Church: Before A Live Studio Audience By Greg Sanders
Is it possible that even a small crowd of people returning to in-person services can help you reach a greater number of people watching online? On the second Sunday our church reopened for in-person services during the COVID-19 crisis I immediately had a heightened awareness that things really are different (at least temporarily). The chairs in the room are appropriately spaced and the crowd that day was about 30% of what I was accustomed to seeing before the crisis hit. As I worshipped in the building that day, I became keenly aware that I would have more of our church family watching this service online than attending in the physical building. We have employed live streaming for years, but in reality, our largest crowd was always in the room. A typical week for us would be 350 people in the building and maybe 15-20 watching online. Now this trend has completely reversed. The question in my mind became this: knowing our audience has changed, what do we need to change? Immediately the phrase “filmed before a live studio audience” came to mind.
I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s where many of my favorite television shows would announce right along with the title of their show the fact that it was “filmed before a live studio audience.” Shows like Good Times, The Jeffersons, Sanford and Son and I Love Lucy were among my most favorites to watch. As a young viewer, I did not watch the shows because they were filmed this way, but as an adult I realize that they all grabbed and kept my attention because there was something alluring about this type of filming. Filming before a live studio audience has not lost its appeal. Some of the most popular shows ever like Friends and Cheers were filmed before a live studio audience. This approach to making television shows is still used today.
Now I am not suggesting that we shape the culture of our churches to match that of a Hollywood sitcom. I will not be arguing that we should reformat our order of service to match the cadence of any television show. I am convinced, however, that as many pastors and churches have been taking advice on production equipment, so there may be something to be learned from other methodologies employed as well. Pastors have said for decades that the method of presenting the gospel will continually change, but the message will never change. I agree with that statement, and in this current environment, I find myself prayerfully searching for any method that can be employed for Kingdom purposes.
Pastor, the church services you are hosting today are not just for the audience that you can see; it is also for the larger audience you cannot see. The audience that shows up is not just attending to receive for themselves, but are inadvertently
becoming vital additions and enhancements to the service itself. The in person audience, though small, adds energy, demands authenticity, and serves as an indicator as to whether the speaker is connecting with the viewers out in television land. Overnight, the audience has become more than just spectators or recipients. The audience has become imperative participants in the delivery of the culture, the message, and the experience a church provides.
How can the feel of a live studio audience enhance our communication to our church and to the unchurched who tune in? Is it possible that even a small crowd of people returning can help you reach a greater number of people watching online? I hope to offer a few considerations that have helped me improve both my approach and my mental health over the past few weeks. I hope at least one of them will be helpful to you.
1. A live audience should add energy to your preaching.
For about eight weeks or more, many of us were preaching to a camera. We learned the importance of staying focused on the camera as much as possible. One training session for pastors featured one of today’s most popular pastors urging speakers to “speak to the camera as if you were speaking to a person.” Another person said, “See the camera as a person and even give it a name.” I personally felt drawn to use my notes as little as possible in order to keep eye contact with my audience and not to commit the cardinal sin of rambling on too much. I was convinced the moment I looked away from the camera was the moment people would turn the channel or scroll to a different video. We learned that in the online world people have the option to turn you off, speed you up, or mute you if you ramble. However, now that in-person services are back, you have an excuse to look away from the camera. You can read expressions on people’s faces (maybe just their foreheads if wearing a mask) and even get feedback from the amen corner (assuming you have one of those). The presence of even a small crowd has allowed preachers to receive immediate feedback on how well their message is connecting to the onlooking audience. You immediately know if the joke that was funny in your mind is really funny at all. In person, you usually get a few courtesy laughs. Online, people just think you are dumb. Bottom line, the crowd in front of you helps you minister to the crowd beyond you. This is a gift we ministers must utilize as we endeavor to connect in these new times.
2. A live studio audience enhances authenticity.
I have a confession. During the days of no in-person services, I have enjoyed the option of re-dos and editing. More than once, I have stopped speaking mid-sentence and then restarted the whole thing a few seconds later. I knew that we could edit out my bloopers. I have recently learned that my youth pastor has a whole folder full of “Pastors
Bloopers.” My guess is your staff may have an arsenal of yours too. I really enjoyed my blooper-free sermons we aired during those weeks. Recently at an in-person service, we were honoring our graduates. Off the cuff, I referred to how long it had been since I graduated from high school. I made the statement and moved on. Two days later our team enlightened me to the fact I had missed my high school graduation date by 10 years. I never caught it. Everyone else did. I confessed my sin on social media that day and it was one of the most trafficked posts I had in weeks. What is the lesson? People connect with our bloopers. People enjoy the authenticity of our mishaps. I am not suggesting that you should preplan some mess ups. However, I am finding comfort in the idea that God can redeem my mess ups as connection points for our church community. The in-person experience forced me to move on without correction. The live studio audience kept my team from cleaning up my mess and caused me to deliver a messy moment with which people can identify. Obviously, the example I am sharing is harmless and not very spiritual, but authenticity is a gift people are longing to receive.
3. A live studio audience adds community.
Producer Anthony Ferreri believes that a live audience actually connects those who are not in the room with those who are in the room. He is on record saying, “Knowing that a show is shot in front of a live audience adds a sense of community or camaraderie in that real people may find the same things funny as you. Knowing that you share the same sense of humor with someone, even when that person is in reality the sound of someone laughing and not physically present with you, has a strange bonding aspect to it, both with the audience and with the show.” One of the longings in every congregation through this crisis has been the desire to create and enhance connection and community. The idea that a small portion of your church in your building responding to the message, participating in worship, and celebrating achievements can actually create community is encouraging to me personally. I also believe that if those in attendance were aware of this dynamic, they would see themselves as not only participants, but contributors to the church body’s sense of community. It has long been understood that engagement drives attendance. How do you engage parishioners on Sunday morning in a time when you’re not offering the buffet of ministries with serving opportunities to which everyone is accustomed? Let people know that your attendance, your participation, your giving, and response is actually moving the needle of the church.
4. A live studio audience can influence the direction of a service.
People in the room always bring their real struggles and pain. For the overwhelming majority of us, we are in the habit of listening to the Holy Spirit in our in-person services to sense how we can best minister to people through the pre-planned program.
Hopefully the real people with needs in the room will remind us of the many people with needs watching online. Just as you are accustomed to listening to the Holy Spirit speak to you as you pray for the needs in the room, I challenge all of us to allow the Holy Spirit to use us to speak to and pray for those watching online. Just as the Holy Spirit directs you to pray for those in the room, the Holy Spirit can also direct you to which elements of your message are most impactful for those present in the service that day. You have no idea at that moment who is watching. You have no idea which part of your message is going to be life changing at that moment. The Holy Spirit does know who is listening and He can use you to minister to and influence those in the room and those at home.
5. A live studio audience is a segment of your influence, not the measure of your influence.
I love seeing masses of people gather together and be transformed by the power of God in our churches. I know true success is not measured just by the number of people showing up to our ministry events, but that has not stopped me from enjoying the numbers through the years. With the absence of crowds in the room, I feel it is imperative to remember that the people you see in your church are just a segment of your reach, not the end of your reach. It is a portion of your influence, not the measure of your influence. John Maxwell said years ago that “Leadership is influence.” Remember, your leadership currently extends much further than you can see. Don’t allow the enemy to convince you that your influence has been diminished. It may very well be that your influence is being refined and redistributed to people and places you never thought possible.
6. A live studio audience has always been just a portion of your audience.
One of the early lessons I learned as a minister was the fact that beyond the people in the room, the person I first must be concerned about pleasing is Jesus. It really matters little if I have impressed the masses and yet failed the Master. His audience is the one that has to matter the most. This mindset forced me from asking questions like, “Did people laugh? Did people like it? Did people respond?” to deeper questions like, “Was I faithful to the Word? Was I faithful to the heart of Jesus? Did I deliver the full message God put on my heart?” In reality, the greatest challenge of my ministry has never been to please the people in the room. The real challenge and mark of success is to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I have been faithful to the Father. Galatians 1:10 reminds me that “Obviously, I’m not trying to win the approval of people, but of God. If pleasing people were my goal, I would not be Christ’s servant.”
In conclusion, I realize that we may all feel like we are preaching before a live studio audience. I understand the number of people we see in the room pales in comparison to
those we are impacting. I trust that we look past what we see and can seize the opportunity it brings to reach more people for Jesus. I hope we can learn lessons to improve our ministry. I fervently pray that we will not be distracted by the doubts that may be planted by smaller crowds. Most importantly, I pray we realize our main audience has not changed. I pray we’ll be faithful presenters of the gospel in this season and every season.