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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!

COVID-19 Phase Two: Next Steps

Dear Fellow Pastor,

As you enter into another week of COVID-19, I thought I would write some needed words of encouragement and some important things to consider.

First, I want to recognize the compounding toll of this season on your life and ministry.  If you are like me, the initial rush of adrenaline common in crisis has worn off and the endless stream of challenges remains.  Consequently, you are probably feeling a bit worn out and stretched thin.  If so:  Stop.  Breathe.  Pray.  Care (for yourself, your family, as well as your spiritual, emotional, and physical well-being).  Lead. (in that order)

I’m not sure if this is universal, but I have worked harder in these last two weeks than ever before in my pastoral career.  I want to remind us that this is a marathon, not a sprint and we have yet to approach the first giant hill in the race (we will face the first of several waves in COVID-19 in the next couple of weeks).  Thus, it is vital to take a breath and prepare as we will be stretched beyond ourselves in the coming days.

As we approach the unknown future with huge leadership challenges and pastoral care needs, I want to humbly remind you of a truth you know and have preached about several times. 

Sometimes God allows us to experience more than we can handle in our lives, and when we do, we discover that at the end of ourselves, we meet the unfiltered and endless goodness and greatness of our God.  God is with you and He will not fail!  Therefore, be strong and courageous.  Take each day, each step in the marathon ahead, with trust in God’s goodness and grace as well as the promise that He cares for you, your family, and the church you lead infinitely more than you.

Second, I would humbly offer the following to consider in this season ahead as you lead your community of faith:

  • Don’t journey these uncharted waters alone!  Any expeditionary mission into uncharted territory knows the importance of travelling as a team.  Therefore, gather some other pastors/leaders around you for mutual encouragement.  This will most likely be the hardest season of your ministry career and you can’t do this alone.  If you don’t feel it yet, you will.  You need Jesus and you need others to cheer you on!  If you feel alone and you don’t know where to turn, I’d be more than honoured to hear your heart, encourage you, and pray for you in this season (just contact me anytime).  We are all trying to find our way and the worst thing we can do is push through the fog of this season alone.  Rather, let’s be fellow sailors on this expedition together, calling, helping and encouraging each other forward through the fog.
  • We will get through this, but it will be a long and difficult journey.  I think we all need to be reminded of this hope.  This season will not be weeks; it will be months (some predict a year).  However long this season will be, it will end at some point and ministry will readjust to a new normal (whatever that is!).  I think we need to honestly face the enormity of this challenge and its implications but also be reminded, with hope, that it will not prevail, and Jesus will prove to be faithful!
  • Don’t be lulled into complacency, flatten the curve and escalate care.  We may flatten the curve of COVID-19 in some way (I pray we are successful) but that will just slow down the impact of what will affect many of us (I also pray for an effective treatment with hope but plan with a sober assessment of the current facts).  Thus, this is the time to be prepared and plan!  Have a plan to care for the sick.  Have a plan to care for those in financial peril.  Have a plan for those in relational crisis (whatever cracks a marriage or family has will be burst wide open).  Have a financial plan for your church as economic realities hit.  Have a plan for congregational and community care for your church and make yourself redundant (in order words, not having all care dependant on you, as you may get sick at some point) as well as have a plan to reach your community in this season.  These are the moments leaders are made for and when great leaders are forged!   
  • Continue to grow your online presence and invest resources (however limited) here.  Be creative, be innovative, empower younger leaders, and be willing to fail.  Although you are managing limited resources, this is the time to invest where people are.  If you are in an older demographic as a leader, have younger leaders on your online ministry leadership team and use their assessment of what is working and not working.  Be honest about your prejudices here: your perspective of what is working online is probably blinded by your age and you need younger voices to help you see what you may be blind to.

In all of this, remember the promise of Jesus to His disciples who would face great hardship and challenges as they followed Him, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33, NIV)

Pastors: Take heart!  This pandemic will not win.  Jesus has overcome!  These are the moments the Church was made for.  Therefore, let us collectively shine our lights in the flog of fear and uncertainty with the eternal hope and love of Jesus!

COVID-19 Church Response: Phase Two

In a previous post, I wrote about an initial plan for the church to consider in their response to COVID-19 (Coronavirus) and its impact on the local church.  Now that we have moved past the initial phase (the easiest phase), I thought I would write a follow-up post as we prepare to enter into phase two of this.  

Church, please listen, this is our moment!

Online Pivot Next Steps

  • Another Impending Pivot – In the last week or two, churches have made an important pivot to exclusive online services and gatherings.  Good work, Church!  Let this be a reminder to us of how fast we can change when needed.  There are more pivots ahead.  One of them any day.  If you have moved your services to some form of online offering (pre-recorded or live-feed), there is an impeding pivot you need to consider and prepare for.  To “flatten the curve,” your jurisdiction will soon move to limit public gatherings to no more than 2-5 people (churches included).  Any medium to large size church is going to face a problem (they often take 10-20 people to produce their live-feed).  How will you pivot your online services to this reality?  Be thinking of this asap because this change is coming and coming soon!
  • Embrace Experimentation as Open Source – This is an exciting season for people with entrepreneurial giftings and inclinations.  But one thing I have noticed about myself and others with this inclination is that we are also prone to competitiveness.  This is a danger to the Kingdom!  As we explore and settle into our new online ministry landscape and build ministry structures for this new frontier, let’s share our designs, successes and failures.  This is not the time to hold trade secrets but the time to free trade ideas.  I am learning so much from my friend about ideas, ways of approaching problems, things that worked, things that failed, etc.  This is the season for cooperation over competition.
  • Create a Rhythm – Now that you have moved all your ministries online and have done some experimentation, I would argue that it is time to establish a sustainable rhythm for your church.  When we launched our online ministries, we went fast and hard.  This was intentional in our part (we wanted our people to know that even though we couldn’t meet physically, the church was still there for them), but now that we are launched, we are in a season of establishing a sustainable rhythm.
  • Where is the Laity? –  If you are like the church I lead, we launched our new ministry structure fast and did so as a staff team (it allowed for this), but the next step is to empower our volunteers (many of whom have more time than ever before) to take leadership in this area.  If our online presence reduces the role of volunteers, we have failed.  We failed because it is not our job as pastors (Ephesians 4:12) and also because it doesn’t leverage the democratizing power of the internet.
  • Reject Comparisons – If you are like me, you would have started to compare yourself and your church to others on Sunday.  We are all on display and it can be demoralizing.  This is a fool’s game!  The bad news is that there is always someone who is a better communicator than you, a church with better production value than you, a church with better music than you, etc.  The good news is that people, especially in this season of COVID-19, don’t care!  They know you, trust you and I believe this is the season of the shepherd pastor as opposed to the CEO pastor.  Therefore, do your best, avoid unnecessary barriers or distractions for people but, also, reject the need to compete with others and embrace the posture of the servant-hearted pastor who loves and cares for his/her sheep.  People will follow you if you do!
  • Celebrate Success – As you move online, you can begin to be demoralized.  We have great expectations and reality can have a way of confronting that.  For example, you host an online prayer meeting and only two people join.  You are disappointed, expecting more, but forgetting that you didn’t do that ministry before and, in reality, you just had three people gather for prayer that wouldn’t have before.  In addition, be honest about success, the matrixes have changed, and online analytics are confusing and deceptive (Not all video “views” are considered equal).  You are not comparing apples to apples, but apples to pomegranates, and pomegranates are a complicated fruit.
  • Find Your Bearings – The first phase of COVID-19 has been a season of so many pivots I’m starting to feel dizzy. As is the case with any dizziness, stop, fix your eyes on the constant (Jesus), and find your balance again. Remember: “Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8)
  • Embrace Critical Reflection – In the coming days, I will be writing more about online ministry and the potential and perils it creates.  This is actually my area of academic specialty and I have written extensively about it (see my book, “Age of Kings: Pursuing God’s Heart in a Social Media World as an example).  I want to offer myself as a resource in the coming days to help us process this shift and all it will become (it has consequences and opportunities few people are considering as they implement with pragmatic panic).

Care Systems

If you have not worked on a building care system for your church to meet the COVID-19 pandemic, you need to be.  Drop what you are doing and get on this today!  In the coming weeks, people in your church and in your community will begin to get sick (and some will die) and your usual system and process for caring will buckle under the stress.  This is our moment, church, don’t think you will be able to casually walk into it, prepare and plan and do it today!  As an example, at Westlife, we have recently built two arms of care (congregation and community) that mirror each other but are scalable and robust enough to grow as need escalates.  Additionally, as you plan for this, consider the community God has placed your church in.  As a result, be open to the ideas of others and the leading of the Spirit and find creative and contextual ways to love and serve the community God has placed your church in.  Your context needs to be considered, but if you are relying on your existing systems to handle this, I plead with you to reconsider and get to work recruiting, planning and structuring care to meet the impending need.

Resources Triage

This is a challenge for every leader and this season will be one of the hardest to lead through.  The need will vastly exceed your resources!  Going to online services and the massive hit to the economy will impact your budget, you will need to plan and act accordingly by triaging financial resources.  If you are not preparing for this, you need to be.  How can you reallocate resources and be prepared to make tough decisions? 

Additionally, how will you triage human resources of volunteers and staff?  Some of them will get sick and do you have a plan for that?  You will also, statistically speaking, get sick at some point.  How will your church respond?  This should force every church to have some kind of leadership succession plan.  This is not a drill.  I am not being alarmist here.  You need to consider how you will lead your church and manage the limited resource at our disposal for their use in this time of extreme need.

Intentional Rest

Once your systems are in place, take intentional rest before the wave of COVID-19 infection hits in the coming days.  In the church I serve, our staff have been working long hours to prepare for the next phase of this pandemic and, as part of our response plan, over the next week or two will intentionally and strategically be taking needed rest to care for themselves and their families before we escalate care to meet the impending need.

Remember

I have said this to many of my friends and I want to communicate it here.  For many reasons (the least of which are mentioned above), this will be the toughest pastoral season of your ministry career.  Let’s be ready.  This is our moment.  That can seem overwhelming, but God’s promises are true.  The need is great, but our God is greater.  Let’s go leaders, it is time to lead our churches, pick up our spiritual armour and storm the gates of hell with faith, hope and love!

An Honest COVID-19 Pastor’s Prayer

Gracious Father,

We need you! Overnight everything changed and we are lost, confused and trying to find our way. We entered uncharted waters, were given new boats to navigate (online ministry platforms) and there is a viral storm brewing on the horizon. We don’t know what the future will bring but we trust You are with us.

As such, we embrace the peace-filled promise that You have sent the Holy Spirit to comfort, lead and empower us and we embrace that truth as a precious gift. Tenaciously gripping onto that promise, we pray, not as a last resort but a first response. In situations like these, our weaknesses and frailty are laid bare and we have no other response but to desperately seek and call on you.

Come Lord Jesus, Come. Have mercy on us!

As we enter the viral storm ahead, we as church leaders and pastors need creativity in ministry. If necessity is the mother of invention, then You are its father. We need your guidance and wisdom to adopt new practices and to do so critically and responsibly. Technology is not neutral, so give us eyes to see below the veneer of pragmatism and into the heart of impact.

Come Lord Jesus, Come. Have mercy on us!

As we enter the viral storm ahead, we need to lead, plan and administrate well. This is going to be an all hands-on deck season. We need your empowerment to effectively organize the hands on the deck but also do so in ways that effectively help and not, unintentionally, hurt. Give us Your wisdom and empowerment to love and care for people in this season.

Come Lord Jesus, Come. Have mercy on us!

As we enter the viral storm ahead, we need the courage to make tough decisions. There will be many as we begin to triage limited resources in the midst of overwhelming need. We need your wisdom and empowerment to do this well.

Come Lord Jesus, Come. Have mercy on us!

As we enter the viral storm ahead, we need the energy to meet the impending demands that will exceed our capacity. With limited resources, limited experience, limited energy, we will humbly and desperately need your strength, wisdom and courage for the storm ahead.

Come Lord Jesus, Come. Have mercy on us!

As we enter the viral storm ahead, we need your peace to reign in our hearts as fear rolls in. May you grant us the peace that passes all understanding and the joy that is complete in you. The journey ahead will be difficult, but you will be with us!

Come Lord Jesus, Come. Have mercy on us!

As we enter the viral storm ahead, we need Your words because ours are not enough. We need you to give us words of truth, hope and comfort. Our human ability will be dwarfed by the enormity of the situation and we need your words of truth, comfort and hope in this storm.

Come Lord Jesus, Come. Have mercy on us!

As we enter into the viral storm ahead, empower us to courageously lead Your Church on the rescue mission you have given us. In a season where people will naturally move to self-protection, empower us to boldly lead into Your mission to seek and save the lost. For the church, this is not the time to hunker down and hide our light under a bowl, but the time shine it like a searchlight to those who are overwhelmed by fear, sharing the way, the truth and the life (abundant and eternal), Jesus.

Come Lord Jesus, Come. Have mercy on us!

As we enter into the viral storm on the horizon, we tenaciously hold on to you, tune our ears to your voice, and embrace Your promises of giving wisdom without finding fault, peace that passes all understanding, and strength for the journey. You are with us and you will not fail!

Come Lord Jesus, Come. Have mercy on us!

In Jesus name, Amen.