Yesterday we talked about the importance of language and audience when deciding how to communicate with other people. We suggested that churches often get bound up in the “how” and “what” of communication without paying enough attention to the “why” and “for whom”.
This conversation was a good, and necessary, prelude to the subject today: why we do online worship the way we do and how we’re planning to evolve it.
Basically we’ve suggested that just taking our normal worship online is not a faithful practice. Even if the worship itself is great—and I hope it is—ignoring the new venue and the new audience isn’t. Copy-pasting our language, timing, and forms online presumes that everyone online has the same background, communication style, and desires as we do. That’s not true. When we go into someone else’s place, we need to pay attention to their practices and language rather than assuming ours will suffice in all places and times.
Today we’ll look at the biggest factor informing our online worship presentation. We’ll get to a couple more next week.
Our standard, in-person worship service runs about an hour. NOTHING online goes for an hour except maybe your Windows update. (And you don’t like that very much, do you?) Most online people decide whether or not they’re going to engage with material in the first 30 seconds. One can presume than anybody clicking on a church service will have a longer period of tolerance than average, but the basic lesson remains: time matters.
When someone walks into a brick-and-mortar sanctuary, they make a tacit agreement to stay for a reasonable amount of time, allowing you space to go through whatever practices you find meaningful. Participation is determined by place (in a sanctuary seat) and time (the next hour), both of which are set.
No such agreement exists online. People click on things because they’re curious about them. The material may last 3 seconds or dozens of minutes. As long as it’s interesting and delivered efficiently, viewers will stay. If not, other items are just a click away.
Online content producers don’t say, “I’m going to do this thing at this time, please come…” Instead they say, “I’m going to give you something worth your time, that does not waste your time.” The content producer then has the obligation to live up to that implied contract keeping material as engaging as possible, confined to the shortest time practical.
As we church folk step into this environment, we need to respect its conventions. For most online viewers, clicking on a 60-minute (or even 45-minute) video is a non-starter. Unless you’re a high-profile rock band or professional sports team, there’s no possible way you could present a solid hour of material that’s going to keep me engaged, with every second critical. Even if you could do that, my brain can’t possibly process that much all at once.
Presenting a shorter, compacted version of our service already sends a message in itself: we hear you. We respect you and your time. Whatever we have to say, we promise to get to it.
This causes painful decisions for content producers, particularly those from a traditional church background.
A few weeks ago, we recorded a video on a current social/political issue that you’re going to see on our website shortly. We had an intro, presented by yours truly, plus a mini-play complete with an exposition that tied the message together beautifully. When we re-watched it after the first edit, we realized it would never work. The introduction was great, a complete rehearsal of our point. It was also 3 minutes, 30 seconds long. That’s six times longer than a good introduction should be. The exposition at the end, though well-acted, was even worse. The video was everything we wanted, but nobody would sit through it…even us! It was the right message, translated in the wrong language for the venue. We now have to re-record and cut in order to make it work.
The same is true of our worship services. Which parts of the traditional service are important? Well, they ALL are! Otherwise we wouldn’t do them! But not all of them are equally important and, more to the point, not all of them translate well to people who are new, nervous, or isolated at home.
We’ve been called to triage our worship services the same way we triaged that video. We ask questions like:
This hasn’t been all bad. Engaging in this process, we’ve honed down our focus, identifying practices and content that are indispensable to our gatherings versus things we’ve glommed on that are good, but not always essential. Doing so, we’ve fallen back on a Lutheran understanding that God’s explicit presence is the single, critical factor that defines our gatherings. God comes through Word, which we always share, and Sacrament, which we include in many services. If we have the Word and continue to offer communion on a semi-regular basis, the heart of worship remains. We are free to use other parts of the service or not, without becoming slaves to them.
Engaging a new audience has also challenged us to explain what we’re doing and why it matters. Two items in our worship are fairly self-explanatory to the average viewer: the scripture and the prayers. Everything else we include--communion, confession, creeds—we also have to explain. People need to know what it is, why we do it, what it means, and how their participation matters in order to come along for the journey.
This is another reason we shift items in and out of the worship service. When we include something, we try to explain it and then repeat that explanation intermittently. Doing this with every element of the service every week would be tedious and make the video unbearably long. So we do a couple things that we try to explain well rather than doing six things that people won’t really catch the meaning of.
We tend to add more things to the service after the sermon rather than before for a simple reason: most newcomers are going to judge us based on what’s distinct and tailored to them. The sermon is guaranteed to be unique, and I’ve worked hard to make them broadly understandable rather than focused on advanced, church-exclusive stuff. We want to get viewers to that part of the service quickly, providing something to hold onto, encouraging them to absorb more as they continue to engage. If we do 20 minutes of fairly generic prayer or obscure liturgy before we get to the distinguishing point, viewers will either fast-forward or, more likely, click away.
As we go forward, we’re looking at ways to straddle the divide between newcomers who tend to value compact presentation and existing members who might long for a more extended, familiar worship feeling. One of the ideas we’re toying with is presenting two videos: one just the Gospel and sermon, the other an actual service. If we have an outlet for visitors where they can get the heart of what they (probably) came for without delay or interruption, we can then be more leisurely with the service video, taking longer and including more parts.
We’ve now spent 1250 words on just the timing of the worship service, without even touching other factors we’ve adjusted as we’ve gone online. We’ll address some more of those in our next installment.
As you can see, this is a complex subject. A lot of thought and care goes into determining how we speak with people in this new venue. Our core convictions remain the same, though. The message is still worth sharing, and paying attention to the needs of the audience as they hear it is time well-spent.