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Five Tips on Using Digital Tech to Engage Virtual and In-Person Worshipers

Whether you call it virtual worship or online worship, some people will continue to join worship remotely even as others joyfully return to church buildings. Here are five tips for using digital technology as a “both/and” option for hybrid worship services.

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, many worshipers and church leaders looked forward to restrictions being lifted and worship going back to “normal.” By “normal," they meant gathering all worshipers together in the church building. 

Since then, however, interdenominational surveys and studies such as “Worship in Time of a Pandemic, Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations,” and Tech in Churches have found that some worshipers may never return to in-person worship. By Fall 2021, about a third of 2,700 church leaders in Indiana said they viewed digital opportunities “primarily as a pandemic response." However, two-thirds of respondents saw digital engagement as “a new resource with long-term possibilities" (“When Pastors Put On the ‘Tech Hat,’” p. 25). 

With most congregations planning to continue online or hybrid worship (in person and virtual), your church may be wondering how to use digital technology to connect onsite and online worshipers. 

These five tips on using digital technology to engage worshipers come from many sources, including churches that received a Vital Worship Grant from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.

Use video screens as an "artistic medium to point to God"

First Church (UCC) in Windsor, Connecticut, had a Vital Worship Grant to "use liturgical art and creative rituals to create inclusive worship that welcomes worshipers of all ages, abilities, and cultures." At first they focused on tactile 3-D installations that created "God moments" as people entered the worship space.

"Then the pandemic hit,” senior pastor Nicole S. Grant Yonkman said. “We began virtual worship with an iPhone on a tripod. But an iPhone can only show close-up views. We quickly switched to two cameras in the balcony so we could zoom in and out. But we wondered, 'How do you engage worshipers in visual arts experiences if you can't walk into a 3-D installation?'" Yonkman codirected the grant with photographer Laurel Pepin, who leads the congregation's Creative Worship Team.

Pepin had made a few videos before, so she began making short videos to welcome people to worship, introduce sermon series and liturgical seasons, and record members' responses to prompts such as "I believe in . . .". They kept creating visual installations in the worship space and making prerecorded video segments for worship through Facebook Live, WIN-TV (public access), and—at last—in-person worship.

Reading Marcia McFee’s Think Like a Filmmaker: Sensory-Rich Worship Design for Unforgettable Messages helped them aim beyond using screens simply to transmit information. 

"I keep reminding us that art doesn't have to represent; it has to imply. You don't have to be so literal,” Pepin said. “It's better if the imagery is broad enough so people can experience 'God moments' in different ways. When we've been able to transform the worship space, people have been awestruck. They feel the wonder but can't always explain why." 

Before Christmas Eve 2020, to illustrate the service theme of John 1:1, First Church members shot footage of a darkened central aisle lit by luminaries, just as it would have looked for pre-pandemic Christmas Eve services. Then they relocated luminaries into pews and videoed that. “The video showed the aisle luminaries, then pulled back to show the pew luminaries. It was as if worshipers were in the pews holding candles," Yonkman said. 

"Art in worship isn't meant to be self-referential,” she added. “It doesn't exist to express beauty, power, or images for its own sake, but as an artistic medium that points to God. Since God is bigger than anything we mortals can create, liturgical art must always be expansive, pointing to the holy that is beyond words and images.”

Use technology to "layer arts"

Suzanne L. Vinson is a visual artist and associate pastor for congregational life at Grace Baptist Church (GBC) in Richmond, Virginia. She directed a Vital Worship Grant on cocreating liturgical language that helped all ages in the congregation enliven worship and connect with each other and God. She recommends what she calls "layering the arts" to create more impact.

"Sometimes I go out in nature to record visuals and sound. For a Remember Your Baptism Sunday, I recorded water lapping at a local lake. You'd not want to hear and see that for three whole minutes, so I faded the lake sound and images into other sounds and images," Vinson explained. 

She and others at GBC and elsewhere recommend learning how to use tripods and how to video yourself or others using cameras or cellphones. "Give really clear instructions on keeping cameras or phones stationary and keeping to a certain file size," Vinson said.

To layer the arts, try: 

  • Premiere and iMovie both allow users to separate voice from video. Use them to layer in art or photos, such as when people use a cellphone to audio record themselves reading Scripture or speaking liturgical words. Both software programs also let you add visuals when people record video of themselves speaking in front of a blank wall.
  • For song or art segments during communion or the offertory, iMovie works well.
  • For presentation software, consider iMovie or Adobe's Photoshop, Premiere, Premiere Pro, or Premiere Rush (for iPhone). Canva is a free online resource for adding art and text in a frame before Scripture is read. 
  • ProPresenter can “combine multiple videos, welcome worshipers to church, explain where we are in the liturgical year, and so on,” Vinson said. “It creates cleaner transitions. You can have an ongoing video while hearing or seeing text in the top or bottom third of the screen.”
  • Learn how to use these resources by asking a volunteer to train you or by watching online videos.

Count the costs of in-house video production

At First Church in Windsor (FCW), Pepin has put many volunteer hours into producing art installations and short videos. In that way, she's like a full-time teacher who nevertheless volunteers to teach Sunday school or lead youth group. But GBC in Richmond has tried not to tap only tech pros for volunteer service in church tech. "Most of the ones we know have been stretched thin simply to keep their businesses running," Vinson says.

Most GBC staff went into the pandemic with at least some tech savvy and felt comfortable learning, experimenting, and adapting ways to use screens in worship. They also discovered how time consuming it can be to put together a creative prerecorded virtual worship service. GBC’s online Service of Lament included videos, psalms paraphrased as hymns and spoken text, breathing meditations written and shared by two staff, and a hymnku written by GBC hymnwriters. The whole service lasted about forty-five minutes, Vinson said, but it took nearly twenty hours for staff members to record and upload segments into a shared Google Doc and to have a final person weave it all together in Premiere Pro. 

When there isn't enough time to ask staff or volunteers to produce or contribute photos, audio, or video, 

consider finding material to use or adapt. You can subscribe monthly or annually to The Work of the People to use short films and visual loops on which you can overlay words. Marcia McFee's Worship Design Studio offers free and subscription video lessons, ideas for visuals, online discussion forums, scripted worship services and series, and more. You can also find free and subscription video loops, church graphics, and short films on Story Loop and A Sanctified Art.

The Creative Pastor and Media Shout describe and link to the best free sources for still and moving worship backgrounds

Find ways to connect during and after virtual worship

Many churches with virtual worship options have gained attendees during the pandemic. These include former members who've moved (even to other countries), students away at university, and people who tune in after online research or because of someone else's recommendation.

Some of these attendees become in-person worshipers or members, often because they become more emotionally engaged through digital opportunities. You can further this progression in your church by inviting people to attend smaller Zoom or Facebook Live sessions (Bible study, youth group, prayer circles, affinity groups) and asking them to contribute photos, crafted items, audio, or video to be used in worship.

Various churches use a pastor, other staff member, or volunteer to monitor livestreamed worship on Zoom or Facebook Live or when livestreaming pre-recorded material on YouTube. They use chat functions to welcome online worshipers, answer questions, acknowledge prayer requests, and invite online worshipers to other church activities. 

Corry First United Methodist Church in Corry, Pennsylvania, introduced online worship in the early 2010s. Its website FAQ describes the Watch Online option: "We value the relationship with our online attendees and recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit in our mutual ministry of worshiping and serving Christ. . . .  An online usher will be available to assist you and to speak (through text) with you to share any needs you may wish to add to our prayer requests. The weekly bulletin, some sermon notes and an online Bible are available."

First Toronto Christian Reformed Church (CRC) in Ontario, Canada, uses The Bridge App to help worshipers access Bible translations, watch streaming worship services, make one-time or recurring offerings from a credit card or bank account, and access devotionals, blogs, and other respected Christian sources. Local churches in Canada and the U.S. use The Bridge App to immediately connect with people and provide protected or public announcements, prayer requests, church directories, and more.

Designers Lynnette Postuma and Karen Zwart Hielema led First Toronto CRC's Vital Worship Grant. Their Seasons of Being project invited people into a journey through color, the liturgical year, and the biblical story to create a permanent art installation. They appreciate that The Bridge App's landing page includes editable content.

"Members can submit background images containing the colors of the current liturgical season. We can also edit the landing page's main colors. The weekly bulletin begins with a section using and explaining the current liturgical colors and purpose. Sometimes it includes prompts for how people can engage with their at-home Seasons of Being kits," Zwart Hielema said.

Keep learning about digital media and church worship

The Center for Congregations offers online workshops and one-month access to recorded workshops to help churches navigate pandemic and post-pandemic worship. 

Follow The Network for New Media, Religion and Digital Culture Studies (NNMRDS), based at Texas A&M University, on Facebook, Twitter, or RSS. Read its extensive research on how churches digitized during COVID-19, what pastors need to know about digital technology, essential traits needed to be a digital pastor, and how digital divides and digital reluctance impact pandemic churches.

Access free downloads such as Revisiting the Distanced Church, by Heidi Campbell, who leads the NNMRDS Tech in Churches research project.