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Worship in a Digital World: Interview with Wendell Kimbrough

In this edited interview, songwriter Wendell Kimbrough talks about what he’s learned during the COVID-19 pandemic about worship in the digital world. He was interviewed by Rebecca Snippe, a program manager for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.

Rebecca Snippe: Over the past twelve weeks [of the pandemic] we’ve all learned a lot and been stretched in many ways, so I want to pause and take stock of what we've learned along the way,  some of those errors we’ve all made and  talk about your experiences through all of this. Tell us what you have been doing for worship over the past few months.

Wendell Kimbrough: I’ve been a part of two parallel tracks of online worship experiences. With the blessing of my team [at church] here I’ve been doing the Sunday Night Psalms interactive concerts. I started those on the first Sunday we canceled in-person services, and we didn’t have time to get together any kind of a livestream or anything. That night, I realized that I had the gear and thought, “I’m pretty sure I can do it. . . . I’m gonna do a concert from my office.” It got such a strong response—there were 200–300 viewers tuned in, and then the following week there were more than 400 viewers, and some of those are family units. I’ve committed to continuing to do it at least while we’re quarantined.

Parallel [to that], the following Sunday our church decided to have a to livestreamed service from our sanctuary, and I rigged up a makeshift camera, audio, and lighting using gear really intended for a one-person show, not for sanctuary worship. Part of the challenge of Sunday mornings for my church has been that for about the first eight weeks [of quarantine], every single week was a different thing; we were reinventing the wheel on some level every single week. The first week was just our first time to livestream, and then we tightened that up in the second week. By week three it was Palm Sunday, so we felt the need to do something different. Additionally, when you are trying to figure out how to make a liturgy work in this different medium while maintaining the liturgy of the “old normal,” it was frustrating.

After Easter, a few technology issues cropped up, and after weeks of not working, we decided to discontinue the livestreams. I was spending my whole week like trying to troubleshoot all the issues only to have them not work on Sunday. With the livestream, we felt like we were losing contact with our congregation. Our numbers went from around 100 people tuning in on the first few Sundays to around  fifteen. We went to prerecording our services, and that’s where we are right now. I had initially resisted prerecording because I knew it would take tons of time to shoot, and I’m not an experienced video editor. [But] I'd rather spend my whole week shooting and editing video and know going into the weekend that it would work!

RS: Some churches went automatically to prerecording. Why were you hesitant?

WK: It is hard to duplicate the “old normal.”  For our liturgy, the medium and the message are interrelated. It has not worked well to just try to duplicate a Sunday liturgy with a bunch of people in an online medium. We are Anglican, and for us there is a lot of energy with the call and response from the Book of Common Prayer. The energy and the connections come through the transaction of hearing the congregation respond. It makes me wonder how we craft a liturgy that works when the interaction is digitally mediated and not in person. This feels awkward in the filming, watching our pastors lead a liturgy where they’re saying “The Lord be with you” and then trying to give space for the congregation to respond with “And also with you.” It can also be awkward on Sundays trying to follow along and interact at home, even though I’m sitting there with the liturgy in my hands.

RS: These two Sunday services sound like two very different experiences! What are some benefits of livestream that you’ve experienced?

WK: It's just me sitting there, and I can see on the sidebar with who's logging in. I ask people to share where they’re coming from, take song requests, and introduce new songs, and people can share how a song has impacted them. Additionally, people make jokes about my facial hair and I laugh at them. It would actually be hard to do in a room full of people. If I were in a room of 200 people, very few people would be brave enough to speak up and interact with me. I’ve done Q&A at concerts, and sometimes that would lead to really great conversations and sometimes it would just be crickets. But yeah, I think on Sunday nights I’ve been able to utilize the benefit of a space where everybody feels a little bit more anonymous. There’s a little bit more safety in this.

One Sunday night I was forced to move home because the internet went out at the church about thirty minutes before I was supposed to go live. I threw my mics, my lights, and my gear in my car and got home. But that ended up being a positive experience. It was cool to be with my family while leading a worship time. There is a great disconnect in my life with being a professional church leader. Sunday mornings at church pre-pandemic were always a very difficult time, being present to all my responsibilities on Sunday and being present to the other people around me, particularly my family. So I think of my wife’s and daughters’ experiences—they just come to church and kind of do their own thing, and daddy kind of does his own thing. I’ve pretty much taken for granted that that’s just how it is. It’s part of the occupational hazard, but in the last several years I’ve started to think through that. I have been wanting to have a more wholehearted experience of Sunday. And it’s just interesting to think about this Sunday-night thing in my living room with my wife and daughter there. It’s not like I’m having deep connection with them in that time, but I also don’t feel like we’re on separate planets and I’m just waving at them through a glass window, which is more what Sunday morning feels like. So it’s been kind of refreshing, honestly, just being able to sit there with no set liturgy. If my daughter comes in and requests “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” I can decide whether we’re going to sing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” for a second.

RS: Through your livestreams, what pastoral needs have you encountered, and how have the livestreams been able to meet those needs?

WK: I’ve introduced some lament in this evening service regularly, and that’s the time that gets the most response from people. Through the comments I have sensed that people need to lament, and I think a lot of us need help doing that. It’s not something we know how to do. When I’m on my own, it’s hard for me to tell the difference between whining and lamenting; there’s an inner critical voice that easily jumps in and shuts off lament. I think that I’m probably like many people who were taught not to say anything if you can’t say anything nice. The Bible gives us not just permission, but also language to lament. While I see that in my live concerts too, it has been very consistent in these livestreams. I can tell a little more directly by the feed of comments than I would know at a show.

RS: Has there been a theme for the kind of songs that people request?

WK: It’s pretty across the board. A lot of it ends up being a “greatest hits” kind of thing. People always request “I’ll Not Be Shaken,” and they always request “O Give Thanks.”

RS: On the tech side of things, what have you learned over the past few months?

WK: I had to learn how to use Final Cut Pro for video editing. I’m also more grateful for the gear that I have. I use a higher-end audio interface I bought for my recording studio. It has the ability to process compression, EQ, other basic audio effects. That’s been really helpful.

RS: Have you learned things musically along the way about what might work or what might not work?

WK: I don’t know to what degree people are singing along. I hear comments from a couple of people who will specifically say “I’m singing in an alto harmony” or something like that, so I know there are people singing along, but I don’t know if most people that tune in are engaging it passively. Is it just kind of something to watch and enjoy? [Or are] they actually downloading the song book, following along, and singing with me as a family or individual? I haven’t set up any kind of metric where I can gauge. The second week was the highest week in terms of turn out. I sent people to my website to download my free songbook. I think I had about 130 downloads that week, which is astronomically higher than it would be in a typical week. So, at least initially, people were on board with “Hey, let’s get the songbook and sing along” thing.

RS: I do think it’s hard to sing along like if you’re sitting at your computer.

WK: Exactly.

RS: There’s a certain level of vulnerability there.

WK: That’s right! If you don’t like the sound of your voice, and you’re alone in your living room singing along with the TV, you’re going to hear a lot more of you than if you’re in a congregation surrounded by other people that are singing.

RS: Looking ahead, what do you hope to take with you from this time?

WK: I’m going to keep doing some kind of online concert. It won’t be every week, but maybe once a month, and I might put it behind a paywall or I might put a tip jar with it. I have to think about what that looks like long term. My tendency is toward being kind of a control-freak perfectionist, and I think that this season has forced me to just try things. That Sunday-night concert thing, particularly with my wife and daughter there, is something that conceptually I’m not sure that I would have done, but I just did it because we canceled church and we weren’t offering any kind of worship experience that first Sunday. I think I’ll be even more thankful for it when I’m not in the stress of this season. And I’d be a little bit of a Luddite with technology and worship instinctively, but I think it’s definitely made me aware that there can be a meaningful connection in ministry through an online experience, and that’s surprised me.

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