In just a few weeks we moved from “many pastors” trying to find a way to extend their sermons life through video to “almost all pastors” trying to learn how to preach better by video. Unfortunately, not all were anywhere close to prepared for this necessary shift to technological delivery. Some churches are so woefully behind they have watched their engagement drop dramatically, their giving slow down to a halt, and their church is not facing very serious challenges within a few weeks time. This article offers some basic but crucial keys to preaching via video well. Some will be performance oriented, others logistics, and others more deeply spiritually rooted. All are worth evaluating to see if you are doing well.
- Frame the video to see the preacher and the setting. You can frame a video to be so far back that the pastor feels impersonal, swallowed by the backdrop. You can also frame the video to be so close the pastor invades our personal space. It feels as though they are one foot away and we cannot see their body. If you use multiple camera angles (first count yourself blessed if you can), make sure the majority of them bring you to people in a personal way. Do not allow a strange distance from you in an age of zoom and crop. It should not be impersonal but do also do not make it feel like a video chat with a relative. The typical crop seems to be about waste up, or table up if you choose to set at a table.
- Intentionally craft the backdrop. I have seen a number of sermons posted online by pastors during this season with backdrops that distract. Some pastors have preached from their desks with bookshelves in disarray. Some have preached from the sanctuary without adjusting what surrounds them. Many of the youth and young adult videos I have seen have been shot in bedrooms and closets with all kinds of personal revelations present in the background. Not all churches are built to be video stages or liturgical black boxes. They do not have to be. Simply pay attention to what will be behind you in the framing of the video and think about whether it adds or distracts from the message you are giving. Do keep in mind you are now coming to people in their living rooms, not the sanctuary. Churches have made a more intimate worship setting in the sanctuary work. Others have made a more talk show like set with a chair and table work. Whatever you choose, choose it intentionally. Watch it afterward to test how it comes across. Ask a set of viewers to provide feedback on the setting so you know how it reads.
- Move naturally, deliberately, and narrowly. You do not need to feel confined to a single spot to stand unless you do not have anyone operating the camera to help you. However, the pacing of revivalistic preachers who are used to viewing preachers in settings with no projection screens and large crowds does not translate well to video. In large settings you move your body to connect with different portions of the congregation. It is somewhat necessary. With video preaching the camera brings you to every portion of the congregation. Slight movement with a natural purpose, then a planting of the feet is important. Do not sway, bounce your knee, or emphasize your points with repetitive bodily movement. All of this will be magnified by the camera.
- Tone down your vocal and gesture demonstrations. Sometime notice the difference between the facial expressions and gesture sizes of theater acting versus acting for film. The large distance between the audience and the actor in the theater calls for dynamic vocals, exaggerated facial expressions, and larger gestures. But in film, the closer cropping and camera positioning requires more subtle facial expressions, very small gestures, and a tighter range on vocal dynamics. If you are used to preaching to a live setting without video, paying attention to these shifts will save your listeners a lot of discomfort. Hopefully you are able to use a camera that is not close to the preacher. But if you are in a church plant with limited resources relying on a simple recording device you may need to be close. In that case, be sure your hands do not jump in front of the screen larger than life because of foreshortening.
- Shorten your time expectations. In mainline settings where a 12-15 minute homily is normal, this advice is not needed. In most Wesleyan settings however, sermons are a minimum of 25 minutes. Screen fatigue is a real phenomenon and we need to remember there is no social pressure to “sit still” when watching a video sermon. After 20 minutes the sermon will need to be increasingly entertaining to keep them present. A rule of thumb I have given to pastors shifting services to online is to shoot for a 45 minute service, worship and sermon included. Songs have fewer repeats of the refrain. Sermons have a more concise and crisp format. That way if the service ends up being long, it is still under the magic hour. You should not expect your sermons to be as entertaining as Marvel. You do not have years to write a sermon with a multi-million budget.
- Connect listener and topic as soon as possible. Avoid long rambling statements about the “unique time we are in” or other forms of throat clearing. Use every second to connect with deeply felt interest on the one hand, and the deep meaning of the passage on the other. For example, Instead of speaking generically about “the unique time we are in” start by saying, “In one week over 300,000 people applied for unemployment benefits. This not only set a new record for weekly applications, it blew the old record out of the water. At 70,000 applications during one week in the recession of 1987, this was more than 4 times was large a wave of unemployment as ever before. Fear. Worry. Stress. Loss. Depression. In times like this, I am reminded of the proverb “like pouring vinegar on soda is one who sings songs to a heavy heart.”How do Christians find and speak good news in bad times in healthy ways? That’s what I believe todays message can help us discern. How can we as Christians find and speak good news in bad times in healthy ways.” This connects the listener’s interest to the topic of the passage in a relevant way in one minute. Tighten your opening. Get to your topic. Connect it deeply with your listener, and do it efficiently. The sooner you can help the listener experience the issue at hand with intellectual and emotional pull the better.
- Preach the living Word. Does this need said? Judging by the sermons we listen to and choose not to highlight on this site, it still does. The temptation to build a sermon off of a series of stories is still strong. The lure of self-help preaching is still drawing preachers in. The example of seemingly “successful” pastors who give their own opinions and only use scripture as illustrative support is influential. Just because you shift to video does not mean you need to deliver content Tony Robbins could deliver, or preach in a way that reminds us of Jim Gaffigan. Study the text first and foremost. Develop a clear focus from the biblical passage. Name how the text reveals God’s character gospels the human condition in a sentence or two. Declare the good news the passage itself reveals in the unique way that passage reveals it. I often listen to more than 10 sermons a week and help in the writing and crafting of even more. Out of 10, fewer than 3 are faithful to both the deep meaning of the scriptural passage and the meaningful implications for the Christian’s every day life. They do one or the other. I could listen to 30 sermons without wearying if all of them did both. Preach the living Word.
- Never let them hear your first sermon. This is a good rule of thumb for contemporary preaching in general. The ancient expectation of orators was for them to have arranged and rehearsed their speeches in private before ever presenting them in public. This was no less true in Paul’s day than in our own. There were times for relying on the Spirit (e.g. appearing on charges before the magistrate) and there were times for preparing carefully in advance (study to show yourself approved is a charge to the weekly preacher). An online sermon lives in a world of multiple takes, careful scripts, and video editing. All the more reason to be sure we glorify God with our faithful preparation and quality. A slip of the tongue is more easily forgiven live than on video. Preach your sermon through from beginning to end until you can do it without hitch. This often takes multiple start and stop attempts. You may make it through 5 minutes, then 8, then 15, then 20, then finally the entire sermon. If new material comes to mind you think will help the sermon, preach it through one more time to dial it in. This may sound tiring. It can be. But it is worth the extra effort for a sermon that will last online for quite some time to come. Since a shift to online often means you do not have to preach in 3 or even 5 services, use some of that relief to dial in the sermon well before recording it.
- Speak to the camera. If you have designed the setting to feel like an actual worship service with a small scattering of people present feel free to engage them as well but only occasionally. Remember, your primary audience is through the lens. Do not stare down the camera wide-eyed and eery. At times break contact to think of the next thought, to glance at the screen beside you, or to read a passage. But do make personal and warm connection with the camera as though you were making eye contact with your people directly. In order to make sure your eyes feel as though they are making eye contact, look directly into the lens. Make sure your face reflects the feeling of them you want them to receive from you. Connect with kindness, cheerfulness, and genuine care in your facial expressions early. When your sermon moves to difficult topics, express the feeling of the topic in your face. For example, avoid the Cheshire Cat grin when speaking of hundreds of thousands of sick people with hospitals overwhelmed and skating rinks converted into morgues. And avoid the intensely serious expression you gave to that topic when offering a light hearted glimpse into your own family life.
- Stay attentive to God. Preaching is an act of worship even when it is recorded and streamed. Present your sermon with your people in mind, to be sure. Still, remember you primarily serve for an audience of One. Think of the chance to preach as God’s gift to you. Remember how he found you? Forgave you? Redeemed you? Restored you? We do not deserve to preach. It is a gift. Our gift back to God, is preaching well in a way that glorifies him. Seek to give him a good gift. And in the giving of the gift…enjoy being with God as you preach. It changes things.
Of course there are many more things that could be said about video preaching from the mundane (solid, darker colored outfits usually work best) to the technical (video editing with fade in and out, video tags before and after, text overlays putting your points on the screen, etc.) But not all of these apply in every context, and they are certainly not the most important things. May God guide you and rest his favor on you as you proclaim Jesus Christ in person and not in person.
© 2020, David B Ward. All Rights Reserved.