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Help, I Need to Do Virtual Church! Best Practices for Taking Your Church Service Online

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COVID-19 has forced everyone to adapt quickly. Many pastors are attempting to hold church online, or post sermons for members to view. Many are using smartphones or a webcam on a computer to get the job done. Here are some simple things you can do if all you have is your smartphone.

  1. Audio First — Silent movies are largely a thing of the past. Consumers of media are very interested in being able to hear and understand what is being said. Therefore, audio is key to a good production. There are a couple simple things you can do to improve the audio on your recordings with only your smartphone.
    1. ​If you have a Bluetooth earpiece that you use for hands free, utilize that for your presentation. It may look a little unusual at first, but it’s designed for spoken communication and should work well.
    2. If the earpiece is not available, use your smartphone's microphone. Modern smartphones have very good noise canceling microphones. I am often impressed at how well the iPhone, for example, does with just the built-in microphone. In most cases, this is far better than what’s built into a laptop computer, or the microphone that comes with your desktop computer.
    3. Minimize all other sounds in the room. This may sound obvious, but it is often overlooked. Send the kids and dog outside for a little while. Turn off all the phones, alarms, and such. And don’t overlook mechanical noises. Often furnace blowers make a noticeable background noise. Turning the blower off during your recording can make a significant difference.
    4. Get close to the phone/microphone. Reducing the distance improves your audio presence. Getting close also maximizes your audio compared to any extraneous noises that may be present. Stand as close to your phone as possible while still getting a reasonable picture.
  2. Presentation — Good presentation is important.
    1. ​Consider standing. People typically make better presentations when standing. Standing comes across with authority and presentations may be taken more seriously. For preachers, it is often more natural to preach a sermon to a camera while standing.
    2. Consider making presentations shorter than normal. There are far more distractions to your congregation viewing on a computer. Holding their attention may be harder than when in person. Condense your message as much as possible while you are getting comfortable presenting virtually.
    3. Present with more energy than you think you need. Energy gets lost in the process of video recording. What seems like an excessive amount of energy when you are presenting will look normal when viewed.
    4. Keep in mind that people don’t know what to do when watching prayer online. Consider that this may be an awkward time for your viewer and do what you can to help them. Shorter prayers are one option. Inviting them to keep their eyes open and pray with you is another. Mostly be sensitive to the awkwardness of the viewer who does not know what the social standard protocol is for online prayer. Do what you can to help them out.
    young woman in front on personal camera

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  3. Camera technique — Think simple and stable. Here are some basic things you can do to make your video look good.
    1. Stability—Keep the camera stable. I know you may not have a tripod, but be creative. If you are using your smartphone, you can cut a holder out of cardboard and set it on the shelf. Look in your car — steal your car phone holder and suction cup it to a window in your house.
    2. Keep the camera at eye level. Mounting the camera above eye level minimizes your visual authority. Mounting it below eye level makes people feel like you are looking down on them. Mounting the camera at eye level will give you good authority and allow your viewer to be comfortable too.
    3. Frame the picture to show yourself and minimize all the distractions. Remember, from section one, to get as close to the phone or camera/microphone as is reasonable. Frame the images so your elbows are at the bottom and your head is at the top—this works well for formal presentations and should keep you close enough to the microphone to be heard well.
    4. Keep the background as minimal as possible. Seeing your home decorations or photos on your bookshelf might be interesting, but it may distract from what you are saying.
  4. Lighting — Lighting is important for a good image. For many people seeing your lips move, the expressions on your face, and the emotion you exude can be a key in facilitating good communication. Lighting makes sure these things are seen.
    1. If you use a suction cup from your car to mount your phone to the window, it’s likely you will have all the lighting you need. And if it’s overcast outside, you will have a lighting setup that professional photographers will covet.
    2. If you can’t use natural light, consider using a light and bouncing it off a wall in front of you. The reflection off the wall will soften the light and make it more even. When I teleconference, I bounce my desk light off the wall in front of my desk to add a little light in my eyes. A small amount can make a big difference.
    3. Make sure you don’t have any very bright lights directly over you or behind you. They tend to be distracting. If you go into more advanced lighting techniques, there are reasons to use them, but for now avoid them. Concentrate on lighting your face.
older woman on camera phone

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Like everything else, we learn by researching and trying. There are obviously things that will increase the production value, but when the resources are limited and time is critical, these four basic points (audio first, presentation, camera technique, and lighting) should get you going with a product that can be seen, heard, and understood.

This article is also available here, on the NAD's Digital Evangelism blog.