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.