A Comprehensive Guide to Online Only Worship in the time of COVID-19: Lessons from Darkwood Brew

Updated: 3/31/2020 at 10:20 am

To all the churches that have taken your worship online at least once, WAY TO GO! Now that you’ve gotten that far, let’s look at how to make the experience even better for your participants.

Many churches have been doing online worship for a long time, but what made a service called Darkwood Brew unique is that it was one of just a few worship experiences built primarily for online audiences. Thus, since COVID-19 has forced us into doing worship just for online audiences, it stands to reason there is a lot to learn from them.

In 2011, Aboundant became the web publisher for Darkwood Brew and I became their “Web Guru.” Darkwood Brew was an online worship service developed by Eric Elnes, the Lead Pastor at Countryside Community Church in Omaha, Nebraska and author of several notable books. Darkwood Brew was produced by Scott Griessel of Creatista Studios in Tucson, Arizona.

Darkwood did worship online for almost a decade, with thousands of people tuning in from all over the world. While new worship services are not being offered at this time, many of the series have been converted into amazing small-group video resources. These are available for free during this challenging time.

The biggest lessons I can impart is obvious to discern, but hard to enact. Here it is:

Online only worship should be radically different than your in-person worship

As the father of modern communications, Marshall McLuhan put it, “The Medium is the Message.” Almost all the advice I have to give falls into this category, but let me first state that it’s OK to start out with what you know, and then slowly make changes. Give yourself a break! You are trying something new. We all need a little grace during this time. (You’ll hear me use that word here a few times!)


Darkwood Brew had the benefit of constructing a studio that doubled as a coffee shop. It had warm colors and warm lighting, room for a “studio audience” and lanes for cameras. Countryside Community Church had a wonderful, high-tech sanctuary, yet they decided they needed a whole different space for online worship. Here’s why.

Altars Can Be Constructed Anywhere

There are many stories in the Bible where sojourners erect an altar. We are on a new spiritual journey of sorts, through uncharted lands. While your congregation might find solace in the familiarity of your worship space, don’t feel married to it if it doesn’t work for other reasons. You can even build the altar in your own house, modeling the idea that homes can be spiritual spaces for your congregation during and after this time of social distancing.

Get Close (but not that close)

Worship officiants in a church setting are not physically close to the congregation in order to better enable everyone to see them. When you’re online, the nature of distance is completely different. If you want to bridge the perceived impersonal nature of the internet, then get close! This might mean moving cameras and tripods close to your altar.

Of course, while the camera is close, the people shouldn’t be. We still all need to practice social distancing, and you can model this by wiping down anything that is handled by multiple people each time it is touched. Similarly, if you are doing live worship, have only one or two people involved each week, but rotate through different leaders each week. Having the feed close will make the absence of people feel less awkward.

Idea: Have your worship team on Zoom doing worship together (so multiple faces are seen simultaneously) and stream your Zoom to facebook or YouTube.

Another Idea: Practice Satellite church by sharing your online worship with other church communities and trading off who officiates.

Reduce the Echo

The best reason to move out of a sanctuary and into a chapel or makeshift altar space is that you’ll improve the sound quality. People absorb a lot of sound, and if they are not in the room the feed will just seem hollow and will weigh against a worshipful atmosphere. If you do stay in your sanctuary, surround your worship area with sound absorbing materials and turn the sound system off. Directly record into microphones instead.

Use Symbols

Darkwood Brew often got a lot of “B-roll” footage during interludes by panning through the “studio audience.” Since you can’t do that, make sure there are objects that are meaningful to your topic or to your community that you can pan to during silences and breaks. Let people meditate on those objects.

The Message

Right from its beginning, Darkwood Brew dropped the traditional sermon. Your audience online isn’t as captive as an in-person audience, you need to be more engaging to keep their attention.

Credit Nate Nims Grace Des Moines UMC

Thankfully, online worship suggests answers to how you can make the message more engaging. Darkwood accomplished this in a couple of ways.

Conversation with a Key Guest

Darkwood Brew had top notch Christian thinkers as guests each week. It was easy for them just to “Skype in”. They didn’t even feel the need to charge their big speaking fees. Your local church doesn’t necessarily need these guests, but I bet you can find someone to invite that has a special perspective on your subject who can join you remotely.

The Late, Great Phillis Tickle came to talk to us about Shepherding on Skype

Chat Conversation

We always had a question and answer session toward the end of our message time. We took questions from both the online chat window and from the audience. Both the host and the guest took the time to engage the viewers.

The host usually did have a “sermonette” planned: a 3-minute talk to either introduce the conversation or to put a bow on it.


Holy Communion was an aspect of Darkwood Brew right from the beginning. About five minutes before Communion, the host would invite those watching online to collect whatever elements they had available. They encouraged the participants to get something liquid and something solid, as close to traditional elements as they could get while offering grace to those who couldn’t do so. When it came time for the host to bless the elements, they would bless the ones on the table in front of them, then hold their hands in front of the camera to bless the elements of the online community.

There are a lot of theological debates that are happening about the validity of doing Holy Communion online right now. I plan to write a post about this soon, but right now I’d like to speak from my personal experience. I took online Communion with the online community of Darkwood Brew over 100 times. It was no less meaningful to me than in-person Communion, and occasionally I found it deeply profound. One of the community building traditions that evolved around Darkwood’s Communion was the sharing of the elements – not physical sharing, but chatting about what you were able to bring to the table that week. Through this sharing we learned a lot about the personality and circumstance of the other participants, creating bonds between us in the process.

There are, of course, other ways to implement Holy Communion online, but none should be undertaken lightly. What I can say is that this outward sign of Christ strengthens and builds the body of the church. To go without it for six months could have serious spiritual ramifications.

Music and Other Media

Darkwood Brew solved the issue of copyright infringement in a way that won’t be accessible to many congregations: all of the music was original. We did, however, use video clips and readings from protected materials.

Thankfully there are many publishers and artists who are waiving copyright restrictions right now, including most popular Bible translations. In addition, many of our church copyright services are offering their subscriptions for free right now, including streaming. We are compiling a list.

Even if you had all of them, though, there would still be things that aren’t covered. Video clips used in your worship space can often be covered by getting a license from CVLI, but the license doesn’t include streaming. Likewise, YouTube videos are not legally streamable. You can, though, always put a link to a YouTube video on your website or in a congregational email, then encourage your viewers to watch it. Finally, there are open source, Creative Commons options for background music and images.

Navigating copyright can be hard and often feels as if you need a team of lawyers to guide you. It’s important to know that there are copyright extortion rackets who come after churches, sometimes within the bounds of the law. It’s always best to consult a lawyer before you do ANYTHING if you’re accused of violating someone’s copyrighted material. Do not make any responses, any acknowledgments, or give away any information.

Community Building and Synchronicity

I have friends all over the world who I met on Darkwood Brew but have never met IRL (in real life), and others who I’ve met in person because we first formed a friendship online. Those who say you can’t build real community online are, frankly, wrong. It’s not better or worse, it’s just different.

Darkwood Brew had both synchronous, asynchronous, and mixed synchronicity options during its tenure. “Synchronous” means everyone is watching a service live, whether online or in person. “Asynchronous” means people watch an archived version later at a time of their choosing. “Mixed” refers to times we would replay the live version at a set time but have the chat window up to add interaction. During these mixed sessions, the host would come back to add even more context to what was happening.

You get to pick the version that works the best for your context. I’ll highlight the benefits of each one.

Synchronous Online Worship

The primary benefit is that worship happens live for everyone, ideally at your normal worship time. This will lead to continuity and comfort, while allowing you to build in some extra interactive elements using chat or video conferencing. You can still archive (save) the video for others to watch later.

When Darkwood Brew used this method, we always had a social media minister to be the worship leader for those in Chat. Their job was to pull people into greater levels of participation.

Asynchronous Online Worship

A big benefit is that you get to record worship throughout the week and can include a lot of different locations and guests. Then your congregants get to watch on their own schedule. You’ll sacrifice some of the interactivity by the people watching but you’ll be able to build it into the video by interviewing congregants or having pause points where you call the viewer into a time of reflection. Darkwood Brew’s small group resources include these pause points.

Mixed Synchronicity

In some ways this is the best of both worlds. Facebook facilitates this through “watch parties.” You upload the video and then schedule a watch party, perhaps during your normal worship time. This lets the people who participated in the video add more context through chat.

For Smaller Worshiping Communities

If you worship is generally attended by fewer than about 50 people, consider having your entire worship through Zoom or another video conferencing tool. (Note: you can still stream a Zoom feed to facebook or YouTube if you wish.) There is just something powerful about being able to see everyone’s face during the worship. This style of worship would be radically different and should be wildly participatory to fit the medium.

During the Week

On social media, we’d often let people know about the topic for the worship in advance and ask them for stories or answers to hard questions. We’d sometimes follow up afterwards with them, too.

PRO TIP: When creating online worship that is meant both for live and archival viewing, don’t forget to give the archival audience different instructions during the broadcast. For example: what should they do while you are doing live communion.

Rehearsal and Internet Speeds

Technology adds an extra layer of difficulty on top of an already difficult job. Practice using your technology. If you are going to record a video, do a short recording first to see how it comes out. If you are using a new space, do a test for sound and video quality. If you are using a new technology, do a test. Even if you have used all of the tools you are employing, it’s good to practice them together. Testing live can be good promotion, so don’t be afraid to do it. Just be clear that it’s a test, and be sure to let any viewers know when the real worship will happen. You can delete the test video afterwards.

Internet Speeds

If you are doing something live, test your internet speed, particularly your upload speeds. For a hi-definition feed, you typically need a consistent 1.5mb/second upload speed. That consistency is hard to achieve, though, since bandwidth fluctuates so much. In practice, your test should show around a 1.0mb/sec upload speed just to be safe.

Have a mobile hotspot ready and connected in case your internet starts to fail you. Use a hard-wired connection for your internet when possible.

Marketing and Distribution

Don’t be afraid to send out plenty of notices through many channels about your online worship. The number of notices we are OK with has risen dramatically thanks to politics. Texting offers the most captive audience, followed by Email, then Facebook. Include everything your people need to know in the email subject. Do at least three sets of notices.

  1. Schedule the event in the service you are using (facebook live, YouTube, Livestream). Be sure to return to the scheduled event to start the feed. Also put it on your church calendar or website.
  2. A few days out, send out notices. The more types of media you can include the more likely it will get read. You can even include a teaser video, which doesn’t need any production value.
  3. With 20 minutes or less before worship, resend the notices. Modern communications have trained people not to plan ahead, so some people you will only catch with last minute notices.

It’s OK to put your saved/archived video in as many places as possible too, such as Facebook, YouTube, Vimeo, and your website. Different people have different channels they prefer.  

For the Technically Challenged and Internet Deprived

What do we do for our people who just can’t get online? One answer is to use Zoom (or something similar) and give people a call-in number for their phones. Another option is to spend time training them to get engaged. This is harder since we can’t currently do this in person. However, if you can show older folks a new way to connect, you’ll be surprised at the positive effect that can have on their lives (after they get past the learning curve). Be patient. Finally, you can put the service on a thumb drive or DVD and drop it off to them. Use H.256 (MPEG, MP4) video compression for the thumb drive file as it’s the most common and compatible format. If you make a DVD, test it on a couple of different players.

Iteration and Grace

This stuff is hard. COVID-19 has made our lives hard. So give yourself a break and do only what you have the bandwidth for. Try adding just one new thing every week – and when you think you have that down, still try adding one more new thing, because technology and culture are constantly changing.

Darkwood Brew continued to evolve over the decade and is still evolving today. We are not currently doing online worship, but we have amazing small group resources and a great podcast called “Converging Paths.” We’ve built a strong online community that is quick to respond when there is a need, and if we came up with another great offering, they’d be there for it.

Things broke all the time with Darkwood Brew. Your online worship is never going to go as smoothly as your in-person worship. How can it! You are employing an extra layer of technology that even experts can’t fully control. Many churches found their Facebook Live or YouTube streams failed on March 22, perhaps because there was such a huge increase in usage. Luckily…hopefully…we know how to practice grace when things go wrong.

Final Thoughts

There are many technical aspects of online worship that are hard to cover in a blog. Aboundant has a post we’re periodically updating here and we have a free weekly webinar at noon central on Thursdays at meet.aboundant.com

It was my pleasure to work on Darkwood Brew’s online worship for dozens of amazing series. When it started, there was nothing like what Darkwood was doing. There were a couple of other online worship offerings, but Darkwood Brew was entirely unique. It took place in a coffee house that was filled with Holy jazz and faithful talk with preeminent Christian thought leaders. It was ecumenical and participatory and insightful and beautiful, all at the same time. Rev. Dr. Eric Elnes has been a mentor to me and is a true pioneer. The same goes for Scott Griessel, who is a visionary artist. When Rev. Dr. Chris Alexander hosted, the worship didn’t skip a beat. There are so many others that helped make it truly wonderful. Thanks to Rev. Ian Lynch, who helped me with this post. We became friends through Darkwood Brew.

I say this all to point out that I’ve experienced profound online worship. I’ve lived it. I know it’s possible. But at the same time, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. I hope you are able to learn from what we accomplished and brew up your own online worship magic.

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