For several reasons, I decided to leave out the most controversial of my suggestions. I have seen others, including those on this website, suggesting that the ideal way of approaching the task ahead of us is by utilizing live video.
I have to disagree with this, at least partially. I do so as someone with an undeniable bias. I am first a filmmaker, not a broadcaster. Although my job includes overseeing the technology for a live broadcast of chapel services twice a week, I am not the greatest advocate for such things.
There are three reasons for this that I’d like to focus on. These are primarily for churches who were not doing anything with broadcast before this current crisis began.
1. You Will Encounter Technical Difficulties
First, and most obviously, you open yourself up to a larger swath of technical problems as soon as you choose to go live. Even with the chapel services I oversee, where we have some top-notch technology at our disposal, we still run into speedbumps almost every week. Feeds go out, glitches occur, transition moments go all wrong.
As amazing as your brand new smartphone is, it’s still a phone. As fast as the internet in your building may be, you probably shouldn’t trust the wireless signal with your worship service. As staggering as it is to see the number of free apps and websites out there built to help you, don’t be surprised to learn that you get what you pay for.
2. Simplifying Live Amplification Is Complicated
The second reason comes from building off the need to guide your congregation that I mentioned in my previous post. It is much harder to simplify the amplified audio/visual medium of video when you choose to go live. Think about the programs that you watch live. If you’re anything like me, this mostly includes sports and the occasional news show.
Let’s think about sports for a moment (and not just how sad we are that they aren’t happening right now). How many cameras do you think they have going on an ESPN broadcast? Why so many? Because they want to guide the eyes and ears of each viewer. Have you ever tried watching the All-22 angle on the ESPN app? If so, you know how difficult it is to both understand and pay attention to what is happening. It’s like the C-SPAN of sports coverage.
Whereas in a “normal” broadcast we can almost always tell where to look because the camera operators are doing everything they can to follow the action and the people in the booth are choosing the best shot for each given moment. The decisions they make help guide us, simplifying what we see so that we can understand. Certainly, the average church doesn’t need nearly this much effort but it does require some. Live video is being amplified so quickly that it’s difficult to simplify it effectively.
3. Staying on Script Means Live Adds Little
Lastly, I want to focus on some advice from Herbert Zettl’s book, Sight, Sound, & Motion: Applied Media Aesthetics.
I’ve been teaching out of this book the past two semesters and it suggests that live video does not carry any benefit for productions that do not have an “Open Future.” What does this mean? It means that we appreciate watching sports and game shows live because neither we or the people on screen know what’s going to happen.
Conversely, scripted content usually suffers from going live. Just think about whether you’d rather watch The Sound of Music again or NBC’s The Sound of Music: Live! from 2013. There may be some novelty added from a live broadcast but most likely people will be most interested if the program’s open future is interrupted—like when a mistake occurs and everyone knows it. I am not saying that this rules out going live with the liturgy, but it may help us have more helpful discussions around this topic.
What Is Live Video Anyway?
I know some may feel that being “live” adds something necessary to the liturgy. Certainly, I would agree that it’s important for us to gather together at a certain time, especially when gathering in a place has been taken away from us. Yet there are ways of premiering a previously recorded video at a certain time and asking the congregation to tune in to view it “live” even if it isn’t being shot live (this will certainly cut down on the technical glitches).
Of course, this brings up the question of what exactly a pre-recorded Eucharist is. Yet I would also point out that all live-streams, especially the ones most accessible to churches (YouTube, Facebook, etc.), are necessarily delayed. So that what we are seeing in such cases is not actually in “real-time” but twenty or thirty seconds into the past. Does it therefore matter significantly if what we are seeing is ten or twenty hours into the past?
Some have argued that pre-recorded material makes the service feel too much like Netflix, something you can watch whenever you want. As already mentioned, you can choose to “premiere” content at a certain time. Moreover, unless you remove it, most live-streams will transform into videos that people can go back and watch at a later time so there’s no real difference there.
For those of us who espouse a theology of worship that assumes that we leave behind our earthly time constraints in the liturgy and enter into heavenly time, this brings up even more questions. What are we are doing at our television sets or computers on Sunday morning? Are we participating or contemplating or both? This is a bigger topic than we can cover here, but it is at the root of any discussions of the importance of a live broadcast.
I also recognize that setting up a camera in the back and hitting the “go live” button is easier than preparing content beforehand. And, just to be clear, I don’t think that one should never utilize the ability to go live. I agree with others who suggest that one likely assumes more of a connection with someone who is speaking to us live than someone who recorded a sermon on Tuesday for a Sunday broadcast.
Saving Lives, Not Eliminating Them
This is why I would consider saving live broadcasts—not eliminating them altogether. It is possible to play pre-recorded content with a live-stream (this requires some technical know-how to do well but so does everything we’re discussing). It’s also possible to have a pre-recorded piece on one stream followed by a live-stream of different content. Say, to pre-record the prayers and liturgy before moving to a live-streamed sermon, or to have an entirely pre-recorded service that launches into a meetup via Zoom or something similar immediately after.
I know this could mean changing the order of the liturgy in some instances. It may even mean deciding that the Eucharist will not be broadcasted. Perhaps morning prayer will yet again become the norm in the Anglican world for a season. These are strange times and, depending on how much longer they continue, we may need to begin thinking outside the box. We cannot assume that everything will transfer into the digital landscape. We may need to find new ways of being faithful in this time without discarding the essentials of our faith and worship.
In the end, if at all possible, we must seek to utilize this medium to compliment and assist the worship of God’s people. It may be a means to aid us in devotion but it will never replace the need to gather. We must attempt to understand how it works, what it does best, and what it does poorly. We can approach it haphazardly, the same way we can ignore the out-of-tune organ or dusty stained-glass window. Like any aspect of our worship, it can be handled poorly or approached with care and thought.
The last thing I will say is this—whatever you have done in this time of crisis is admirable even if you come to recognize certain problems that need to be rectified. No one complains about the violin sounding too sharp while the Titanic sinks into the sea, they’re just grateful for the music in the midst of the madness. Thank you for what you have done in the topsy-turviness of the past few months. I hope this helps you as you look ahead into the future.
Matthew Aughtry is a priest in the diocese of Churches for the Sake of Others (C4SO). He serves as an Assisting Priest at Christ Church Waco in the Diocese of Fort Worth. He is the Assistant Director of Worship, Technology, and Communication for Chapel at Baylor University in Waco, Texas where he also teaches as an adjunct professor of Film and Digital Media. He completed his MDiv at Fuller Theological Seminary and is a Brehm Scholar for Theology and the Arts.