The Reality of Virtual Meetings

During the virus quarantine, I’ve attended church services in Houston, San Francisco, Sacramento, and Harlem, all from my home office, and I’m attending online classes as well. Among the apps I have used to do so are Zoom, Jitsi, FaceTime and GoToMeeting, and if you’ve never heard of them, you’re not alone. From what I’ve experienced, nobody is very good at using them yet, but this is a perfect time to get up to speed on presenting and attending meetings and religious services online.

But there are frustrations. A Zoom meeting got shut off after half an hour. A GoToMeeting of around 100 people was overloaded, the presenter got kicked off and the video pixelated and then started and stopped. A Jitsi presentation had very bad sound, and a video presentation cut off in the middle. Some of the challenges were because of low bandwidth, some from lack of good equipment, but most were just from lack of understanding of the technology.

Presenting canned religious services by video seems to work well for most, probably because we’ve been using video for quite some time, every smart phone can do video and most people can upload a video to YouTube with a bit of work. But while interactive is more desirable, and more real in a time of cabin fever, it requires some work to do it well. Managing 50 or 100 people online is difficult, the quality of sound and video is not very good, and you can even get people who jump in and mess things up just for the fun of it.

If you’re a megachurch pastor, you probably have people to manage the sound, video and attendees, but for most, that’s a tall order, and you’re going to have to manage not only your presentation, but the technology as well. Most of the video apps have free basic service, but you’re going to have to read the instructions – sorry, but that’s important. And how do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice. That just makes sense.

Other than those basics, here are some suggestions: First, get the camera adjusted on your computer first, so the lighting is correct and people can see you. If you sit with a bright window behind you, the glare will obscure your face. However, seeing you is not as important as hearing you, and the better the sound the better you will communicate. So check your sound, use a microphone and do some practice runs first with just a few friends attending.

Also, realize that the more people you have on your virtual service, the more motion, sound and interruptions you and the attendees will experience. At least half the people signing on will have trouble – how to mute their sound, how to see the presenter, etc. etc. And most will log on just as you are ready to start, so instead of beginning your presentation you will have to spend 15 or 20 minutes sorting out the technology for confused people who soon become annoyed.

Therefore it will help to get some tech-savvy kid to help deal with those issues. Ask people to register beforehand and send them clear instructions on how to login and what to expect. There will be people asking questions on the chat function, and because some will forget to mute their microphones, you are likely to have noise, conversation or dogs barking in the background. Last night, for example, in an online church fundraiser, one attendee – frustrated at the technology – got her microphone turned on just in time to broadcast a curse word. While many attendees may have had similar sentiments, it could have been offensive for some in attendance.

And if you have a choir, a basic free application for videoconferencing will not provide good sound to those attending.

Overall, presenting to a group or attending a meeting over the Internet is likely to seem thin and clunky, with people trying to talk at the same time, interruptions on how to see the speaker, questions about “What’s that noise in the background?” etc. Don’t let interruptions throw you off. Persist, be certain of what you want to achieve and intend people to receive the message. With the help of those attending, you can become a coherent virtual group in spite of the technical glitches and thus bring help and hope to those sitting at home, worried about the health of themselves and those they love.

And if there is one good thing to come of all this, it’s that once the quarantine is lifted, people will find a new appreciation of once again worshiping side-by-side with friends and family.