April 11, 2020 by: Ben Heimsath

Each morning, for the past four Sundays, I have made preparations for attending church. I toss on jeans and a t-shirt, slip on house shoes, grab a cup of coffee, and settle down comfortably in front of my computer. As the top of the hour approaches, I pull up Facebook or one of several streaming platforms and join an on-line worship service.

Ben Heimsath Attending ChurchIn normal times, our firm’s specialty in church architecture means I attend a lot of church services, especially with our clients. But I can only attend one on any given Sunday. Now, with so many churches going virtual, I’ve worshipped with over two-dozen congregations in the past month. While I’m not a typical “church shopper,” I have been focusing on churches in our area where we know someone in the congregation. And I’ve also been checking in on current and past clients.

One of my first visits was to St. James’ Episcopal Church in Austin. They pre-record their service and post it on Sunday morning. The socially distanced musicians are quite professional and Rev. Eileen O'Brien offers a sweet, if somber take on current events. By prerecording, they cut out any shuffling or transitioning during the service. And, since post around 6 or 7 am, I can attend a live service afterwards.

First English Lutheran Church in Austin livestreams on Facebook from their sanctuary. The ministers are robed for a traditional service with Pastor Michael Coffey and Vicar Kelsey Kresse on either side of the chancel, and musician Bryan Rust at the piano on the platform behind. To frame the fixed camera view, screens form a backdrop which adds a feeling of closeness to the proceedings. The service progresses with prayers, music, readings, and sermon much the same as an in-person liturgy.

At the end of each service, the ministers take a quick break and then return to their places in street clothes with coffee and treats. They read from texts and e-mails and offer quick responses. Even with the limits of the on-line medium, these personal greetings seem very effective in connecting the community.

I stopped in on several occasions to see how things were working for congregations more accustomed to using technologies in regular worship. Both Mount Zion Baptist Church, and Woodlawn Baptist Church start their live feeds with highly produced introductions with photos, music, and text, typical of the images projected at the beginning of a normal service.

At Woodlawn, when the image goes live, Pastor Russell Allen stands at the podium offering a welcome and beginning the message for the day. Musicians join him on the platform, standing far enough away to be safe. More recently, the livestream has done cutaways to musicians playing and singing from home.

Mount Zion Baptist Church starts with an hour of Sunday School and then builds to the start of the main service. Rev. Daryl Horton steps to the pulpit and welcomes all the streaming service, “I invite you, wherever you are, to join us in this morning of worship.” The musicians and a small choir are spaced widely apart on the podium leading a series of rousing gospel hymns. By the time Pastor G.V. Clark delivers his sermon, the energy and spirit are in full swing.  

I have also checked in on traditional services using technology for the first time. St. George’s Episcopal Church has strategically set a fixed camera in the main aisle. Fr. Kevin Schubert and two other ministers alternate at the center podium as they progress through a traditional liturgy. From the vantage point of someone in the pews this seems pretty normal, with accommodations for the socially distancing ministers.

Calvary Episcopal Church in Bastrop has also has livestreamed its regular service, though it has incorporated two cameras, each with the ability to cut to closeups. The effect is a pretty smooth blending of traditional liturgy with modern videography. I did note that the production has moved to Fr. Matt’s home, perhaps as a way to limit the need for more participants in the production.

From my experience with congregations, most groups keep to established traditions and generally things don’t change very much or very quickly. Now with so many churches going virtual, lots of innovations and changes are happening all at once. How churches may change over time remains to be seen, but for now it’s pretty exciting.

We've been adapting our work in response to the pandemic and have several blogs to keep you updated:

 Observations on how the Heimsath Architects crew is working remotely.

How to reach us while the office at 7509 Menchaca Road remains closed.

Check out these screen shots from the livestreams and/or recorded services:

Worship Space/ Religious/ Church Change/ Austin Churches