Re-opening worship services after Covid-19

As in-person worship services resume, two APCCS member churches share their experience returning to physical services after a season of running online-only church during the height of the Covid pandemic in Singapore. 

Ps Sandra Westerdahl is the Lead Pastor of In Christ Singapore, an 80-strong congregation that rents a hotel ballroom for their weekly Sunday services. 

“Being mindful that we don’t have exclusive use of a rented space means that we’ve had to work around ‘structural’ space constraints. For example – implementing staggered timings for entry and exit as well as for washroom usage, as we have just one set of entrances and exits, and washrooms for two groups of 50 people,” she says. 

When did ICSG resume physical services? Have you started other services or activities e.g. sunday school, baptisms, as well?

ICSG resumed physical services on 8 November 2020. We currently cater only for the main congregational services. Kids Church (Sunday School) and Anchor Youth (youth ministry) are still operating online. 

We livestream services for those who are as yet more comfortable online so that we are able to worship together as a church body.

All other activities remain online for the time being, except some of the cell groups meet in groups of 5 in person (splitting down into smaller groups to do so).

How did ICSG incorporate the ministry aspect (e.g. prayer for healing, altar call response etc) into physical services?

We have shifted ministry “online”. We have a hospitality team member operating the chat room to minister to the online congregation. 

On-site, we have QR codes with various forms for people to fill up. We launched a WhatsApp communication channel through which members can contact us for any needs or to go through their cell group leaders. For newcomers or altar call responses, we follow up during the week through the contact they have registered with us to book tickets for service.

We have not as of yet started any on-site prayer or altar call as we want to make sure we get the initial step of the Sunday service to run smoothly before we move into making additional adjustments. 

Can you talk about some of the challenges you faced in the planning process and how you had to work around them?

There are a number of challenges in planning as we operate on a rental of location basis. The hotel we are worshipping at is, like many others, facing constraints in terms of manpower and usage of space due to Covid. We have had to work closely with the hotel to ensure that both parties are operating within constraints of all the ministry departments.

We have settled on an individual seating plan with 4 groups of 4 to cater especially to families with children under 8. Children below the age of 8 are given an activity pack upon entering the service. These families will have access to a table (surrounded by 4 chairs) and are considered to be worshiping as a group.

Also, as we have non-exclusive use of the hotel, we are mindful of the possibility of having multiple events within the location. We have been working closely with the hotel staff to ensure as little time overlap of all parties.

Other constraints are ‘structural’. We have only one entrance and exit, via the lifts and a single set of restrooms for our location. We have briefed our members on the restrictions and put in place staggered timing for arrival and dismissal, as well as the usage of the washrooms. 

Thankfully with regards to the washroom situation, members have been cooperative and there has not been any queues at the washrooms. Due to the shortened services, most people are able to do without the use of restroom facilities on site.

Over at Covenant Vision Christian Church, Senior Pastor Rev Francis Khoo, together with Ps Trisha Khoo and Aaron Khoo, CVCC’s Head of Media & Communications, launched into livestreaming in October after conversations about adapting their usual service program for a new medium. 

And it’s not just the technicalities of livestreaming that’s been a learning curve. What’s new is the challenge of preaching simultaneously to both an on-site and online audience in live format. That takes some getting used to, and Ps Trisha acknowledges, “We’ve had to mentally adjust to ensure that we engage both the onsite and online audiences.”

How have you had to adapt your usual service program for a new medium?

Our onsite services are now about 1 hour long, including opening, worship, announcements, sermon, benediction, and closing. Previously our worship was half an hour, but we cut it down to 15 – 20mins. Sermons have also been shortened from 45 – 60mins to about 20 – 30mins.

We did try to keep things moving because when viewing online, the content needs to be at a faster pace to keep the audience attention. If it is too draggy, the propensity to click onto Facebook or other YouTube channels is very high. 

What has the team learned from the past few weeks of livestreaming?

On the technical side: To be able to livestream, we had to acquire a dedicated PC that we now use solely for the livestream feed. Our video mixer is still the same, but we now feed the video and audio source to YouTube using a dedicated PC. If the PC is not powerful enough, it might cause intermittent dropping of frames, which we do not want; if the online audience deems the video to be of low production quality, they will either drop off, or avoid returning. 

The PC is running Open Broadcaster Software (OBS), which is a free and fairly easy to use interface. It works well with YouTube Live and Facebook Live, though it can feed through to only one channel at any one time. There are workarounds, but it gets more complicated, or you’d need to purchase additional software. So to keep things simple, we choose to run our livestream services on YouTube Live. 

We’ve also learned how to better engage the online audience. For certain livestream events that we conduct, we will pick out certain comments and mention them, creating interactivity and making the online audience feel like that are a part of the service/event.

Have pastors had to preach differently – not in terms of content, but perhaps delivery – because of the new livestreaming medium now?

Because we are now speaking to both an onsite and online audience, we had to mentally adjust to ensure that we engaged both the onsite and online audiences. For the online audience, addressing them upfront is important so they know they’re with us from the get go. Earlier on, it was important to encourage them purposefully to be present at home and that we are still a community even though we may not be in one place. 

For delivery of messages, we’ve learned that we definitely need to be more succinct and the flow of the message needs to be clear. Having visuals like slides help the online audience to focus on the preaching points, thus increasing engagement. 

And finally, about talking speed. Especially for an online audience, the speed needs to increase to keep the listener engaged. It’s good to take note that some people may be listening to the sermon while driving or watching on their phones in the MRT, so they don’t experience all the visual cues that the onsite audience encounters. 

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