Expanding Your Worship Space - No Walls Required

Nate Abrahamson (Cottge Grove, Wisconsin, USA)

Archived discussion

About the presenter

Nate Abrahamson is the Associate Pastor at Abiding Shepherd Lutheran Church in Cottage Grove, Wisconsin. Abiding Shepherd is a Christian community that makes extensive use of visual media and technology for studying and sharing the Good News. Nate has been serving as a pastor at Abiding Shepherd since he graduated from Bethany Lutheran Theological Seminary in 2012. He, his wife Stella and daughter Ruthie live in Cottage Grove.

It's Time To Expand

"You know, I've noticed that the worship services have really been filling up lately. As we keep on growing and having new faces attend worship, we're going to need to start talking about expanding the worship area." This was the sort of comment I was hearing frequently during 2019 at the congregation I serve. Our worship services, especially our early service, were full almost every service. With a great deal of growth potential in our community, it seemed to be time to look into expanding our physical footprint. An expansion of our worship space seemed like an important potential step for continuing to grow and share the Gospel with more people.

With the arrival of COVID-19 in 2020, our discussion of expansion did not go away, but it took on a new shape. We saw the need to expand our worship space in a different way. While we've been livestreaming our worship services and sharing sermon videos for years, the "Safer at Home" order in Wisconsin this past spring brought us to a new level of worshiping online. For 2 months our entire congregation was worshipping exclusively online. Even now, months after we resumed holding in-person worship services, a large portion of our membership is worshipping online due to COVID-19 concerns. What's been amazing is that with so many shifting to worshipping online during the pandemic, our overall worship attendance has not dropped off. As a matter of fact, at times we've been averaging more people in attendance than on a normal in person Sunday. For example, we estimate that our online Easter attendance was approximately 40% higher this year than usual. With so many worshipping online and with so much potential to share the Gospel with new faces, it looks like it's time to talk about expanding our worship space, online.

As with any good expansion, this new worship space needs to be designed well. For the new expansion to help facilitate growth and sharing the Gospel with new faces, there are a number of considerations to take into account:

  • What structural elements need to be in place for a high-quality worship space?
  • What can be done to make sure this space fits well with the existing space?
  • What potential drawbacks might arise from this expanded worship space and how might we overcome them?
  • How do we fill this new worship space with new faces?
Let's work together to answer these questions about your online worship space addition. Undoubtedly there will be important considerations to take into account beyond what is noted below. Based on the unique personality of your congregation, some of these may not apply or may apply differently to your congregation. These points are meant simply to help you begin or continue designing your online worship space addition.

What structural elements need to be in place for a high-quality worship space?

  • High Quality Picture – Make sure to use an HD camera. Even if you have a camera that was quite expensive when it was purchased a few years ago, it still might be time to upgrade. Thankfully, one of the great blessings of recording in 2020 is that quality HD cameras are relatively inexpensive.
  • High Quality Sound – Place the microphone on or near the speaker and connect the microphone directly into the camera. When the sound is not directly connected to the camera, the camera's microphone is picking up all the sounds in the room. Not only will the pastor sound like he is on speaker phone the entire time, but any other potentially distracting sounds (i.e. children crying, hymnal falling, etc.) will also be picked up on the video. Running the sound cable directly into the camera makes for a much better and less distracting viewing experience.
  • High Streaming Quality – One of the quickest ways to turn off an online worshipper is to have a stream that buffers constantly – this shows up as a frozen picture and a little revolving circle. To avoid buffering, it's important to be sending your video via a high-quality internet connection. When considering the quality of your internet, the download speed, which is often promoted by the internet provider, is really not what's important. Rather, what is necessary is a fast upload speed with a stable connection. Most streaming providers suggest an upload speed of at least 13 Mbps but there are likely much faster options available in your area. We just upgraded the internet at our church to an upload speed of 200 Mbps. Amazingly, this sort of upgrade didn't even cost any more than what we had previously paid. The stability of the connection is also important. A provider may have good speed but a feed that is unstable. To test your speed and connection stability, simply Google "test my internet speed" and a number of resources should appear in the search options.

  • An Archived Video of the Service – It seems these days all the focus is on livestreaming your service. But when the "Safer at Home" order went into effect in Wisconsin, we actually stopped streaming our service live. We decided that if no one was actually going to be there in person, it would make more sense to pre-record the service. We would then "Premiere" the service video on Facebook and our website at a specific time on Sunday morning so we could all still worship together. We made this adjustment because a video that has already been uploaded online is always far less likely to buffer than a livestreamed video. When we resumed in-person worship in June we stopped pre-recording our service but still use the archived service video. We announce every week that for anyone who has difficulty streaming worship live or missed worship for another reason, the archive of that service is available that same Sunday on our website by 10:30 a.m. If you are unable to get quality internet or most of your members do not have quality internet, you may want to consider premiering the recording of your service at a specific time rather than trying to stream it live.

What can be done to make sure this space fits well with the existing space?

  • Invite People to "Worship Online" Instead of "Watching Worship" – Words matter. This slight change of phrase might seem insignificant but changing this phrase makes a big difference. The phrase "Watch Worship" communicates a passive experience where a person is merely watching worship but not worshipping themselves. In contrast, "Worship Online" describes an experience where the person is actively worshipping, just in a different part of the worship area.
  • Find A Good Camera Angle – While multiple camera angles are a nice feature, they are not absolutely necessary. What matters is that the angle you choose is not awkward for the online worshipper. It may be convenient to put the camera just below the pulpit or in the balcony, but staring at the pastor's chin or the top of his head can be uncomfortable for the online worshipper. A good camera angle is one that is on a similar plane as the pastor. It is fine for the pastor to be slightly higher or slightly lower. The camera can be slightly to one side or the other as well. The key is to avoid abrupt angles that can be distracting.
  • Use the Appropriate Amount of Zoom – Strive to zoom in with your camera enough so the pastor looks about as far away as he would if you were sitting in a middle-to-front pew. If the camera is in the back of the church and zoomed out, the online worshipper may just feel like they are watching other people worship. On the other hand, being zoomed out just enough to see a few people worshipping or utilizing a wide shot camera occasionally can remind the online worshipper that they are worshipping together with those who are there in person.

  • Occasionally Look At the Camera and Address the Online Worshippers – This is such a simple thing but it makes a huge difference. I've had so many people tell me that when I simply look at the camera a few times in the service, or when I look straight at the camera to greet everyone worshipping online and tell them I'm happy they are there, it makes them feel so much more connected. I've even had a long-distance online worshipper ask if occasionally those who are worshipping in person could turn around and wave to the online worshippers. It's simple but it does wonders for connecting participants.
  • Provide Worship Materials so the Online Worshippers Can Participate – Part of the beauty of Lutheran worship is the emphasis that we do not merely watch worship take place, but we are there to participate. There are ways for online worshippers to participate as well. Perhaps you send an email out each weekend that not only includes a link to your livestream video, but has the worship folder attached as well. Maybe you email your members or include a link in the comments of your video inviting online worshippers to request that you send them a hymnal to use at home. Or, if you have capable livestreaming software, you can overlay the liturgy, hymns and readings right in the video.

  • Create A Way for Online Worshippers to Interact – This has been one of our most exciting new developments. We now embed our livestream on a free resource called "Church Online Platform" (their website is: https://churchonlineplatform.com/). One of the many great things about the Church Online Platform is that it gives the online worshippers the ability to chat before and after worship or during the service if they'd like. Not only does this provide a way for those worshipping online to chat with each other, but this has given us a way for online worshippers to interact with in-person worship as well. For instance, we take prayer requests at the beginning of our worship service. Now with online chat we have a person who is attending in-person worship monitor the online chat so they can share any prayer requests that are made by an online worshipper. At the end of the service we also give worshippers the opportunity to ask questions about the service. Again, a person in attendance monitors the chat so that questions from online worshippers are asked in person. Special "moments" can also be added to the service providing the opportunity for worshippers to give their offering electronically or to send a private message to the pastor. These interactive features not only connect our online worshippers but send a clear message that the church is about so much more than the four walls of any one building. As we strive to spread the Gospel into the communities and world around is, this is a significant enhancement in perspective.

What potential drawbacks might arise from this expanded worship space and how might we overcome them?

  • There Are Some Aspects to Worship That Can't Be Achieved Online – No matter how great the worship space we build online is, it still can't replace physically interacting with people, singing and praying with our brothers and sisters in Christ and celebrating the Lord's Supper together as the body of Christ. It is definitely still ideal to come together in person with other Christians. But for those who are worshipping from a distance or for those who are not comfortable worshipping in person due to COVID-19 concerns, there are things we can do to help fill the void. For instance, services like Zoom and Google Meet provide ways for people to meet and even have Bible Studies online. Our in-person small group Bible studies have provided a way for members who aren't yet comfortable returning to full in-person worship to connect with a small number of other Christians in a socially distanced setting. Since the beginning of the pandemic we've also utilized SignUpGenius.com to set up individual household communion on Communion Sundays. This provides a way for families who are worshipping online to partake in the Lord's Supper. Consider the specific needs and personality of your congregation and be creative!
  • Some May Start to Prefer Online Worship – One of the regular concerns I hear about online worship is that people may begin to prefer worshipping online over worshipping in person. It's also possible that people may claim they are worshipping online when they really aren't worshipping at all. But one of the many things this year of isolation and distancing has made evident is that we really need to spend time with other people. I've heard people say over and over again, "I really miss seeing more people." While it's possible that online worship may be preferred at times by worshippers, I'm convinced that more often than not worshipping online will actually make people hungrier for coming together with other Christians. It's like when we video chat with our family or friends. We don't say "Okay, that's enough. I don't need to visit them now." Seeing them online is nice but it makes us look forward all the more to seeing them in person.

How do we fill this new worship space with new faces?

  • FRAN (Friends Relatives Acquaintances Neighbors) Evangelism Works Even Online – It's common knowledge that a personal invitation from a FRAN is the most effective way to see new faces in your worship area. The same goes for online worship. Thankfully, with online worship, inviting a friend to worship with you is incredibly easy. Consider sending an email out to each of your members with the link to the livestream page and another after Sunday with the service archive link. I have had a number of members tell me that they love receiving these emails because they can so simply forward them on to someone they'd like to invite to worship. Also, consider posting your service and sermons on Facebook. Hitting "Share" is an extremely simple way to invite others to church.
  • Use Facebook Live, Premiere and "Watch Parties" – When a video is streaming live on Facebook, the video appears in the Newsfeed of Facebook users. There's just something about seeing a video in your newsfeed that makes a person want to check it out. Tools like setting a video to "Premiere" or encouraging your members to start "Watch Parties" notifies those who follow your page and those who are friends with your members that a new video is happening and invites them to join in.
  • Include Follow-Up Links – Whether it's in the email that is sent out to members or in the comments below a video posted on Facebook, include links to more information about your church and provide a way for people to reach out to the pastor. Remind the online worshipper about these links and encourage them to get connected. As with a visitor to the physical building, it is our hope that a visitor to online worship would return for worship next week and eventually find their new church home with us.

What additional considerations would you add to this list? What helpful insights have you gained from your own experience streaming worship, worshipping online or viewing other online videos? I'd love to hear your insights so we might work together in expanding our worship space online – no walls required!

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Philip Wels 2020-10-20 2:04:29pm
Awesome write up Nate! I love your point about "Words matter." I recently saw a post on the WELS Intersections FB group about not using "Join us" but rather more inviting, proactive verbiage: "We're saving you a seat...", "Be our guest...", "Come for...", "Don't miss..." etc.

Are there other phrases, specific for online worship, that we should consider using/avoiding?
And for online participation, what tools/advice/suggestions exist for keeping worshipers engaged and free from distractions?
I know our stream viewership peaks during the sermon, but drops off during the liturgy and hymns, Any advice for helping worshipers stay for the whole service?

Thanks again!
Nate Abrahamson (Abiding Shepherd) 2020-10-21 3:20:15am
Thank you Philip! Regarding other words we should consider using, I've made it my practice to always say one or more times during a service something along the lines of, "Whether you're here in person, worshipping from home or wherever you may be, thank you for being here to worship today." Not only does that express to the online worshipper that they are appreciated, but it also encourages all participants to remember a bigger picture view of what the church is, that it is the body of Christ worshipping "together" all over the world. I also, when encouraging worshippers to share the service or sermon, will encourage them to invite their friends to "join them for worship" or to "worship together with them" rather than simply sending them the link so they can "watch worship."

Regarding online participation, a few initial thoughts come to mind:
1) Some families/individuals may want to consider utilizing the archive of the service. As mentioned in the presentation, our worship service is currently made available in the archive by 10:30 a.m. Some of the feedback that I've received from families who are worshipping from home is that the archived service works best for them as they are able to wait until the family gets settled and ready. In other words, as a parent you can tell your child, "worship doesn't start until you're ready to pay attention."
2) Encourage families to not overlook what children are absorbing even when it doesn't look like they are paying attention. This past spring when our entire church was worshipping at home, I was able to worship at home with my family. My little girl would set her dolls out for church and would be hard at work in her play kitchen but she was also listening very closely to the service and observing how my wife and I were singing and praying right along.
3) Review the service to reduce the ways where an online participant may feel left out. For instance, if the readings are not being displayed directly in the livestream, the online worshipper would have difficulty taking part. The more they are able to see and hear clearly, the more likely they are to stay engaged. One of the more challenging times is when the Lord's Supper is being distributed. Perhaps featuring uplifting music or displaying encouraging Bible verses at this time would be helpful.

Mark Meyer (Immanuel Lutheran Greenville, WI) 2020-10-21 1:50:11pm
We stream to both Youtube and Facebook at the same time using "Restream" its very affordable and it helps us monitor the stream as the service is going on. So all we do is send our stream to "Restream" and they do the stream to FaceBook and YouTube.
Nate Abrahamson (Abiding Shepherd) 2020-10-21 2:22:46pm
Thank you for sharing Mark! I'll look into restream. It looks like they provide the ability to not only stream to multiple platforms, but to chat with people on multiple platforms as well. That would be a great addition!
James Aderman 2020-11-01 11:26:57pm
Thanks for your article. You offer practical advice from the perspective of a person who is working in this ministry. I referenced your article in a post to Facebook's WELS Intersection (11/02/20). By the way, WELS is in the group's name, but ELS brothers and sisters and welcome to join.
Nate Abrahamson (Abiding Shepherd) 2020-11-02 3:48:46pm
You're welcome. Thank for you sharing and thank you for letting me know about the group! As a result, I just joined the group and am looking forward to seeing what discussions regarding the intersection of faith and technology take place there!
Jewel Heiting (Martin Luther College) 2020-11-03 4:46:17pm
Nate Abrahamson,

What a great article! I could tell that you really focused on how we can make worship more available to everyone. I really liked the part where you mentioned that wording is important. By telling people to “Worship online instead of watching worship”, you were really able to show good ways of how to help pastors to be able to continue to expand the number of people who are watching the service while continuing to stay safe.

I did have a question about how more people are coming to church. This especially evident because of the fact of current Pandemic that we are in. Do you think that this is similar to when 9/11 happened, and several more people came to church? Do you think that this could be because of them wanting more hope, or because they think that the world is ending, so they want to get to the right place when they die?

Thank you for the article! I learned about how to run a congregation efficiently.
Nate Abrahamson (Abiding Shepherd) 2020-11-09 3:53:01am
Jewel, thank you for your comments. The question you ask about what is drawing more people to worship online during this time is in interesting one. There likely a number of contributors to the larger numbers of online worshippers, especially early on in the pandemic. Some of those contributors include:
- with people staying home rather than going out and about, people who were not regular church goers had more downtime to worship online
- those who did not have an online worship option from their own church would participate in the online worship we offered
- some would worship online with a number of churches and enjoy a sort of online worship buffet.

But in addition to these contributors, I think you are right in that there may be some similarities to what took place during 9/11. However, rather than seeing it as one of the specific reasons you suggested, I think it's likely that people are simply looking for "something" right now. Those who don't have an active relationship with God often don't really know what they need but when their life gets turned upside down, whether it's a lost sense of security due to a terrorist attack or an unimaginable pandemic, they can sense that they need something to help sort everything out. They then have an increased openness to worship and learning about God.

Thank you for your question!
McKenzie McIntyre (Martin Luther College ) 2020-11-05 4:56:48pm
Mr. Nate Abrahamson,

Your article about the new normal churches have been created over the span of this pandemic was very informational. I remember in the beginning of the pandemic when everything was at a stand still because not only did we think it wasn’t going to last that long but, but we simply just didn’t know what to do. And then all of a sudden in my area (Lake County IL) churches slowly began to figure out the whole online worship through trial and error. That’s why all your points above to a successful and efficient worship stream is great because those were the difficulties last spring with many churches. Additionally, the downsides are quite vexing because I have also heard the talk about once this pandemic is over will people continue to stay at home? And is that because of laziness or still fear of the virus even after a vaccine? Whatever the case might be I would agree with your statement that this giant break from what we used to know is making us crave our traditional lives before the pandemic. All in all it’s crazy to think how far technology has come in a very little time, yet the timing to be able to function and rely on technology is way perfect. I enjoyed your article very much.

In regards to the more physical things in worship that can be practiced over the computer, take Holy communion for example, can you explain more about the method you mentioned about taking Holy Communion?

Thank you for writing such an informational piece, it is definitely wisdom through trial and error that we know how to effectively put on a worship service
Nate Abrahamson (Abiding Shepherd) 2020-11-09 3:59:12am
McKenzie, thank you for your comments. To your question regarding taking Communion, since the pandemic began we started offering Individual Household Communion on our regular Communion weekends. We use signupgenius.com and create a signup where families can signup for a 15 minute time slot where they can stop by church to receive the Lord's Supper. We ask that they come at the beginning of the time slot so they are able to finish before the next household arrives. When they come to church we do a short confession/absolution, the words of institution and then the take the Lord's Supper. We lay out the elements on a napkin for the individuals, step back more than 6 feet and direct them to "take and eat" from there. This way we've been able to always stay under whatever limits have been in place (in WI we were limited to 10 people in a space at 1 time), provided a way for families to keep their distance while receiving the Lord's Supper with even the pastor adequately socially distanced.

Thank you for your question!
Kirsten Sayles (Martin Luther College) 2020-11-05 6:01:35pm

Pastor Abrahamson:

I couldn't agree more on digital worship being a great tool in expanding the worship space. In high school, I was very involved in streaming our chapel services and even a few church services for a local church. The quick transition to digital church services has certainly helped many people with their faith in a time where doubt and fear are within and all around.

What you have written helps any church looking to start up their own digital service or improve their digital service. This has been especially important with ongoing events making physical services more difficult or impossible to attend. However, when worship goes back to being unrestricted, do you think this will continue to be a way of outreach, or will congregations stop using it or actively trying to improve it? I would like to see such a useful tool continuing to be used, but I don’t know if it is practical when in-person worship is back to normal, even if in-person is better.

Thank you for putting all of this information out and teaching how this can be a useful tool.
Nate Abrahamson (Abiding Shepherd) 2020-11-09 4:06:23am
Kirsten, thank you for your comments. It is my hope that churches will continue to utilize and expand worship online in this way. Even when in-person worship returns to pre-COVID levels, the truth is that creating a solid online worship experience is not difficult, especially once it is already established. Quality online worship mostly requires a few simple, albeit, well thought through steps. For a relatively minor investment, the outreach potential is huge. I'm planning to continue to consider creative ways to utilize online worship for spreading the Gospel. I know some churches have been using online worship as a way to open up paths for new satellite or church plants. Perhaps that could be a strategy for some churches to employ? Perhaps there are other strategies that haven't been thought of yet? God has given us a great tool and I'd love to see what happens when we take the talents God has given them and invest them for His glory!

Thank you again for your question.