Within a matter of weeks, COVID-19 government restrictions have led thousands churches to livestream their services. This week, the Church Online Platform announced that it had reached a record-setting 7 million in church attendance worldwide, about seven times the attendance from just two weeks before.

But for some pastors and church leaders, transitioning to this new normal has been challenging or at times painful. “I’m not going to tell you our service today will be awesome and unmissable, or the best online service that will change your life. I was sick and the sermon was just ok,” tweeted New York City-based pastor Jon Tyson. “In fact I have found this online stuff sad and hard. Preaching to a camera is not what I was made for.”

As pastors and church leaders with little livestreaming experience transition to this mode of communication, they should avoid getting too caught up with perfectionism, says Daniel Fusco, the lead pastor of Crossroads Community Church in Vancouver, Washington, whose church has years of livestreaming experience.

“For every church, you need to do whatever you're doing in a way that is authentic to who you are,” said Fusco. “...People attend a specific church because it speaks to them.”

Fusco joined digital media producer Morgan Lee and editorial director Ted Olsen to discuss livestreaming best practices, how to think creatively in this medium, and what it's like for church leaders to prepare for a livestream v. a traditional Sunday morning service.

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Preaching, Technology, and COVID-19

Leading a Digital Church

Music by Sweeps

Quick to Listen is produced by Morgan Lee and Matt Linder

The transcript is edited by Bunmi Ishola

Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #205

What initially encouraged you to get online and begin using video in your pastoral approach?

Daniel Fusco: So the initial encouragement was a couple of things.

I'm in the Pacific Northwest, which is kind of statistically the least churched area in America. Now, every area is unique in this way, but we have a uniqueness for it. And so what we realized in looking at just our community, let alone our church family at Crossroads, was that there's really three types of people.

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There are people who don't go to church—they believe in Jesus, but they don't go. Statistics tell us that there's a lot of those.

There are people who can't go to church—which is people who want to go, but for whatever reason they can't. Maybe they're on vacation, maybe they have a sick kid at home, maybe that they're taking care of a loved one, or they're homebound for whatever reason.

And then there's people who won't go to church—who don't believe and they don't engage in church. They're just kind of against it.

What we've found is that all three of those groups have an internet connection. For the folks who can't go to church but want to, we realize that this is a way for us to be able to disciple our folks. The statistics tell us now that the regular church attender goes less than one and a half times a month. I’ve never had fact-checked that, I've just heard that many, many times, so I pass it along for what it's worth. For those folks, we put series together—there's a continuity to that and we’re teaching through books in the Bible, which is something that I do regularly and people were missing half the time. And so it's an opportunity for the people who can't go for whatever reason, they can stay engaged.

For the people who don't go, this is an opportunity—and people don't go for lots of different reasons. And so it's a way to be able to keep those folks being fed and engaged because, for whatever reason, they're not going.

And then for the folks who won't go to church, I think that the digital platform, the digital ministries, the easiest way to do evangelism because they might never come to your church, but they are on Facebook, they are on YouTube, they have friends who know the Lord and who go to church, and we found it to be an enormous feeder for evangelism.

One thing that John had mentioned in his tweets was this challenge of going from preaching and teaching in front of a live audience or in front of your actual congregants versus filming something over video. Can you talk about learning how to prepare for both of those different formats? What did that process look like for you?

Daniel Fusco: Crossroads is like kind of your traditional first-generation megachurch. It was founded in 1975 and grew huge. And I was the successor of Bill Richie, who's our founding pastor. And so before I got to Crossroads, I had been church planting in my home state of New Jersey and also in the San Francisco Bay area.

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Crossroads has a very large sanctuary and there are screens on the sides. And I remember when I first started at Crossroads noticing that unless somebody sat in like three rows of the sanctuary, everybody looked at the screens. And I remember being like, I wonder why they're looking over there? And then like, oh, I'm looking over there too. And what I realized is that for probably 80-90% of the sanctuary at Crossroads, people were looking at the screen.

And then one of our creative arts leaders said, “Daniel, don't forget, when you look at the camera, you're actually looking at the bulk of the people.” So in our context, it became very apparent that when I look at those cameras, there's a lot of people who are looking at the screens, and so I'm actually looking at them. And that was kind of a unique reality.

Now, obviously, for almost all pastors—I can't speak for everybody—we went into the ministry because we love God, we love people. And as I prepared for all of that's going on right now, we went and we did six services that we preached to an empty sanctuary. And it is definitely weird to preach to an empty sanctuary. Even though we have a big digital ministry and all the stuff that we do, we do it for people. I'm always reminded that.

So when you look at the cameras, you're actually looking at all your people. But I think the other side of it, we would have to remember that as pastors and preachers, we get to speak to God, but we do it in public. And so really the preaching we do is as an act of glorifying God and then people get the benefit. And so because God is the primary and people are the secondary, I have to remember that I can preach and glorify God even if no one's in the room.

And as a church planter, I actually did that a bunch, where you'd start a service and there was no one there, and you're preaching to an empty sanctuary and you watch a couple of people trickle it. And so that's a good humbling reminder of like, why are we doing all this anyway?

Are there advantages to preaching only to a camera? Are there things that you can do as a pastor and as a preacher when you only have a camera in the room that you can't do when you have a congregation full of people in pews or chairs?

Daniel Fusco: We do have a tendency to read the room, play to the room, but I think the biggest thing that I've learned over time is that in the act of proclaiming the good news of Jesus and teaching the scriptures, we have a tendency to read the room all wrong.

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Like I remember the first time I got to do a church plant when I was in my mid-20s. On the same weekend, there was a younger couple who came and visited, and then there was an older lady who was there. And all through the sermon, the younger couple just kind of stared at the wall. And the older woman was kind of very effusively agreeing with me.

And so in the back of my mind, I'm like, man, I am not doing a good job for that couple over there. This one lady, she's going to be back. And after the service, the young couple just walked out the back door and the woman came up and said, “That was one of the best sermons I ever heard, and I'm so excited about this church.” I never saw the older woman again and that young couple came back and became leaders in the church. And they told me, “When we first came in, the message was so convicting. God was just dealing with me and God was doing a work.”

And so in the end of the day, when you're not trying to read the room or you're not trying to understand what people are feeling and all of those things, you get to focus on the task at hand, which is just clearly explaining who the Lord is, what he's done, what the word of God teaches.

And I think that there is a strength to that because I always think of what God told Jeremiah as a young prophet, a young preacher, he was told not to look at their faces. And so I think sometimes as pastors, we can be too swayed by the response we're getting from the room as opposed to just getting at the task at hand.

I'm not recommending a, not being aware of what's going on either, but I think that one of the benefits is without all the fluff, things can be this a lot more focused.

In our current situation, there are definitely different people seeing the screens than may be in an ordinary setting. For instance, with families watching. Are you finding your preaching approach changing with the idea that there's probably kids watching—people with different attention spans, people with different understandings?

Daniel Fusco: We actually have Crossroads Kids also as a digital service. And we've been doing that for a while as well, because in our normal service, we would separate out kids from their parents. But parents can bring their kids in the sanctuary, and that's not a problem.

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But yeah, because you realize that it's going to be different then obviously it causes you to approach things differently. So one of the reasons I'm a big advocate of digital ministry is because for most people, when they're preaching, they just assume everybody here loves the Lord and they love this church. And I think that assumption alone, it makes us kind of a-missional in a sense, where we don't realize that our weekend gatherings, our Sunday services are opportunities to do the work of evangelism, the work of reaching lost people.

So when we started live streaming our services, we became very aware very quickly, that people would drive by a church, if they don't go to church, they have a preconceived idea about what church is. Where I live, it was extraordinarily negative. They had this very specific caricature of the worst possible version of a Christian.

But then when all of a sudden you show them your worship service, all of a sudden people are watching it cause one of their friends shared the service or whatever, they find themselves weeping during the worship time, or all of a sudden the, the sermon goes and they hear and they haven't had their appetite wet for the word of God and maybe forever. And then before they know it, they're looking forward to it.

And I meet people all the time and they're like, “So I started watching your services online. I really like your talk. I started crying during the music. Is that normal?” Like they have all these questions simply because we allowed them a view into our family.

And so for me, what I have found is that the livestream, because you realize it's not just the faithful folks who are always at the church, but that there's a wider audience, you start to talk a little differently.

Everyone is on a unique step in their faith journey, even in every church. But when you start to realize that there's a lot of people who don't know the Lord who are watching this, there's a lot of kids who are watching this, a bunch of teenagers who are there, then obviously you begin to apply the text that you're preaching in unique ways because you realize that you're speaking to a specific audience.

From a technical standpoint, could give maybe four or five things that go into a quality live stream?

Daniel Fusco: So first, obviously you need to have an internet connection because it can't be streamed without it. And then second, you need to have some sort of a recording device.

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One of the things that I love about what's going on right now as so many churches are jumping into this space is that nobody is expecting this crazy high production value. Like I think that for every church you need to do whatever you're doing in a way that is authentic to who you are. There was a number of things that changed as they became more popular, but people attend a specific church because it speaks to them.

I think that whatever somebody does, make sure it's authentic to who you are. It won't be perfect because we can't meet together, but how can we keep all these things that these are the reasons why we gather this way? There is some value in looking around what are people doing, but in a lot of ways, I believe what the Bible says, that there's one body and then we're members individually. So whether a church does a high production value or a church is doing it just straight lo-fi, it really doesn't matter.

And then the only other thing that I would say is that when you look at everything through a screen or through a camera lens, I think it's just important to look at it and say, “Is this the best way?” Like I remember when we started doing our live streaming our services, most often a preacher would have like a water bottle on the pulpit. And then someone was like, “You know that water bottle looks pretty bad through a camera. Maybe we should put a mug on the pulpit?” And so some of those little aesthetic things, just to make it look a little nicer.

But I don't think we should get hung up on kind of production value and all these things. Just make it authentic. And when it's authentic, then I think people will be blessed by it.

So I hear you, but I also have sat through bad livestreams before. So do you have any best practices with regards to things like should we shoot vertically, should we shoot horizontally? Do we need a tripod? What's going to happen if it's someone's hand? Is there, how should people be Mike lighting? Just all that type of stuff that really can impede people's concentration if it's not kind of figured out ahead of time.

Daniel Fusco: To get really technical, then if the goal is to do this the best way that you can, then the answer would be yes, get a tripod. Yes, get a DSLR camera or something that is recording in good quality. Yes, the lighting matters. So like you can go on Amazon and buy like a newer lighting device that comes out to stand. If you can get a couple of people there to help with it, then multiple cameras could look good. If you have someone who can edit it…

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I think that all of us, we want to do things excellently as unto the Lord. And that doesn't mean that excellence is our god, but it's like we want to give God our best as an act of worship. And so what you did last week, you and your team, or the leaders or whoever doing this, you should go and watch it and say, “Okay, what can we do better next time?” And little small corrections is the best way to do it.

I think with microphones, if you can get a lapel mic or if you could find a way to run a regular kind of good old fashioned show microphone, that will always sound better than just using the microphone on a camera.

All of those things, they're little things—for the people who just love the church, they'll endure it, but maybe they shouldn't have to. So I think all those little steps. And I tell a lot of pastors that you need to get the people who are tech savvy to be involved. I think that's also pretty important.

I think just taking care of your people, that's the most important thing. And then once you're doing it, how do we incrementally make it better with each time we do a live stream?

What have you found the works well live and what are things that may work better as a prerecord?

Daniel Fusco: Our Sunday services are always streamed live and we have specific aspects that are that are cutaways to our online campus hosts, because we want to always break to break down the wall of the technology. So when people are coming online and our hosts are like, “Hey, let us know who you are and where you're from?” And then our host will sometimes be like, “Hey, we just want to give a shout out to Brian from Canada joining us for the very first time.” I always like to tell people that God sees us and we want to make sure that people know that we see them as well.

Now, because we're unable to meet, we prerecorded everything and we’ve spliced it together cause we have really good video folks. But I think that you can do everything live. Like normally we do everything in one big take, it's just a Sunday service, flaws and all. Because you know, the gospel is not that we are perfect, it says Jesus is perfect and he forgives us in our imperfections. And so we don't really have any problem with being flawed in public because we just figured we're doing that every day.

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As churches move into a place where this livestream is basically replacing their Sunday service, how would you suggest that they mentally prepare for that live stream? And what ways would you say that their thinking should differ from the normal Sunday morning prep that they might do?

Daniel Fusco: It's not about which one is better. Right now, church is being only digitally. I've never advocated a digital-only strategy. There are churches that that's what they do, everything is online or just an app. I've never advocated that, but saying which one you like better, that initial judgment is already poo-pooing.

This is what God has given us today. You could only do digital right now. So it is different. You just have to embrace that it's different. It might not be your preference. That's fine, but this is just all we have. And so you just have to jump in and say, “Lord, bear the fruit you want to bear in my life. Do what you want to do.” And just embrace it for what it is.

I think at the end of all this, a lot of churches that have not done anything digitally will continue to use the digital as a strategy, which has always been my recommendation. Like it's great if you want to do evangelism, it's a great strategy if you want to be able to care for your people as they have sick kids and they're traveling and they're shut-ins and there's this going on or that going on.

Right now we're forced to have to navigate the space in order to be able to take care of our people. And so I just say just you have to embrace it for what it is and figure out, how can I do this the best and most authentic way possible in this moment, because this is the only option that I have.

What do you think is most likely to be forgotten as something to build into the system?

Daniel Fusco: So obviously the idea of the community piece to it. So I love the idea of the multiple zoom rooms. If you're on Facebook, you can open up a Facebook online group for your church so that people can congregate there. So finding those ways to do community.

In all the streaming services, there is a conversation or chat function. So one of the things that we do is that when I'm reading scripture, there'll be hosts who will be posting the scripture. And if someone shares a prayer request, we'll have those hosts will say, “Hey, I'm going to send you a direct message” to be able to connect with them offline.

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What I always tell people is that even though we can't gather together, if someone has a need and you're all there then you can literally pick up the phone and call people. So I think we have to remember that all the analog ways of doing ministry still exist. You can pray with somebody over the phone, you can pray for somebody in a direct message.

I think one of the things that we've done in live services, not only digitally, is during the message say, “If you have any questions, ask the questions and our pastor is going to later record a video. He's going to answer your questions.” So it gives the opportunity to have all the discussions stuff.

Don't neglect the Lord's table. One of the things we do on communion Sundays at Crossroads is we tell them, “If you're joining us online, today is a communion Sunday. So we're going to partake of the elements together. So go get what you can use for that.” We're just including them into it.

For offering and generosity, you could set up online giving as well. So all the things that you would normally do, I think you can still do. You just have to kind of think through it like. How would this play if this were only doing this digitally?

Is there anything that you're looking forward to? Anything that this is giving you an opportunity to do as a pastor that you couldn't have done during kind of the regular everyday ministry?

Daniel Fusco: Because right now we're limited to a digital-only strategy, we're going to take all the next steps with what we're doing digitally because it's the only option. We have to be able to care for the Crossroads family and reach out into the community at a time where people are asking big questions, seeking answers, which I believe that Jesus is ultimately the answer. For me, it's a great opportunity to really take all that we're doing digitally to the next level.

Given we've always been that we need to have a digital component to kind of everything, we want to have a digital counterpart to everything that we can do in the house, because I don't expect technology to slow down. I believe that ultimately the Church of Jesus Christ will be the last bastion of true and bodied community that will be left. Ultimately, the body of Christ together is the key.

I think for especially the younger generation, the digital space, that is their native language. And because God is incarnational, I just think it's important for the people of God in whatever tribe and persuasion to be incarnational. Not only digitally, but be able to speak that language fluently, to be able to reach not only the younger, but an emerging generation that is more technologically connected, even if we don't believe it's the same connection as it is interpersonally. If Jesus tarries, in order to be able to do ministry and reach the emerging generation, we have to be digitally literate, even if it's not our native tongue.

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Can you just talk about the tension that I'm sure a lot of church leaders feel right now? Where they want people to stay invested in the livestream and continue this touchpoint that they have with the church that they go to, but they also want to communicate the importance of in-person meeting and prioritizing that?

Daniel Fusco: I always like to remind people that the church actually didn't create consumers. Our culture created consumers and our God is a Redeemer. God's heart is to redeem a consumeristic culture.

What I always tell people is that if somebody would rather watch Crossroads online than come to Crossroads, that's actually not their fault. That's my fault because I'm actually not giving them in person something so much more substantial than just worship, sacraments, and the Word. Like we'd like to think that when we gathered together it is a community, but is it really? Are we just people in one space or are there real relationships being built?

What we have found is that even though we offer the live stream, we've grown through all these years because when people are online, they miss their church family. They want to be there.

So for us, it became like a challenge. Like if all we are is great worship and good preaching, then yeah, consumers are just going to consume that. But if the church is truly the people of God gathered together in the name of Jesus, empowered by the spirit, learning the word of God, it has to be something so much more substantial when we gathered together.

So is there tension? Yes. I always say that our job is not to resolve the tension. Our job is to learn how to manage it, and we don't want to get too far on one side or the other. We want to be right in that sweet spot. Embracing that the church gathers and the church scatters. But we can also gather in a scattered way for different, real reasons. And so our job is just to figure out how to feel comfortable in Christ, in the tension of what this moment is, and how this is all working. [unsure of that last work: timestamp - 33.38]

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Livestream offers a real opportunity for innovation. What are some creative ways for church leaders to lean into this process and what type of risks might you suggest that they take?

Daniel Fusco: Anytime you have a limitation, you have two options. You can either just complain about it or you can say, well, given my limitations, I'm going to figure out a way to get this thing done.

The whole swath of what is digital ministry creates the opportunity for innovation and really a lot of it is just trying different things that you think would make sense and just giving it a good, old-fashioned try.

For all of us, we moved through three categories. We start with orientation, and then we move into imitation, and then we landed at origination. So like if you started playing the guitar, you pick it up, you learn what the strings are, you learned some chords. Then you start to learn all [your favorite artists’] solos and all their licks and all that stuff. And then the people who keep playing through, they end up finding their own space.

And so I think with the digital thing, if someone's brand new, right now just get oriented. And then as you get a little bit more comfortable in the space, you start looking around. What are other people doing? Whose digital stuff do I enjoy and how can I create something like that? That's a great thing. And then if you keep going with it, eventually you find that you're doing things that is unique to who you are.

And so I think you just have to be okay with trying and failing and adjusting and course correcting. You're going to fail. Then just fail forward. Like learn from it and just keep moving.

What do we want to make sure that our church leaders and pastors are asking their congregations to be doing digitally? In other words, is there a way of participating in worship and togetherness that we have to kind of learn how to do?

Daniel Fusco: I think the first thing that we have to do is we just have to let everyone know that this is going to be a temporary scenario, and because it's temporary in the short-term we have to do some unique things.

So like at worship times we say, “if you're in front of your device right now, I want you to stand on up.” Or if you have a time where people are kneeling and praying, say, “If you can kneel right next to your device right now.” Just try and make it as normal as it can be in an abnormal scenario. And I think that that's a huge thing that we can do to help folks.

And I think we just need to ask them to keep loving God and loving one another. I think in this time of self-quarantining or stay-at-home orders, we want to be able to leverage the time and make it real intentional so that we can grow through this and not be languishing through it.