Planning Virtual Worship, Pandemic or Not!

Until the global pandemic of 2020, very few of our readers had been planning worship for the virtual world. Some of us livestreamed or recorded worship services for our homebound members, but very few of us put much thought into those virtual options in our creative thinking and planning. Now, almost all of us do. With that in mind, B. J. and I offer some insights and ideas to you, gleaned from your colleagues around the world. 

Versions of Virtual Worship 

There are many ways of worshipping together, even while worshipping in our homes. For years, homebound and traveling church members have yearned to stay connected with their church families. Now, almost all of us have developed methods for staying connected through our computers, tablets, and phones. We hope you will continue connecting in these virtual ways, even when the dangers of a pandemic have passed. The more we can connect without regard to geography, the more inclusive our worship services and congregational relationships can be. Imagine how much joy we bring our homebound “visitors” when they stream worship right into their living rooms and assisted living apartments. To stay “connected” in the past, my homebound grandmother had to rely on copies of The Upper Room and visits from her pastor. Now, all who can’t attend Sunday worship can stay connected with your congregation, thanks to modern technology and the church’s amazing willingness and ability to adapt in 2022! 

As the pandemic spread around our globe, we watched colleagues without the ability to livestream create amazing possibilities from their smartphones, camcorders, and tablets. The following methods categorize some of the ways you have made virtual worship possible for your people. 

1. Prerecorded worship filmed in “one take”—weekly sermons, musical offerings, and so on 

2. Prerecorded worship filmed separately in various segments from multiple leaders and locations— distributed as individual elements 

3. Prerecorded worship filmed separately in various segments from multiple leaders and locations— edited and distributed as a complete recorded worship service 

4. Prerecorded musical offerings filmed from multiple participants and locations—edited into a virtual choir or ensemble 

5. Livestreamed sermons, meditations, or devotions 

6. Livestreamed worship services, inclusive of sermon, music, and liturgy 

7. Video conference worship, using a service like Zoom, to allow for interaction and fellowship in the worship experience 

We applaud you for creating such beautiful worship in so many innovative ways! Below, we take a closer look at each of the methods noted above. 

Prerecorded worship, weekly sermons, and musical offerings that are filmed in “one take” can be done with a simple smartphone, computer, or basic recording camera. For best results recording with a phone or video, purchase a simple tripod or stand to provide stability for the camera and allow the leader to focus on the words or music you are offering. The one take option, while not as polished as edited versions, allows for both simplicity and authenticity. Be honest with your congregation that this recording is essentially “live,” even though it’s prerecorded. Be honest with yourself that the one take option leaves you more vulnerable as a leader than edited versions. This option frees up an enormous amount of time and cost over methods requiring extensive editing so that worship isn’t the only ministry you have the time or money to provide in a given week. For distribution and communication ideas, see the next paragraph. 

Prerecorded worship filmed in various segments from multiple leaders and locations that are distributed as individual elements allows diverse and varied worship moments to be shared with your fellowship throughout the week, rather than as a single service. One pastor walked his deserted streets the first week communities were sheltering at home as his videographer recorded him with a drone video camera. The voiceover (added later) was both haunting and comforting as the pastor shared both his concerns and his hopes for his congregation and our world. Another pastor recorded all of her summer sermons from her dock, with a beautiful lake in the background, taking her congregation through a series of “lakeshore” stories of Jesus and the disciples. In both cases, their churches also distributed links to instrumental and vocal music from their church musicians. One church included weekly links to children’s messages from volunteers in their Christian education program. When individuals use their own equipment to record these segments, the quality can vary widely. Some churches address this issue by having participants visit the sanctuary at scheduled times so that a videographer can record each segment, or they advise participants in use of common equipment and methods. For example, one church asks each volunteer who records a prayer or song to record it horizontally on a smartphone, using the phone’s built-in microphone. Some church administrators and pastors share the links to the various recordings on the church website or in emails with PDF documents. Others post each segment on their social media channels as the segment is created, which allows for spiritual nurture throughout the week. Others wait and send all of the links in a weekly post to create a more unified feel to worship, even when it is created in different segments. Consider sharing prayers and readings from this resource with a variety of volunteer and staff worship leaders throughout your worship year, to expand both participation and creativity in the worship experience. Remind them they are permitted to adapt, edit, or use the resources exactly as they are written in both written and recorded format. Just note the authorship and copyright notice in whatever written communication accompanies your recordings. 

Prerecorded worship filmed in various segments from multiple leaders and locations that is edited into one worship service provides a fuller and more familiar worship experience for congregants. As with the previous style, recording from various locations provides a great deal of creativity and variety, but varying sound levels and quality of recordings can present a challenge for your video editor. Most churches find that the editing is simplified if all recordings are shot in one location using the same equipment, with leaders scheduled at various times to provide for safe physical distancing. This option requires more preparation and planning, along with a paid editor or very generous volunteer who can handle the demands of postproduction editing. Our son Michael Beu, a video editor, works with a number of churches and pastors to manage the technical and time-consuming demands of editing and posting their worship videos, or helps them find volunteers or train staff members to do so. This extra help allows pastors to focus on worship rather than on technology, and many church donors have stepped up to provide the financial support necessary for this new way of providing worship and spiritual nurture. 

For the worship experience, some churches “premiere” worship services put together in this way by scheduling the uploaded video to go live at a specific time on their social media channel. This allows and encourages congregants to watch and worship “together” at the same time from their various locations, and also can provide viewers the opportunity for interactive chat on the social media channel, creating a sense of community. This sense of community is increased if the worship service is followed by a virtual fellowship time via video conferencing on platforms like Zoom or Skype. Others “open” the posted worship service video immediately, once editing and uploading is complete, so that worshippers can view and worship whenever they want. One of our readers prefers this latter option, so that her church can join for virtual fellowship and sermon conversation during the normal Sunday morning worship time, having viewed worship the day before. 

Prerecorded musical offerings filmed from multiple participants and locations that are edited into a virtual choir or ensemble allow vocal music and ensemble music to continue to be a part of our lives. Solo offerings, however, are much more common because they are more easily achieved with simple recording devices—sometimes connected directly to an electronic musical instrument, other times recorded with the internal microphone provided on the recording device. Most musicians prefer the higher quality of recording with an external microphone, attached to the video recording device. Virtual ensembles require a great deal of post production sound editing. It’s harder than it looks and sounds, so very few churches choose this option, unless they have a professional studio or advanced sound and video technicians available to them. 

Livestreamed sermons, meditations, or devotionals are being offered by churches at all times of day and night around our globe. They can be recorded and offered on almost any social media channel by clicking on their live stream option. One colleague records a daily devotional video, but also posts it in written format on his Facebook page. (He also enlists church leaders to record on Fridays and Saturdays, so he can enjoy sabbath and family time on those days.) Consider using prayers and responsive readings from this resource to enhance devotionals, sermons, or reflective meditations you are providing for your people. 

Livestreamed worship services that include sermons, music, and liturgy require recording equipment connected to a live streaming service and, ideally, a wired connection to the internet. Most churches who choose this option have invested considerable money into a streaming broadcast system and have a budget for trained staff members who know how to operate both the recording and broadcasting systems. As with the virtual choir option, this isn’t as easy as it looks! But it is a beautiful option for churches that have the ability and the resources. That said, most churches who were streaming before the pandemic have both adapted and improved their livestream worship ministry. Before the pandemic, much of livestreamed worship was either an afterthought of what was already happening on Sundays, or a polished “performance.” Now, some of the fanciest livestreams have become the simplest. There is an elegance to this simplicity and this intentionality, when worship is crafted to focus on one primary theme or message. Worship services have been shortened to adapt to the shorter attention span of a virtual congregation. Messages and musical offerings are less polished and more personal, creating intimacy and relationship with viewers at home. Don’t be fooled, though! The technology in the background to make livestreaming successful is complex with little room for error, which occurs frequently for a variety of reasons. Those of us who livestream on a regular basis have learned to laugh at ourselves, forgive technology, and patiently await our technicians to address the glitches that inevitably arise. One colleague laughingly posted on our clergy Facebook group, “It’s time to designate a ‘Glitch Sunday!’” 

Video conference worship, using providers like Zoom, provides opportunities for interaction and fellowship during the worship experience. While this format creates a more collaborative environment, it requires more flexibility and informality for both leaders and participants. Best practice for this format has participants and members log onto the video conference with a private church link in order to prevent interruptions by internet trolls. Designate a video conference coordinator to welcome guests, help with password and technology challenges, monitor chat questions or comments, and mute everyone but the participants once worship begins. A video conference coordinator allows pastors, musicians, and worship leaders to focus on their worship responsibilities without having to control the service’s complicated technical requirements. 

When the pastor and designated leaders are leading, their video feeds should be the only ones with active microphones. This allows people to hear more clearly and participate more fully without interrupting the worship flow. While microphones are muted, congregational singing, unison and responsive readings, and responses to the Spirit are all possible in this format. If you have a solo worship leader, make sure their microphone is always unmuted so that they can lead the singing, readings, and prayers. To add an interactive component, encourage people to comment in their chat box, or even invite conversation following the message by designating a time of unmuted sermon feedback and Q & A. Similarly, community prayer and joys and concerns can be interactive by unmuting members for these worship elements; but be sure to mute the members again before praying the pastoral or Lord’s Prayer. Although you can use a webinar format instead, webinars are more “presentation” than “participation,” similar to a Facebook Live or YouTube Premiere. 

Choosing or Changing Your Version of Virtual Worship 

Several decisions need to be made before settling on a method of virtual worship: 

1. Whom is God calling your church to reach? What technology are they able and willing to access? 

2. What type of worship experience will best serve the congregation you are called to reach? 

3. How much is your church able and willing to spend, both in time and money? 

4. What technology and distribution platform best address these questions. 

With these decisions in mind, you are ready to work with your worship team to create a virtual worship design and choose a platform best suited to your current needs. What you started with need not limit where you go in 2022 and beyond. Similarly, if you’ve been doing this alone for the last year and a half, you need not continue doing it alone. This is the perfect time to create a worship team that will work with you, supporting and strengthening both the process and creativity of your worship experience. When planned and implemented alone, virtual worship is already leading to many early retirements and departures from ministry. The workload is simply too exhausting and isolating an experience to sustain by one individual, regardless of how talented they are. Reach out to your leadership, your colleagues, and even community partners to find the help you need. If you’re reading this article but not on the worship team, check with your pastor or musician to see if they need support and help. Contact us if you need help figuring out how to find and work with a team. 

Adapting Music and Liturgy for Social Distancing and Safety 

One of the greatest challenges in church worship today has been the limitations placed on vocal music and the spoken word to avoid spreading infection. Yet, limitations give rise to creativity and new ways for musicians to stay involved in ministry. Some vocal choirs have transitioned into bell choirs. Other vocalists have been reading the texts of favorite hymns or anthems, while instrumentalists play the music underneath. Some churches are prerecording vocal music for presentation on screen during live worship, while simultaneously streaming the live worship and the prerecorded music for their virtual worshippers. Responsive and unison readings are not always the safest option for a congregation gathered together, but two readers may “duet” a responsive reading from the chancel while remaining safely distanced from both worshippers and one another. Or again, music might enhance a solo voice reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Looking for more creative ideas? Visit to find some of the creative ways B. J. and Mary are working to address the changing forms of worship. 

Adapting Virtual Worship to a Hybrid Form 

Over these last few years, you have likely led worship in a variety of ways, adapting to social restrictions the pandemic has thrown our way. As churches reopen their sanctuaries, while also offering virtual worship, we have begun calling this new both-and situation hybrid worship. Our worship services are no longer just the old fossil-fueled combustion engine of sanctuary worship, but also electric-fueled worship of videos streamed directly into the homes of church members and friends around the globe. One California colleague is helping his newest member from North Carolina get acquainted with her California church family three thousand miles away. When their sanctuary reopens, she will still be worshipping from her North Carolina living room, utilizing the gifts of this hybrid worship model to nourish her spiritual journey across the miles. As congregations again gather for in-person worship, this hybrid model allows us to continue serving our virtual worshippers. To prepare for this, worship leaders have put tech crews in place who can record the services, upload to an online platform, and communicate with the congregation how to access the online service. Your best practice is for worship leaders to focus on the worship components (music, message, liturgy) and for tech and administrative team members to focus on the technology and communication components. Let us know if you have questions or concerns we can help you address, or if you have insights and ideas to share with others.

About the Authors

Mary J. Scifres

Mary J. Scifres is a United Methodist pastor, motivational speaker, teacher, and author who brings both read more…

B.J. Beu

B.J. Beu has served churches in the United Church of Christ for twenty years. Beyond his work on this resource, B. read more…
comments powered by Disqus