of worshiping together while keeping members safe. How do we keep the community united when we are not physically together? Whether you are leading a church of 20 or 200, it’s important to understand how the online expression of the church connects with the in-person expression of the church. Whether someone joins in worship in person or online, their experience should draw them closer to the Lord and to others.
Over the past year and a half, the Lord provided me with opportunities to help churches produce live online worship services using my experience as a pastor as well as broadcasting technician. I helped launch production systems at two very different churches. At Tokyo Union Church—an established church with hundreds of members—I developed an automated production control system. At Redeemer Church of Roppongi—a church plant in the heart of Tokyo with 20–30 people attending both in-person and online—I helped launch a simplified production system.
Based on my experiences, here are questions to ask as you seek to build a connected community, during this pandemic and beyond.
Technology as a bridge
Many churches have used Zoom for online weekly services. Others have used streaming services such as Facebook Live or YouTube to send out a worship service video. But as leaders we need to think carefully about what is ahead.
- Is your current model of online gathering something that can be reproduced continuously without leading to burnout and burdensome responsibilities?
- Do you intend to maintain an online presence even when in-person gatherings resume? If so, is your current method going to serve your congregation well in the future?
- Are there ways we can improve interaction during worship and help new people comfortably join your service for the first time?
Many churches have had to shift how they gathered. Tokyo Union Church did not have a livestream before March 2020. When in-person gatherings were halted, the church began streaming their services and using ChurchOnlinePlatform.com to help foster interaction. However, the church’s inadequate equipment created too much work and the volunteer staff couldn’t sustain the pace of producing the services. I developed an automated system for the church that allowed all aspects of production to be operated simply and efficiently by one person from a central control source (automated production control system).
You may not be producing online streams, but if you are running a Zoom service that includes slides plus musicians who aren’t in the same location, you need to consider how that will work in the future. To prepare for the unexpected, think of emergency situations—such as broken Internet connections, technical failures, and volunteers suddenly unavailable. To create sustainability, consider a rotation of volunteers to lead the service and operate various parts of the service, such as PowerPoint slides and music. Ultimately, whether in person or online, serving should be a joy, and rotating responsibilities will help create a sustainable pattern that will continue past the pandemic.
In addition to sustainability, have you considered how things will change at your church when in-person gatherings resume in full force?
This is where understanding the online expression of the church helps. Instead of considering online gatherings as a separate aspect of the church, it should be considered as one of the many expressions. Those who join online should still be a part of your church, not just spectators. How can those joining online be a part of the service, and how can you work to keep them engaged?
There is no approach that will work for all churches. However, a willingness to experiment might produce some answers. For example, would the corporate service be better as a single livestream, followed by a more interactive gathering afterward? At Redeemer Church of Roppongi, the services are streamed on Facebook Live, followed by a coffee hour on Zoom. This approach has allowed the service to be a unified experience while bringing in a communal aspect afterwards.
Or is making the Zoom-based approach to the primary gathering something more sustainable? It is possible to feed the service into the call? Whatever the method, thinking on a more expansive basis will create new avenues. Ultimately, our goal should be to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ to as many people as possible, making disciples of all nations.
Interactions and integrations
Creating interaction in the age of Zoom calls has been more difficult than we initially thought. It’s not natural (except for those who are used to being on camera like myself) to sit in front of a camera and talk to it as if you are talking to another person. It also doesn’t feel natural to constantly feel watched on camera.
One way Tokyo Union Church has approached this is using an online chat box during the services rather than Zoom.1 Using volunteer hosts, we welcome those joining online, guide them throughout the service, point them to resources, and answer questions. During the service we also give visitors a way to contact our prayer team. This allows visitors to come in without feeling like they have to be in front of a camera, but it also provides a more welcoming atmosphere to all.
“Producing” a worship service
As a pastor, I hate the idea of “producing” a worship service. A worship service is not a production. However, as a production director, I approach the livestreaming side of the service as a production, since it requires coordination, vision, and an understanding of the whole operation.
We live in a day where our screens drive our experiences and we expect a certain level of quality. However, unless your church is aiming to be a video production center, you do not need substantial equipment to produce a livestream.
Here are some things you should consider with any online service production:
- What devices or apps do people use to view the worship service and participate?
- What equipment should the church use to effectively capture and deliver good-quality audio? (Note: Audio is arguably the most important aspect in producing online services, yet easily overlooked.)
- Is there a way the participants can interact with other viewers? How will the church follow up with participants later?
At Redeemer Church of Roppongi, the production equipment consists of:
- a video switcher (equipment that changes whether we see the video feed or slides),
- a digital audio mixer (equipment that allows us to use microphones and instruments for sound),
- a computer for slides and streaming,
- microphones, and
- an iPhone.
It is easy to set up and easy to pack up. This is sustainable for a new church plant. There are many options on how to produce a worship service, and it doesn’t have to cost a lot.
Where to get help
Answering the technical questions above requires more space than I have here. Thankfully, there are many resources out there to help you with ideas and explanations of how to put together an online service. Should you need help getting your church online, please do not hesitate to access free resources available at my ministry website, “Genki Today” (https://genki.today), which offers tutorials and new ideas. Ultimately, an online broadcast is an expression of the church, and producing services with simplicity and excellence is key to a sustainable online ministry.
If you feel like you now have more questions than answers, fear not. Our Almighty God has loved and cared for his church for more than two millennia. Through wars, plagues, and persecutions, the church has stood the test of time. In Matthew 16:18, our Lord Jesus says to Peter, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (ESV). Even in the midst of a pandemic, may the Lord redeem this time to enable the church to reach those across Japan and around the world like never before.
1. Getting started with online chatting is relatively straightforward. Options include the free Church Online Platform (https://churchonlineplatform.com) or the chat functions of your streaming provider (e.g. Facebook Live, YouTube).