Preaching online in virtual church

In what ways is preaching online to a virtual congregation different from preaching in a physically gathered church? How might we need to adapt to this new situation?

Before answering this question, it is worth pausing to reflect on why we need to address it.

First, we are likely to be in this situation for some time. It might be that, in the UK, we do begin to see the cases of Covid-19 plateau in the next few weeks. But that means that the current restrictions will only begin to be lifted in, say, two months, and we might not be allowed to gather again in large groups for a further month or two. So we are in for the medium haul at least—and until a vaccine is developed in the next 18 months, restrictions might have to return, before the next coronavirus comes along in five years’ time.

Secondly, in the last few weeks have enjoyed something of a novelty period, with a little frisson of excitement for some at the challenge of a new situation, lots of hard work by others getting online, and many people cheering the efforts from the sideline. But the novelty will wear off! When virtual church becomes more routine, we need to be able to offer something that works in a more mundane time.

Thirdly, as many have testified, it appears as though online church has attracted a good number of ‘extras’, people looking in who would not normally have darkened the doors of a church building (perhaps because they were never invited?) but who can easily sit in the virtual back row without being noticed. We owe it to them to communicate well. And we might want to continue to engage with them in continued online ministry in the future, now that we have done all this work and learning, and found a way to connect with them.

Finally, like engagement in all kinds of broadcast media, learning to preach well online will actually give us skills that we can take back into preaching IRL. When I taught preaching over a decade in a residential theological college, I encouraged the students to take every opportunity that they could to speak in a range of different contexts, including on radio and, if possible, television. Each medium context tests and develops new skills, and being online is no exception to that.

In our thinking, though we need to recognise that online ‘preaching’ isn’t the same as preaching IRL. All online interactions are only a partial expression of actual relationships, and ultimately depend on and must feed into real life encounters. Phillips Brooks described preaching as ‘Truth expressed through personality’, and to the extent that people only encounter us in part online, they only experience preaching in part—they cannot see the whole, unedited person that they know. Nevertheless, online ‘preaching’ is clearly going to be important in the interim.

It is still early days, but what are the things we need to think about when ‘preaching’ online? These are the things that have struck me so far, aided by a great online discussion with friends and colleagues on Facebook.

Length. This is the first, and most obvious, impact of taking things online. I suspect those who simply broadcast their usual length service and sermon in the first week or two of the restrictions have now changed their strategy, since watching something online just does not hold one’s attention in the way that being presence and participating in a live event does. And we need to be honest too—when people are gathered for a service, their concentration levels and degree of engagement will vary, and they will tune in and out. But they are sitting there, and cannot easily leave! So after disconnecting for a few minutes, thinking about the shopping list, and worrying about dinner in the oven, they then reconnect. There is no such discipline online! And the computer screen only occupies one small part of our visual field, so being distracted is more of a danger!

It is easy for those who normally preach for 10 minutes to disdain those who traditions where preaching lasts 25, 30 or 40 minutes. ‘There must be a load of padding!’ Yes, but that padding includes establishing rapport, encouraging people to think, reflect and process for themselves, telling stories, and even building a case by careful engagement with the scriptural text. Conversely those who preach for longer can disdain those who only offer a short ‘homily’. ‘How can you teach people anything? You cannot feed the people of God on snacks!’

It might be that, in shorter preaching traditions, you have already done the work of honing what you say to something concise and with content. The reality is that, for most, speaking continuously for more than 10 or 15 minutes is not going to work. But if there is more that needs to be said, why not break it into several short sections? This is where we can learn something from the more ‘magazine’ format of broadcasting services; the Sunday Service on Radio 4 usually has three or even four short sections of sermon-like speech—though sometimes this degree of sectioning can lose a sense of continuity, and we end up with three different short sermons instead of one that is in sections.

When teaching preaching, I used to make all students write and perform (to their classmates) a two-minute sermon. The reflection of most was ‘It is amazing how much you can say in a short time; why do I need to preach for any longer?!’ In fact they did, but they learnt skills of crafting their words which they they took into their longer, regular preaching which gave it punch.

Structure. If you are in a tradition that preaches for longer, you will be used to having the freedom to offer background information, fill out your case, use more complex illustrations, and offer cross-referencing to other texts, all of which make the structure of what you are saying more complex. (If you are not sure what your structure is, then take a pen and a paper and draw as a picture the shape of what you are preaching—and from time to time ask some of your listeners to do the same!). You can sustain this by personal engagement, movement, and change of voice register IRL.

But, with shorter time available and lower concentration levels, online preaching needs a much simpler and more direct structure. That doesn’t mean that you cannot make observations and asides—but they cannot be such long detours, and I think online preaching requires that we trim off most of the side branches, and end up with something that looks more like a Lombardy poplar than a spreading oak tree.

Expression, attitude and tone. It is a strange reality of video broadcasting that it is very easy to concentrate very hard on what we are doing, being worried about the set up, the technology, and the mastering of a new skill—that our tone, expression and range of register can flatten out. A lot of us look ever so serious online! So we need to smile, to vary our expression, and conscious avoid speaking in a monotone. When we are speaking from a platform in church, and can move to and away from a lectern, then it is much easier to vary our tone, particularly for the different phases of a sermon (exploring the text, telling stories, offering illustration, exploring application)—and this kind of choreography can even play a part for those preaching from a pulpit. But when we are siting, rigidly, in front of a camera (or phone or computer), this will come less naturally, so we need to make a conscious effort to keep things lively and varied.

The test here is very similar to being on the radio. Although the broadcasting of what you say means that it will reach lots of people, you actually reach them one by one in their homes. That means the experience for them is much more like a one-to-one conversation, so that is how you need to think of it. Imagine that you are speaking, in a disciplined and structured one-way conversation with just one other person, with lots of others overhearing what you are going to say. There will need to be natural pauses, hesitations and variation, as there is in all conversation—but this will need to be practiced and planned.

Script. I think this is the biggest practical challenge for online preaching! The camera is actually quite unforgiving of ‘ums’ and ‘ers’ than real life—they are much more obvious to the viewer, so we need to eliminate them, along with other annoying personal habits! Our speech online needs to be conversational, but also quite formed and clear. This means that we need the discipline that comes from scripting—but we also need the directness of eye contact for most, if not all, of the time.

If you have done broadcasting work, then you might already have honed the skills you need to say what you have to say directly, concisely, and in an accessible way. If not, this is a great time to learn! One of my colleagues now writes and learns his sermon (25 or 30 minutes) and preaches regularly without any notes. Most of us will need bullet points; I don’t think it is possible to preach online with a full script, and I don’t think it is possible to do that and be fully engaging IRL either! If you need notes, then put them as close to the camera as possible, and beneath rather than to one side. We are used to people briefly looking down; if a person speaking to us looks to one side, then it signals they have lost interest or are distracted.

(Some people have made use of teleprompter apps, like Video Teleprompter 3 for the iPhone. If you can make use of that so that you maintain camera eye contact, do—but remember that you cannot transfer that skill back to other contexts.)

Rhetoric. With less time, competition for attention, and the on-screen experience (of the listener) of being close up and personal, good communication here will need to draw on the whole range of rhetorical devises. How are you going to make good use of repetition, of lists of three, of alliteration? The person I listened to on Sunday repeated that Jesus was a ‘different kind of king’, and explored the range of ways that Jesus’ kingship was different. He included the phrase ‘he was born in a borrowed stable, rode into Jerusalem on a borrowed donkey, and was buried in a borrowed tomb’—a great way to link different episodes of the gospel narrative, show that Palm Sunday was part of a way story, and give us something to remember (and I will forgive the mention of the stable!).

Notice how often in the gospels, Jesus tells as story or parable, or offers some illustrative teaching, then sums it up with a pithy aphorism that is easy to remember. ‘With the measure you measure you will be measured;’ ‘Seek first the kingdom of God, and all these things will be added to you;’ and so on. Can you summarise each of the key elements of what you are teaching in a memorable saying?

And bear in mind that all sorts of people might be listening in—so avoid ‘in house’ Christian jargon, and keep your illustrations as broad in their appeal as possible. But don’t forget that the first audience you are speaking to is people you know who know you.

Appearance. One specific challenge of online preaching is to get the basics of presentation right. Make sure you are sitting up or standing; sitting on a sofa makes the camera angles all wrong. Make sure you are on a level, and that your eyeline is in the upper half of the screen; people don’t want to spend their time looking up your nose! Make sure you are well lit. Pay some attention to your appearance; people will not normally see you for so long so close. Cut your hair; trim your beard; do whatever else you need to to make yourself presentable!

Feedback. We do have a bit of a challenge in many of our churches in England: when we have so many years of experience between us, how come we aren’t better at preaching than we are? I don’t mean that to sound unkind, but I think it is a reality. And one of the main reasons is that it is so easy to avoid honest and regular feedback and review. When I was teaching preaching, one of the most painful things to do was to watch sermons in small groups that had been video recorded—but it was also the most valuable. It is the certain way to eliminate foibles and eccentricities! And now we are all going to have a wonderful catalogue of ourselves on video! So we need to make the most of it, watch them back, preferably with others, and learn and grow from it.

You can see all the comments in the Facebook discussion here.

I end this post with what I think is a masterclass in online sermon-like communication. It is by Bryan Wolfmueller, who is a Lutheran pastor in Austin Texas (thanks to Simon Cawdell for putting me on to him). Watch the video yourself first, and see what you pick up.

Here are the things I noticed:

He began with a nice, natural, anecdote which was conversational in tone—but he then moves very quickly into the substance of what he wants to say. There was no wasted time.

The discussion about Bagophanes was a wonderful illustration of using humour to teach something. This character might not have been central, but I don’t think I will forget his name in a hurry! Bryan has clearly done his study, but he wears his learning lightly (and you can mug up on yours by reading Rufus’ account here), and continually appeals to expected share knowledge. And he leaves us in suspense to find out why this person is important—but then highlights why he is important within the narrative.

His illustrations all hinge on very specific details (‘they could race chariots along the walls’) and so they keep us engaged.

He threads in quite natural humour all the way along, which also helps to keep us engaged—and we might even chuckle along with him.

He sets up the scene with Alexander the Great (‘he was, well, great!’) without explaining to us why this might be important—though perhaps

The penny drops when he gets to ‘Now that is a triumphal entry!’ The one arranged by Bagophanes for Alexander contrasts with the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem.

Notice the way that the level of content accelerates. He is more than half way through before he gets to his real point; up till then he has been establishing rapport, setting the scene, and creating a sense of expectation. Once he has us engaged, then the content comes thick and fast.

There is great use of repetition: ‘He’s not on a warhorse, he’s not on a chariot, he’s not on an elephant…he’s on a donkey’. Notice the use of a pause before his makes his main point. He appears to be freshly struck by it himself, as he says it.

He is drawing on Matthew’s account, which emphasises Zechariah’s prophecy. And he repeats in Zechariah the language he has already use. The shape of what he says is just the opposite of ‘Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you have told them.’ He creates suspense that he then resolves.

More repetition: ‘He’s lowly…he’s humble…he’s meek…’ Pause. Wonderful variety of pace, rhythm.

Great use of contrast between the description of Alexander and Jesus’ entrances into the city.

Great summary phrase: ‘Jesus didn’t come to conquer the city—in fact he doesn’t come to conquer at all. He comes to be conquered. That’s his victory, that’s his triumph, that’s his exaltation…’

After quite a weighty, slow and emotional point, he then stands back and offers detail from another perspective, that of Herod, so he gives us some breathing space to process what we are hearing. Since he is driving in his car, he doesn’t have to look straight at us, which gives us emotional space.

Simple connections (that the text of Matthew makes) between this and other things that happen on the Mount of Olives. And a lovely, direct connection with Paul’s saying in 2 Cor 12.8.

He doesn’t need to labour his point; once he has said what he has said, he goes back to mundane notices and leaves us with the message.

Since he is driving down the freeway, I am pretty sure that he doesn’t have a script—though it is possible he has some notes in front of him. But it looks to me as though all this has been internalised, and comes from his own learning and meditation. I suspect it actually arose from the sermon he had just preached, since it is labelled as ‘Sunday drive home’.

Notice—and this is really important—Bryan here does get the basic technical things right. He has a minor edit at the beginning for you to think about Bagophanes. And he has a clip on mic so that we can hear him clearly. But almost all the things that make this so good are aspects of rhetoric and great communication. You don’t need to master technology to master these things.

Bryan also has this great video on practical tips for speaking online, and on his website he lists the main points that he makes. Enjoy!

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17 thoughts on “Preaching online in virtual church”

  1. Excellent advice. Hope the effects seep back into improved communication once “live” again.

    I think extra notes, background, references etc could be put in blog or notes form to accompany the video.

  2. Lots of excellent material here, thank you. Over on ‘Anglican Unscripted’ Kevin Kallsen (spelling?) has been doing seminars for the new covid generation of online worship leaders & preachers, sharing the expertise and experience he has gained over the years of running a conversation-style format with George Conger and Gavin Ashenden, and he would endorse what you say here – essentially that the internet is more like TV, the church more like a film, and there is a more ‘cool’, relaxed and intimate form of communication. And he would agree entirely with what you say about time and attention.
    Besides attention to hair and beard, livestreamers have to watch how often they wave their hands or rock back on their chair – on the small screen these gestures can be exaggerated.
    I suppose one good thing from this crisis is that many of us will be pushed into developing a new set of communication skills. I wonder what an online agape would be like?

  3. lav mic ordered 🙂

    I’m noticing that in general people are saying shorter is better and I note in the video he is very conversational.

    Personally I am a big fan of speakers such as Tim Keller, Jon Tyson and Jon Mark Comer who are incredible cultural exegetes and are excellent at bringing the Gospel to bear on the culture. The first two are very structured and love quotations and over recent years I have found myself preaching more similarly to them since they seek to do what Paul did in Acts 17.

    Do people think this style can still work online?

  4. Can I comment from an audience perspective rather than the deliverer. Most comms start from the point of view of the listener and context. So rather than over think this from the lofty theological study, think about the person who is receiving. They are also in their own homes. They are looking at a screen – already they are passive as that is what a screen often does. Most of the dreary examples I have experienced have little life or charisma or passion. Its just the same old thing spoken into a phone. How that is received is massively different. The preacher needs to double her or his efforts in getting through.

    Can we learn from some of the great professionals of TV comms and monologues…. Stephen Fry, Graham Norton, Billy Connolly, Susanna Reid – even Piers Morgan! They know how to get through to the head and heart of the listener.

    So I agree – keep it short! The Queen managed to say so so much in less than 4 mins!
    Keep it animated – draw the listener in
    TV is NOT the same as Radio – we have the added faculty of processing visually (which, along with kin-aesthetic – is the preferred way of learning by the majority of people – young and old)
    Maximise your facial expression – the introverts need to summon their inner thespian. The extroverts need to manage this well without coming across like some US evangelical loons who are trying to exorcise the demon of Corona

    I have yet to get to the end of an on-line sermon. I have been so bored I have switched off.

    And that’s the final thing… remember in a pew or seat, very few are going to walk out !
    So preach as if the viewer has their finger on the off button and try and get them not to turn off!

    • “Stephen Fry, Graham Norton, Billy Connolly, Susanna Reid – even Piers Morgan! They know how to get through to the head and heart of the listener.”

      – everyone of these self-absorbed and self-important prats annoys the life out of me. That some of them are blasphemous and anti-Christian doesn’t endear them to me either. Is it all about ‘performance’ or is there such a thing as real faith and real connection with God? Remember that Paul told the Corinthians he was a very unimpressive speaker compared to the stars on their circuit.
      Also noticed your gratuitous insult about American evangelicals. Would you say the same about Nigerian or Korean Pentecostals? Try to say something without letting your prejudice against American Christians show through.

      • As for on-line sermons – I have watched many 40 min+ sermons from the likes of John Stott and Tim Keller and not got bored. But English seminaries rarely turn out such good teachers and preachers.

      • A bit late, but I could not dig out the link earlier. I suspect the reference to “some US evangelical loons” relates to this kind of thing:

        I suspect that Kenneth Copeland has a greater audience in the USA than Tim Keller…

        • I don’t think of Copeland as an evangelical but as a strange Pentecostalist that a lot of Pentecostalists wouldn’t care for.
          ‘US evangelical’ for me means people like Tim Keller, John Piper, R. C. Sproul, Al Mohler etc.

  5. A critique.
    1 To many distractions:
    1.1 inappropriate setting
    a) moving background – road scenery
    b) hands waving and off steering wheel
    1.2 Bagophanes for such a small part player was far too prominent a distraction
    2. Strong on historical content for Alexander at the expense of comparison and contrast with Jesus, theologically, which could include
    2.1 Alexander(A) procession after victory through killing and victory over people’s and land: Jesus procession was before victory through his own death, for people who hailed him, hosanna, but cried “crucify”, who rebelled against and killed him, the King of Kings Lord of Lords over all humanity, victory over the ultimate enemy, death, for you and me, to lead us to a land, to an everlasting home, with everlast peace , with him. THAT is his Glory and Greatness. THAT is The KING of KINGS, LORD of LORDS. THAT is Jesus, our Saviour.
    3 without watching it again, what is the overall impression and most importantly, the key message?
    In short, the content, substance, was information heavy, gospel light.
    To me, it came across as unfinished, ( how did it draw to an end, I’m not sure?) a rehearsal, a practice, for the real thing, a sermon, on the way to a church service. But, you have to be well practiced to execute it in the way he did, and not shy, intimidated by close-up camera scrutiny.
    4 As Keller has been mentioned, he is a great exponent of bringing all his background illustrations together to focus on the comparison and contrast with Jesus, to focus the attention on Christ.
    5 J John is a marvellous example of getting the message across using mixed media, is at home live on radio, on video. He always makes the “punch line” clear.

    • “Then comes the Calvary riding on their horses …..” 5 mins 14 secs.
      Wow, Alexander’s entry truly was prophetic.
      Incidentally, on Alexander (d. 323 BC), our two sources of his life are from Plutarch and from Arrian (c. AD 100). Worth remembering this and pointing it out to anyone who expresses scepticism about the historical worth of the Gospels, whose writing down is generally dated c. 35-60 years after the death of Christ.

    • I agree about the driving – distracting for the viewer, and distraction from the task of driving.
      I don’t agree that Bagophanes was a distraction. I have heard sermons where I can remember the humour much longer than the point it was there to illustrate. In this case, Bagophanes was maybe not quite central to the point, but certainly relevant, and helped to make it memorable (not least because the speaker brought in some suspense: talked about him before we had any idea who he was.
      I have given talks where I have felt I needed to cram in everything. This was a failing. Yes, he could have made some of the other points you list, but better one point well made (I was going to say “driven home”) than three or four forgotten.

  6. Not on preaching but on Communion – followers of this blog may be interested to know that Confessing Anglicans of New Zealand did a national livestream Easter Communion Service from the Hope Church of Dunedin with members communicating at home – so the new streams of Anglicanism around the world are pioneering different ways of being a sacramental fellowship that older Anglicanism can’t contemplate.
    The service can be found on the Home Church Dunedin youtube channel and looks quite professionally made.


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