From the Big Room to the Small Screen
When COVID-19 hit, pastors had to make the shift, nearly overnight, of leading from a sanctuary platform with a room full of people to preaching and teaching on our small screens. As I’ve watched pastors quickly adapt, I can’t get The Producers, a smash hit Broadway musical that was later adapted as a movie, out of my mind.
Soon, your church will be able to return to your building. We want you to be ready.
The Producers is the story of a failing producer and his scheming accountant, who scam a group of elderly women by convincing them to invest in a musical that is secretly intended to bomb. My wife, Debbie, and I saw the stage musical on Broadway. It was funny. Well done. With stars Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, it was a hit, and we loved it.
A couple years later it was adapted as a film with the same Broadway stars, and we were really disappointed by it. What was the difference?
The acting, body language, vocal performances that worked so well on the big stage (when the audience is at a distance) did not translate well to a camera just a couple feet from the actors and a TV that was equally close as we watched. In short, the acting was too “in your face.” It was as if no modifications were made in the performance, and movements and gestures that worked well on the big stage were simply overwhelming in our family room.
I see some pastors struggling with this same thing. The skills they have honed over years, which work effectively when preaching and teaching on a big platform to a live, in-room audience, are not the same skills needed to speak effectively to a family seated on their family room sofa six feet from a TV screen. A rousing “good morning” intended to reach the last row of the worship center may unintentionally be jarring or off-putting on our laptop speakers.
I asked Kristi Bramlett, a coach for communicators, for advice to help pastors in this season. Here’s our Q&A on how to make an effective switch from big room to small screen:
Why does the preaching style of a big room not work as well over a small screen (even if the viewer has a killer home theater)?
Kristi: A screen is one-dimensional. When you’re in church, everything is three-dimensional and has a fuller feeling of energy, sound, and bodies in the space. This is why it’s important to remember that you’re speaking to the person you are imagining, not hundreds or thousands of people. In an online service, the communicator must be intentional about inviting the Holy Spirit into the "space"—their location, the in-between—and into everyone's living room. Keep it urgent and the stakes high (after all eternity is a pretty high stake), but keep it simple, authentic, and do NOT push for effect.
In response to gathering restrictions brought on by COVID-19, church teams had to pivot very quickly to an online-only worship and teaching experience. Some pastors have found the transition easy, others challenging. What are some of the keys, in terms of body language and personal presentation, that can help the pastor who finds it hard to preach to an empty room, or to the lens of a camera?
Kristi: Make sure you are taping or live streaming in a space where you feel comfortable. I think the most important thing for the communicator is to imagine delivering the message to one person. "Place" the person you are trying to reach just on the other side of the camera lens, not a room with 500+ people. Another thing—watch your talk afterward, make adjustments, and record again if needed.
It wasn’t only pastors and staff who had to make the shift to online church, so did the worshipers–the “people in the pews.” While some were familiar with watching church online, many found themselves in this experience for the first time. What ways can pastors adjust their teaching/preaching style, or the production style, to make for a better worship experience for those watching at home?
Kristi: The good news about the “people in the pews" (on the sofa in their Sunday sweatpants) is that they’re already comfortable in their home; however, this also heightens their critical eye. This is important for the speaker to understand: there is NO room for winging a service online! You need to know the camera doesn't let you get away with anything. Everything is magnified—every habit, every twitch, every missed word, every gesture. If you desire to maintain your authenticity in an online platform you MUST practice your talk!
As pastors are eventually able to move back into their worship centers and preach from a platform again, there may still be viewers/worshipers who choose to continue going to church online. What should pastors remember when they are preaching to people both in the physical space and those in the digital space?
Kristi: I think you could transition to a blend between online and in-person services in different ways depending on your resources. You could still record your online services in the church or at home prior to the weekend services. By doing it this way you could still keep it simple (this might appeal to a new group of people), honest, and relaxed, or you could just live-stream the service while it is happening on the weekend. It will feel different online because there will be people in the space and the pastor will not be talking exclusively to the camera, they will be making contact and connection with the people in the church service.