This message is from the Worship and Music Action Team and Rev. Claire about our plans for online worship going forward into the next church year. We sent a message to our most frequent Zoomers (usually about 40 or so each Sunday) before sharing this message with the rest of the congregation.
To recap the past year, as our response to the pandemic shifted, your Follen staff, volunteers and minister transitioned from solely Zoom worship to a synchronous, multi-platform experience. When using one platform–either online only or in person only–it is easy to know who and where the audience is and how to give them a quality experience. As we began this church year in September 2021, our goal was to offer a synchronous online AND in person worship service that was excellent for both audiences. The Worship and Music Action Team spent the year evaluating how effectively this goal was met and how we can continue to offer high quality worship going forward.
At the beginning of the year, we experimented with multi-platform Zoom and outdoor worship. The outdoor element added a heavy lift for staff and volunteers–both in time, energy, and quite literally with the amount of technology and furniture that had to be moved outdoors every Sunday morning and back indoors as soon as the service was over. In addition, streaming simultaneously to Zoom from the outdoors proved very hard to do well–the sound quality was bad, the wifi barely reached, the audio was reliant on long extension cords, squirrels!, etc.
In October we moved in person worship indoors and continued offering the service synchronously online via Zoom. We had new technology–three new cameras and a control system chosen by Follenite Howie Bernstein, as well as a screen in the sanctuary that allowed us to “bring the outside in” and Zoom in worship leaders. However, this simultaneous multi-platform A/V challenge overwhelmed the former staff person in charge of Sunday morning A/V. Many sanctuary and Zoom A/V failures happened during this time–folks not being able to hear in the sanctuary or on Zoom, feedback noises, mics going out randomly, folks chaotically being spotlighted or unmuted–the audio issues were constant, and we heard how challenging this was for every type of attendee.
There are more issues with synchronous audio. When we were Zoom only, we’d often record live music ahead of time and then stream the video through Zoom. The reason for pre-recording is because when live music is transmitted through Zoom, the audio becomes choppy and unpleasant (Zoom compresses audio to filter out background noise–good for a solo speaking voice, bad for the complex sounds in live music). Because of that, our Zoom attendees were not hearing the same quality of beautiful sound that our sanctuary attendees experienced. Another frequently occurring issue involved Zoom attendees on different devices–for example, a laptop vs an iPad–having different abilities and experiences on Zoom, as the technology works differently depending on which device is used, and if the user is in a browser or the Zoom app. This difference was very hard on the Zoom ushers, especially, who were trying to help everyone manage technology that the end user also controls. In addition, the A/V staff person cannot be present to the Zoom experience, if they are trying to maximize the quality of the in person experience, and vice versa. Either way, quality is impacted.
As Worship and Music received copious feedback from Follenites and staff people over the course of the year, we considered our options. We had not realized when we made the decision to try synchronous online and live worship that we had chosen to start with the most challenging multi-platform modality. It is very hard, even with extensive resources, to create a truly “hybrid” experience.
We considered moving away from the Zoom “meeting” model and upgrading to a webinar model in which attendees cannot be heard or seen; staff and volunteers would have to learn an entirely new software. This felt less than ideal as the main positive comment Follenites had about Zoom is feeling more connected to other attendees through video and breakout rooms. We considered streaming live to Youtube or Facebook; the challenge there is we would only be able to use music in the worship that we had copyright for. Churches can use any music in worship; however online platforms only allow copyrighted material to be shared with permission. The problem exists even with classical music in the public domain–we have several times had videos removed because Shaylor Lindsay’s talented playing of a piece by Bach or Beethoven sounded too much like a published copyrighted version by a well-known pianist!
So, after analyzing the successes and challenges of this year, the Worship and Music Action Team, in collaboration with Rev. Claire, staff and other volunteers, are going to move towards pairing our in person sanctuary worship with an asynchronous online worship offering. This means that our in person worship will happen as usual on Sundays at 10:30 am in the sanctuary, and we will record it using the original audio and our excellent cameras. The music and video recording will be higher quality than it is through Zoom. Our A/V staff person, Lucas Som-Oeur, will edit the recording as needed and have it ready by mid-week. Our plans are still forming; an idea we have considered is sharing the video at a specific time each week–perhaps Wednesday evening, or the following Sunday–and supporting the creation of a team that can facilitate a Zoom “coffee hour.”
Of course, in the event that the pandemic surges in a dangerous way again, our worship can and will pivot back to Zoom only, as directed by Follen’s Safety Team.
We’ll need your help to continue to keep offering online worship opportunities. Are you interested in supporting asynchronous online community offerings by being a Zoom host or usher, facilitating a conversation, or working with video? Or, are you planning to transition back to in person worship attendance as you are able? Please, let us know!
Worship and Music Action Team (WMAT) Chair, Melissa Howe on behalf of WMAT