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Preaching in the Blind

Preaching in the Blind

“…in the blind…” is a radio communication phrase made popular by the movie Gravity. 

Although made popular by actors George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, it is a bonified aviation and NASA radio communication practice.  Often used during emergency situations, it is a way for the transmitter to communicate while acknowledging that, although someone may hear the transmission, the transmitter is not expecting a response.

In many ways, this is what preaching has become in our coronavirus-initiated virtual church experience.  Preaching is now exclusively delivered via video to small screens everywhere and recorded or live streamed with few, if any, people in the physical room.  This shift has proven to be a very different preaching experience (for both the speaker and the hearer). 

I have chatted with several of my colleagues about this and wanted to share what I have learned from those conversations, my experience, and ask for any additional advice (please share these in the comments section).

Five Main Things I’ve Learned So Far About “Preaching in the Blind”

Make it Intimate

As I have scanned different churches and preacher’s approaches to an exclusively online ministry preaching model, I’ve discerned two main approaches.  

First is the approach that looks exactly like it did before COVID-19 and public gathering restrictions.  By watching the service and the preaching, you would assume that the room was full, and the preacher was communicating to a large gathering.  For the most part, those who employ this approach are being strategic in that they want the experience to be the same for their church when public gatherings are allowed again.  The risk is, it can come across as odd and, potentially, inauthentic as people know that the room is empty (especially as this social distance season extends).

The other approach is changing the frame, format and style of the preaching moment to fit an exclusively small venue (living room, etc.) video approach and embrace the personal/intimate feel of someone in a living room speaking to people in their living rooms.  This is the approach we have taken at Westlife Church.  I’m not saying it is the right way, the only way, or the best way.  But it has worked for us and we are learning as we go.  The risk is, when we eventually shift to a new post-coronavirus normal, we may also have to shift out of this model, and it will be another adjustment for our people who will have become accustomed to a different approach.

This more intimate approach is not new and is reminiscent of the approach taken by Sherri Chessen in the 1980’s with her classic Canadian Romper Room children’s television program.   During each show, she would look through her handheld magic mirror and mention all the kids by name that she “saw” through it.

Sherri understood the need to create an intimate feel with her audience who were watching from their living rooms.  Thus, as you preach, imagine you are speaking in a coffee shop or living room to someone one-on-one.  Be personal and conversational.  Be real and appropriately transparent.  Be gentle and kind.

Give Lots of Virtual Eye Contact

As you preach in an exclusively online format, preach to the camera(s) just like having coffee with a friend, look into their eyes when you are talking but don’t stare into their souls!  Preach to the camera and speak like it is a friend but be natural as you do.  If it is helpful, place a facial cue at camera height and imagine a conversation over coffee.  Additionally, as much possible, don’t look at your notes as you preach.  You would assume that video would give increased ability to use notes, but virtual eye contact is so important that looking down too often can come across as too scripted and impersonal.  If you need notes, try a teleprompter as some of my friends have done with great success (there are some great apps that allow for this now). 

Keep it Short

From my conversations with other preachers, we have all expressed the phenomena: we are preaching shorter.  There are lots of reasons for this, but I do think that a screen attention span is shorter – we are accustomed to a short screen attention span and so exclusive online preaching demands this adjustment accordingly. Some may say that all preaching should be shorter (perhaps they are correct) but exclusive video preaching is definitely different and adjusting our methodology is important.

Use Humour Differently

Instant feedback makes humour more effective and the act of communicating with humour more enjoyable (in my opinion).  Unless you use a laugh track (BTW: some of the more seasoned video preachers out there do that), your humour will change.  I know it has for me.  I probably use it less often and differently than I used to.  That doesn’t mean it is less effective, it is just different.  There is a reason why talk shows, stand-up comedians and late-night talk show hosts have live studio audiences and why preaching without an audience makes humour different and, frankly, more difficult.

Change Locations – Be Creative

One of the benefits of video (especially if you prerecord) is to alter your venue and make it specific or fitting to your message.  This week, we are planning to record outdoors by the Bow River as I preach on Psalm 1.  Not being bound to a specific physical space (stage), allows for some creativity in location and atmosphere, and now is the time to use it.

Additionally, be creative.  Our video producer on Easter Sunday effectively wove in some B-roll (in this case, stock video footage) and even a musical score during a story I was telling.  It was super effective, and, if it is done well, can add to the preaching.  There is obviously risk involved here and we need to be sure we don’t “jump the shark” in our creative endeavours.  However, may we also not miss an opportunity to try new things in a season that uniquely allows for it and offers inherent permission to try.

Preaching in the Blind

As we go through the prolonged season of preaching in the blind, may we adapt accordingly and learn from our adaption as we move back into whatever new normal will emerge in a post-coronavirus world.  Preaching in the blind is a different experience that demands a different approach and a different preaching methodology.  Embrace it, try new things, and let God be glorified as you do.

Shifting Gears: From Crisis Response to Strategic Planning

COVID 19 – Phase Two Continued

Part Four: Shifting Gears from Crisis Response to Strategic Planning

Today is fifty-some days of social distancing.  It is hard to believe that we have been in this stage for so long already.  If you are beginning to feel weary, confused, overwhelmed and exhausted as a leader, this totally makes sense.  Your feelings are normal and predictable. 

Fifty-some days ago, you went into “crisis mode.”  As you entered crisis mode, there was a flurry of information to process and a rush of decisions to be made.  As my colleague Ryan and I recently discussed, it was the right gear to shift into, but it is also a gear you can’t be in for too long.

As a result, the weariness, lostness, confusion, and even discouragement you may be feeling are not unusual or a sign that there is something abnormal with you.  In fact, these feelings are to be expected.  They are simply an indicator that you were in the right mode/gear for the road you were on.  The challenge is, this road isn’t at its end and there are still many miles ahead.  As a result, we need to find a new gear for the long haul (no one knows how long this road will be, but it is months not weeks until we will be able to gather in larger numbers again).

I don’t know what that specifically looks like for you (your role, your church, your ministry, etc.), but I do know that preparing for a short road trip looks different than a long one.  You plan different, you prepare different, you have a different mentality and expectations going in.  It is time (if you haven’t started already) to repack and prepare for the long road ahead.

It is time to shift gears!

In the coming weeks (if you have not already done so), I would challenge you to begin shifting from crisis mode to strategic planning mode.  Take time with your team and begin creating or readjusting for a long-term exclusively online strategy of ministry, pastoral care, community engagement, staffing, budget, etc. to make it through the long journey ahead. 

I don’t say any of this to add stress or anxiety in you.  Instead, I write with words of hope, that a different and more sustainable gear is possible.  And with an encouragement that it is time to press the clutch (slow down, think, pray and rest) and shift gears into the one that strategically plans for the long road ahead, trusting that God will lead you forward.

As I said early on in this crisis, this will most likely be the most difficult season of your leadership life and career but is also holds the possibility to be the most meaningful and fruitful.  Consequently, it is time to lead with unprecedented dependence on the Holy Spirit, humility and courage. 

Shift gears and lead on!

Cultivate Joy

COVID 19 – Phase Two Continued

Part Three: Cultivate Joy

Now that we have settled into social-distanced life, moved our ministries online, have care networks set-up, fostered community in our churches, and stepped back, it is time to embrace joy and help shepherd our people through the long road of Covid-19.

If you have your pulse on people, you’ll have the sense that people are not doing the greatest these days.  If you gently prod people a little below the surface, you’ll discover that people are struggling in their relationships, family, marriage and emotional wellbeing.  I don’t think this is universal, but I sense it is extremely common.  As I said to a friend last week, we all need to be reminded that we are in a pandemic, not a paradise and it is okay (even normal) to not be okay.

Therefore, as we look into the future and lead our churches on the long journey ahead, it is time to help our people through this unusual season of stress and anxiety.  Whether it is your staff team, your leadership teams or your church as a whole, now is the time to foster morale, encouragement and hope.

This, of course, is a complex and multifaceted process with lots of angles (teaching, activities, prayer, community, physical wellness, worship, counselling, etc.) but one that I think is often overlooked is laughter.  It may seem odd to foster laughter in a pandemic, but laughter has a direct line to our stress and anxiety. 

Did you know, when people are stressed, they often respond with “nervous laughter?”  I’ve personally seen people respond with spontaneous laughter upon the news of a loved one dying and have witnessed front-line workers use dark humour to process unbearable situations.  There is a direct neurological link between stress and laughter, and it travels in two directions.  People often respond involuntarily to stress with laughter, but people can also use laughter to help proactively deal with stress.

Consequently, as we build resiliency and hope in our people in this season, let us not forget laughter and joy.  Just as Paul and Silas sang with joy while in prison, we can sing and laugh in the midst of a pandemic (Acts 16).  They had a joy that couldn’t be bound in chains nor silenced by suffering – the joy of the Lord was their strength (Nehemiah 8:1).

As a result, I think we need to help our staff teams cultivate joy in this season and laugh as often as possible.  All shepherds need campfire stories and laughter to pass the time and release the pressure valve of stress and so do your leadership teams.  Additionally, your people need to be able to laugh as part of your care response.  Thus, what can you do in your church community to build and unleash joy in this season?  Have your volunteer or staff leadership consider ways you can foster laughter in this season as a strategic means to help your people in this challenging time.

It may seem like an odd and counterintuitive suggestion, but I believe it is a key competency for building resiliency and fostering hope in this season.  Therefore, do what you can to foster joy, find it in Christ Jesus, and laugh as often as possible.

YOU ARE NOT OK!

You are not ok!

These last several weeks have been stressful and life-altering.  We are in the middle of a global pandemic.  The constant reality of this, the social distancing implications, and the perpetual threat of disease have major psychological implications.  Consider the many ways our new reality is affecting us.

As this reality is just in its infancy and the pandemic, with its social distancing implications, will be with us (in some form) for months, we need to acknowledge our new reality and its effects.  There is a reason NASA does major testing and research on social isolation for those planning to live on the international space station.[1]  Confined spaces and physical distancing impacts people more than we realize, and astronauts go through major psychological testing and are given significant training to deal with it.[2]  This is a class no one taught us in school.

The sudden shift to online work, the instant lack of personal interactions in physical space, and the notable fatigue of Zoom calls all affect us (have you experienced Zoom Gloom yet?).[3]    Online social, work and school life is not the equivalent of personal interactions in physical space and thinking it is can make us confused as to why we are more exhausted or irritable as a result.[4]

If you have kids, you are now on triple duty (parenting, working and teaching) at home.  Don’t ignore the impact of this in your life.  No one in modern history has done this before.  There is no manual for this.  There are multiple reasons why we have public schools and the sudden shift to online learning is affecting your kids in significant ways socially and psychologically.  Thus, it is understandable why parenting has gotten harder, why your kids are struggling and why this season as a family is more difficult.

You are also grieving.  You are grieving the loss of what was and what was going to be.  You probably had vacation plans, activities you enjoyed that you can no longer participate in (vacations, golf, concerts, graduations, camping, etc.), and a Canadian summer we won’t fully get to enjoy.  Don’t underestimate the impact of grief.  Grief is an important and powerful process that we ignore to our peril.

Most significantly, you are probably more affected psychologically than you realize.  Remember Maslov’s hierarchy of needs that you studied in school?  Pre-Covid-19, in Maslov’s hierarchy of needs, you were probably at “Esteem” or “Love and Belonging.”  Now, within a matter of weeks, you have dropped to either “Physiological Needs” or “Safety Needs.” 

A screenshot of a cell phone

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Don’t under-estimate the implications of this, even if you are unaware of it.

With these and other realities you are facing, it is no wonder that you are struggling!  That you are not ok!  And because you are not ok, it isn’t a surprise that you are experiencing the following:

  • Unusual melancholy.
  • Interrupted sleep schedule.
  • Strange dreams.
  • Strained relationships.
  • Tension in your marriage.
  • Difficultly with your kids.
  • Family conflict and parenting struggles.
  • General lack of patience and increased frustration.
  • Difficulty experiencing peace and joy.
  • Strange reactions to things and situations that don’t make sense and catch you off guard (frustration, crying, etc.).
  • Promptings to and/or participation in unhealthy coping mechanisms in your life.
  • Pulling away from friends and relationships.
  • Avoiding activities that you would typically enjoy.
  • Heightened worry and anxiety.

Before we even look at ways to survive this season, it is important to note that this is where you are.  This is where your team is.  This is where your spouse is.  This is where your kids are.  This is where your friends are.

We are all not ok!  We may pretend that we are, but we are not.  I hope this explains a lot of what you are feeling and experiencing.  I hope this gives you permission to admit to yourself that you are not ok and understand, with empathy, those around you.  And, most importantly, I hope this acknowledgement can give you permission to press into your future with adjusted expectations and begin the preparation needed to survive well in this prolonged season.

Now that we have collectively admitted that we are not okay, we need to make another important admission.  As long as this pandemic continues, we won’t be okay for a while yet.  This season will last longer than most of us realize.  As a result, we need to adjust our expectations accordingly.  There may be ways to survive well but if anyone suggests that you are going to thrive in this time, they are selling you snake oil.  I think we need to be honest.  This will be the hardest season of your family’s life, your parenting journey, your marriage, your work career, your church leadership experience, etc. and, thus, to suggest that you are less than if you are not thriving, is simply ignorant of the enormity of our situation.

All that being said, it is time to batten down the hatches and prepare to survive the storm.  As you prepare for the long-haul of this pandemic, consider the following as a means of survival:

  • Spend more time praying than you used to (even if you don’t feel like it).
  • Be honest (with yourself, your family and others about how you are feeling and the realities of our situation).
  • Don’t pull away from others (even when you think you should) but press in (it may feel counterintuitive).  Find some colleagues and friends you can be appropriately open and honest with.  Embrace community!
  • Try and keep a regular sleep schedule.
  • Keep a daily routine and keep organized.
  • Exercise daily.
  • Have fun!  Do something you enjoy each day (write, create, bake, read, etc.).
  • If you can, get outside (appropriately social distancing, of course).
  • Journal your thoughts, experiences and feelings.
  • Speak to a mental health professional.

The above list is not comprehensive and won’t make everything “better.”  Again, this is a global pandemic where we are all under sustained social isolation with a shadow of sickness looming in the distance.  As the storm comes and brings its damaging rain and devastating winds, we need to admit that the storm is here and that survival is, in fact, success.  Therefore, as you enter the storm, acknowledge our reality, how it is impacting you and alter your expectations from thriving to surviving, asking for God to help you as you do.

“God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.” Psalm 46:1, NIV


[1] https://www.nasa.gov/hrp/social-isolation/in-context

[2] https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn19375-how-astronauts-experience-could-help-trapped-miners/

[3] https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2020/04/coronavirus-zoom-fatigue-is-taxing-the-brain-here-is-why-that-happens/

[4] https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20200421-why-zoom-video-chats-are-so-exhausting

It’s Time to Step Back

COVID 19 – Phase Two Continued

Part Two: Pastors, It’s Time to Step Back

In our current Covid-19 reality, the church made a fast and relatively effective transition to an exclusively online presence.  Bravo!  This is something to celebrate.

After the next several months of this new (temporary) normal, it is fair to say we will not be going back to the way things were but it also fair to say that we will not be staying where we are either.  In the wake of Covid-19, a new ministry paradigm is being conceived.  And, like all babies in the womb, the best picture that we can hope for, at this point, looks like a hazy ultrasound.

As we navigate the present with this hazy view of the future, I want to make three observations and exhortations for us in this season – all with the same refrain: “It’s time to step back!”

Step Back to Look Ahead

With all the changes, pivots, Zoom meetings, video recordings, tech manuals, etc., I think leaders are overwhelmed and exhausted.  Like all times I have been exhausted and overwhelmed, I’ve rarely made a good decision.  In these times, I know that I am prone to either keep the status quo (as ineffective as that might be) or compulsively make a bad decision (with inevitable regret). Therefore, I think it is wise for leaders to slow down, catch their breath, pray intently and purposely step back to discern the best way forward.

Pastors, it’s time to step back.

Step Back to Make Room

I want to make an observation of our collective experience in moving the church to an exclusively online presence: We did it relatively fast and efficiently, but we, largely, did it as clergy.  At Westlife, we made the assessment a couple of weeks ago that our services had become a bit of a clergy show and that is a problem. 

I get it, we needed to make a fast change, the medical risk was high and situation unknown.  I get that it was important to make the shift but now that we are settling in for a long haul of this reality, I encourage you to make an honest assessment.  How many laypeople are on your stage this Sunday and how many lay people are currently leading ministries in your church?

As we settle into this exclusive online presence, for the time being, I believe we need to embrace the mantra, “Step back and make room!”  It is time for clergy to equip the saints for works of ministry. (Ephesians 4:12) We need to graciously exit stage left and allow laypeople back to lead from the front stage. 

Pastors, it’s time to step back.

Step Back to Lead Together

As we settle into our Covid-19 world, many churches are making needed staff changes, layoffs, leadership restructuring, etc., I want to implore all leaders to step back and make room for different voices.  This is an all hands-on deck season and we need all generations to lead together.  Let’s make room at the table for each other and lead together.

Senior leaders, as we innovate and align the church for this new season, it is vital to step back and make sure you allow younger voices on the stage as you make decisions.  I am not suggesting that you are irrelevant or that you should step aside.  We need you!  I am just asking you to step back and recruit in.  Make sure you have young leaders around you who are decision-makers in influential positions.  If you are an older leader, as you restructure your team, keep and promote younger leaders and listen to them.  Do things they are suggesting that you may even question (assume your biases may be wrong).  Give them the creative license and freedom to innovate.

Younger leaders, speak up and lead.  We need you!  We don’t just need younger voices; we need younger leaders.  As you are given opportunities, press into them, give your opinions (respectfully of course) and lead up!  The church needs you and your time is now!  As you do, I would also encourage you to step back in humility, make room for and listen to the older voices who can give perspective, wisdom and seasoned advice for times like these.

Mid-season leaders, you are the bridge that is desperately needed in this season.  We need the Gen Xers now more than ever (although everyone forgets you exist – you are like the middle child of generations, often forgotten but key and important in keeping the leadership continuum alive and healthy in this season).  This is also your time to step up, bridge the gap and move the church forward.  We need you to simultaneously honour older leaders and elevate younger leaders, helping to transition the church in this challenging season for a fruitful future.  As you step up, you also need to step back and make room for both younger and older voices in the conversation, silencing the middle-child’s tendency to be overly skeptical and cynical.  The church needs you to lead and mid-season leaders play a vital role as we move into the future together.

The opportunity for the church is vast and we need all leaders to step back, providing space to lead together into the future.

Pastors, it’s time to step back.