Pastors debate role of tech in post-pandemic church
Livestream technology raises questions of theology
More than a century ago, believers gathered around a white oak in Greenville, S.C., to worship the Lord. Out of that sprang White Oak Baptist Church. Now meeting in a high-ceiled brick building, the congregation has nearly 110 people.
Recently, members welcomed the first baby in years, and they “got to get the nursery cranking again,” said Senior Pastor Lonnie Polson.
Polson became pastor at the church in 2019, six months before the pandemic hit. When the world shut down, he had to navigate how to minister in his new role. He started livestreaming services, like 96 percent of pastors during the pandemic, according to the research organization Barna Group.
However, the small church body didn’t have the personnel or equipment to manage live YouTube videos. After several months, Polson shifted to prerecorded videos to upload to Youtube on Sunday mornings. Polson now uploads audio recordings of sermons after each service.
While the majority of churchgoers attended more online services in 2020 than in 2019, some churches, like White Oak, choose to step away from producing live videos.
For Polson, livestreaming was too demanding to keep up. Lighting, audio, and camera angles all had to be successfully carried out in one take. On top of that, he explained, his delivery style shifted for the camera.
Now, the need for live videos has diminished.
“Other than people who are physical shut-ins, or people who are in care facilities, pretty much everybody in our church is back to church live,” he said. “The need for livestreaming is not as critical, which is why we opted just to make the audio available for those who could use it if they were traveling, or on vacation, or out sick temporarily.”
Livestreaming doesn’t always make sense for a church, he added.
Churches need to evaluate their need for a livestream, said Paul Alan Clifford, who assists congregations with technology through his company Trinity Digital Media. Before the camera is even set up, church staff should think through budgeting, staffing, and the health of the church’s culture, he explained.
Livestreaming costs add up. It can require a high-definition camera, microphone, tripod, stable internet connection, and software. While social media allow livestreaming, if a church wants to publish on its website, staff will need to use another online software program.
When a church navigates these technologies successfully, the videos can be a tool to reach more audiences.
“Before the pandemic … I heard so often, ‘We will never livestream. We will never livestream. That is not our church. We won’t do it,’ ” Clifford said. “And I’ve joked that perhaps God was in heaven laughing at them because He knew what was coming.”
Livestreaming is the new way for people to check out a church before they visit, he said. It gives people a taste of what a church is like before even stepping through the door.
Clifford pointed to the example of the Apostle Paul, who sent his letters with the gospel message out to those far away. Livestream does that in real time, he said.
However, for Capitol Hill Baptist Church, not having a livestream is a matter of theology.
In a sermon from August, Pastor Mark Dever discussed the church’s view on virtual worship, explaining it by citing Hebrews 10:25: “Not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
Dever said that the Bible calls people to meet together physically. Meeting virtually is done so that people don’t need to do what is commanded in the verses.
“A virtual church is about as useful as a virtual spouse or a virtual family or a virtual body—or maybe you’d be satisfied with a virtual resurrection,” Dever said. “Virtual church is not church.”
In March 2020, the church didn’t present a webcast or a livestream. After several months, staff began to upload audio recordings of their sermons online after the service.
Worship is not exclusive to the pulpit, but also occurs throughout the building, Dever said.
“The bodily resurrection is best represented by physical proximity. We are called the Capitol Hill Baptist Church because we’ve been meeting here for about 150 years on this corner, on Capitol Hill,” Dever said. “This is where we do church.”
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