Are you getting used to preaching to a camera? How about reading Scripture to a camera? The nonverbal channel of face, eyes, and voice are always important in oral communication, and when speaking to a camera, the nonverbal channel takes on even more significance. This is because the camera reveals what may be hidden when speaking on a platform separated from the listeners by 15 or 150 feet.
William Sangster’s words written almost 70 years ago, sound both a warning and an encouragement for this day of camera-mediated ministry:
Bible reading offers the widest scope for the enrichment of public worship and it is a great pity that the Scriptures are often so badly read. When the book is well read and made to live for the people, it can do for them what sermons often fail to do: it can be the very voice of God to their souls. (Approach to Preaching, 1952).
How can we redeem this moment when Covid-19 forces us to read to a camera?
Remember that when we read Scripture aloud, we are performing “oral interpretation.” Our reading is a kind of exegesis on the emotions and ideas of the text.
Just as we practice musical performances, we should practice reading our text in front of the camera. Reading aloud is a skill, and we need techniques that augment the skills we use in silent reading. Furthermore, reading aloud to a camera calls for an additional set of skills.
So, what are the skills we should practice? Let me mention two: phrasing and eye contact. Phrasing is the way we hold ideas together and convey emotion by grouping and emphasizing words. Most of the time we will want to emphasize nouns and verbs, not articles and prepositions. Nouns and verbs transport the freight of meaning. Not: “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures, but “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures” (KJV).
When reading aloud, most of our pauses will be brief, but two or three longer ones placed strategically really help convey the emotional and ideational content of the passage. You might phrase John 3:16 (ESV) this way:
For God so loved the world /
that he gave his onlySon/
that whoever believes in him should not perish //
but have eternal life.///
Many readers read too quickly. They speak at the rate that their minds grasp the material, not at a rate that is helpful to someone who is hearing the material fresh. A moderate rate may feel slow to the reader, but it rarely feels slow to the listener.
The second skill to practice is eye contact. This is tough to master because we are reading words on a page, not speaking our own ideas extemporaneously. I recommend practicing until you can look at the camera 40-50% of the time. Looking up and down as we deliver the passage subtly conveys that we are delivering someone else’s words—God’s—not our own.
It feels unnatural to stare at a camera, but we must remember that the “eyes” of the viewers are the lens of the camera. At the very least we should begin and end with eye contact. You might want to print the text in large font and fasten it near the camera—a low tech teleprompter—so that your eyes never stray far.
So, practice your reading. If you use lay-readers, model what you want them to achieve, and encourage them to practice. You might want to hold a training a session to work on skills like phrasing and eye contact. Incidentally, feel free to contact me (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you would like me to hold a Zoom seminar on public reading of Scripture for your worship team.
Reading to a camera is not really public speaking. It is a conversation with one person, or a few people. Put yourself in their shoes. They might be sitting in their living room or bedroom. They might be dressed in pajamas, eating cereal.
FDR was the first president to adapt to the intimate technology of radio. Instead of orating in a lecture hall, he chatted with folks at the fireside or in the car seat next to him. A conversational quality does not mean that reading should be lifeless and listless. It means that we will not shout or use broad gestures. We are reading with and for the people, not to and at them.
The camera should leverage the intimacy of the medium by using a moderate close up, perhaps showing the reader from the waist up. It should not be a shot of a church auditorium with the speaker as a stick figure far away. You might also leverage the medium by trying some new settings—outdoors in the garden, by a lake, or next to a stained glass window in the chapel.
I’m referring to things like sound and lighting. When done well, these factors do not “make” a reading, but when done poorly they can “break” it. If you are a novice with technology (join the crowd!), get help. For example, you might want to use a split screen with the reader on one side and the text on the other. Such a technological feat may stymie you, but for a digital native, it might be like rolling off a log.
Give some thought to your dress and grooming. The camera calls attention to what we look like. Solid colors work well for video, and neatness is always appropriate. How dressy should you dress when reading Scripture? There are no rules; the key is to know your context and approach the issue with the mindset of a servant. We want to dress in a way that does not call attention to self.
When Scripture reading is done well, even to a camera, it can be the very voice of God to our souls.
Jeffrey Arthurs, Ph.D., is the Professor of Preaching and Communication & Chair, Division of Practical Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
How much do churches budget for producing visual media? What media are pastors using? How many churches subscribe to image libraries? Our survey shows the use of visual aids in preaching is heavy, helpful, and here to stay.