By Amanda Weikel, originally posted on Church Production
When the technology known as film was invented, plays were the common form of entertainment. In fact, some of the first films were simply plays captured with a single, static camera shot. Films made it possible for lower classes to access entertainment only available to the rich. Then the films industry made a leap that set it apart from plays at the time—special effects. Georges Méliès took his audience to the moon, and, for better or for worse, many of us never returned to the live theatre again.
When Covid shut down our gatherings, many of us, my church included, placed a single, static camera in front of our preachers and said, “Action.” And rightfully so; our daycares and schools were shutting down, the news was communicating conflicting information, we were trying to decide if it was culturally tone-deaf or culturally relevant to make jokes about Covid, it was a time we’re all grateful that we don’t have to return to. But once we (sort of) got our bearings, we realized that if we were going to compete with what YouTube and Netflix have to offer, then we’d better grab a mask, some ideas, and get our preachers out of the buildings.
And there were challenges to this. There is something powerful about the spoken word that, I believe, simply doesn’t translate quite as well over film. Think of the most prolific preachers you’ve watched teach live; there’s something about sitting in a room with them, under their teaching, that leaves you captivated. It’s the way they’re able to use silence to draw you in, the way they seem to whisper the Truth straight into your heart, the way they’re able to shout and shock you into laughter, the way they can utilize subtle body language to support and not distract. The power of spoken word is palpable in those moments. You know this is true, because when we’re in the room with them we’re gripped, but when we’re listening online we’re folding laundry, working out, commuting to the office—in a word, we’re distracted.
I could list other odds stacked against us as we set out to produce streaming content, but if you ask me, that was our biggest obstacle: overcoming the loss of the magic our preachers could wield when you sit in a room with them. And with that reality, we began.
We started experimenting with shooting in multiple locations: in our pastor’s house and surrounding neighborhood, a CrossFit gym, in the woods behind our building, a rock gym, and probably our most beautiful sermon, a vineyard. Anything to shake things up, and more importantly, to drive the points of Scripture home. Every wild location, every prop (including an outrageous sportscar), every creative element pointed back to the Scripture we were teaching. That’s lesson number one as I look back on the year we spent developing streaming content: if it wasn’t rooted in truth, we didn’t do it.
The second lesson I found is that we stayed unapologetic about our target audience. Since our inception in 2008, Mosaic Christian Church’s target demographic has been the 20-something man. Let me be clear, this is our demographic because we are very pro-woman. Men who live their lives for Jesus make better husbands to their wives, better fathers to their children, and better bosses to their employees. If you set a man on a God-honoring trajectory, you set his whole sphere of influence on that trajectory as well. The data says it and we’ve seen it play out in real time—you want to help the world, help men. So, with graphics, songs, sermon locations, everything we do, we ask, “How will this be received by a 20-something guy?” because chances are, if a guy is down with it, a girl will be too.
Lesson number three: We pay very close attention to generational trends. Millennials, Zillennials, and Gen Z are a fascinating group of people, and I’m not just saying that because I am one. They’re wildly diverse, wildly dynamic, and most concerning of all, wildly indoctrinated by their phone’s algorithm. If we wanted to share the grace and truth of Jesus with this generation, we had to be willing to hack in by appealing to their interests. One of our best examples of this was our rendition of the popular YouTube show Hot Ones. When our pastor preached on the secret sauce of relationships, he had the idea of doing a Mosaic Hot Ones. He taste tested increasingly hotter hot sauces and answered questions about relationships. The segment drove home the point of the sermon, riffed on a popular YouTube show, and appealed to that target demographic.
The final lesson learned from creating streaming content was the realization that it is woefully limited. For as long as we’ve been able to afford the technology, we have streamed our services. They’ve been viewed across the States, in the UK, Australia, and Japan. We serve a military community, and we considered it an honor to be able to continue to serve them while they served us abroad. The truth is, though, watching a 20-minute, biblically sound, cleverly shot sermon once a week will only accomplish so much life change. And we did have life change occur. One woman began watching from Colorado, and contacted us about baptism. She was able to fly out, and we baptized her during her layover. It was incredible to see God move through our little broadcast in such an eternal way.
All the while we knew, however, the spiritual health of the core of our church was
struggling, so we made the decision to regather in September 2020. As a congregant, I was amped. As a producer, I was disappointed because we had just shot close to 8 hours of footage in D.C. heading into our politics series titled In God We Trust? We ended up integrating the shots of D.C. into live teaching and that lent itself to an engaging dynamic in the room, but another pivot to our approach was needed.
As so many of us regather, we now face a new challenge: How to be a church for people who regathered and still connect with those who haven’t yet or won’t ever. Remember the story about Méliès and his special effects? As many never returned to live theatre, the reality is, some people will never feel comfortable in a large crowd again. I don’t know how we beat that. I don’t know that it’s our battle to fight. So here’s our current methodology:
Now, the content we create serves the purpose of moving people along that pipeline. Across YouTube and Instagram, we have 7,500 subscribers and followers, and it’s trending up. That’s not impressive by internet standards, but it is more than our weekly attendance. Our YouTube carries our sermons, and our Instagram carries our personality. We want people to see through the windows of their phones the real and fun life that is happening every Sunday at a renovated warehouse space outside of Baltimore. We want them to get curious and check out our services on YouTube from the comfortable anonymity of their homes. We pray the Lord would stir up bravery in them to attend a service and see what no camera could ever adequately capture—the power of being in the room.
I watch a new movie just about every week. I stream the same three shows on Netflix at the gym. I listen to podcasts while I commute. I love media—I’m a producer! Being able to stream Hamilton last 4th of July was incredible, but I would sell the T.V., couch, and, yeah, I’ll say it, the house I watched it in for the chance to see it live in New York. Why? Because there’s something about being in the room!
Creating content for streaming is vital nowadays, but we use it as a means to an end. That end being people joining us live and ultimately getting in that baptism tub. Because yes, it’s hysterical to burn the preacher’s insides, it’s ironic to deconstruct the prosperity gospel in front of a Porsche, it’s visually dynamic to watch a sermon filmed in a vineyard, but that simply pales when held against the real thing—people gathering in their brokenness to celebrate the God who makes them whole.
Amanda Weikel is the Creative Arts Pastor at Mosaic Christian Church.