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Digital faith

90-second sermons seek to spread the good news without sacrificing substance. One even went viral!

By Kellie Anderson-Picallo and Richard Hong

digital designWe all do it: we share information. In fact, we can’t help it; it’s part of our social nature. Whether we’re digital devotees or novice users of email, we routinely share information on our digital devices. So, as congregations seek new ways to make the church relevant to “outsiders,” a pertinent question emerges: What if a message of our love and faith in God were as easy to share as a Facebook post?

Traditionally, people have received that message from a pulpit on Sunday morning. But as our pews grow emptier, the old assumption—that people will come to us—no longer holds true. We have to take the pulpit to them. New media can be that pulpit—going to people anywhere, anytime while opening up new ways to engage, inspire, and equip.

A recent Barna Group report on digital trends notes: “In the hyperlinked age, people now view life—from its smallest details to its monumental moments—through a digital lens. And through this lens they experience faith as well.” More than a third of adults say they will stop what they are doing to check their device for a new text or message. Clearly, the time for using media tools to deepen faith has come.

And so our journey began. Here in the New Jersey suburbs, at First Presbyterian Church of Englewood, we launched a video ministry called 90 Second Sermon ( to enhance worship, attract visitors, and connect with people, particularly those who identify as “spiritual but not religious.” We knew that most parishioners are reluctant to directly invite someone to church. But if given brief messages with substance and a word of hope, members could share them with friends and family, allowing them to consider Christian perspectives.

Why 90 seconds? Because 90 seconds is the average length of time people will spend on a video. Granted, 90-second sermons will never replace traditional 15-minute sermons, just as the experience of watching a video alone on your computer will never replace the covenantal bond formed by gathering shoulder to shoulder with a community of Christ. Nor can these videos recreate the liturgical experience of moving from confession to proclamation to the invitation to the Lord’s table and finally the sending out into the world. But, like Paul’s letters to the early Christian communities of Galatia and Corinth, these videos are but preludes to a deeper engagement, messages sent to those not now in our presence but who one day we pray will be.

Like the letters of Paul, these videos have a value of their own. Ninety seconds can still deliver one clear scriptural message with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Indeed, these 90 seconds provide more of a spiritual message than many people receive each week, including members who have missed worship services or youth who sometimes miss church because of sports. A 90-second sermon is long enough to have substance yet short enough to be shared—and will, we hope, encourage people curious about faith to visit a local congregation.

A ruling elder in our congregation, Sandy Bishop, shares the 90-second sermons with her friends and family via Facebook every week. “For some of them,” she says, “90 seconds is as much church as they can stand right now, but it is getting them in touch with their faith, and they enjoy them.”

Our 90-second sermons are rooted in New Testament examples of using context and curiosity to share the message. For example, Paul understood the context of the people he was trying to reach. He met the people wherever they were: in synagogues or in the marketplace. He used the media available to him, communicating both in writing and in person. In the Acts 17 account of Paul in Athens, he even uses local idols to make his argument for God.

On top of that, the 90-second sermons are working! Visitors have said that the videos brought them to the church. One 90-second sermon was picked up by a popular email feed that aggregates weekly stories. And in just one week more than 10,000 people viewed our 90-second sermon on reading the Bible through a lens of love.

Even still, paper remains an important part of our ministry. Some of our members are simply not interested in technology. Other people lack access. So, we still print and send our newsletter to every family, though we supplement it with weekly email blasts. Our communications strategy embraces all forms of media, taking advantage of the strengths of each.

A distinct advantage of social media is that it allows congregations of any size to reach a broader audience. A digital video ministry can be a resource for many different kinds of congregations.

DIY tips
Want to create your own 90-second sermons? Here are some tips: 

digital camera back

Richard Hong, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Englewood, New Jersey, records a 90-second sermon.

1. Fine-tune your focus.
Having only 90 seconds to work with, we use every second judiciously and identify the one sermon point and sentence we want viewers to remember. The introduction usually lasts 20 seconds; the body of the message, 50 seconds; and the conclusion, which states the main point, 20 seconds. The script falls between 250 and 300 words. A reference to current events or pop culture makes a great beginning.

2. Don’t assume it’s expensive.
We use equipment that cost us less than $300 total, including a consumer-grade digital camcorder. The main requirement for a camera is the ability to accept audio input from an external microphone. Sound quality is critical, and the built-in mics of camcorders just aren’t good enough. An inexpensive wireless lapel mic works just fine. For a background, we use an old projection screen. That removes worries about problems with the background. We purchased basic video lights on eBay for less than $50. And simple programs like iMovie and Windows Movie Maker are good enough for editing.

3. Use a makeshift teleprompter.
The script is read from a teleprompter-like device that uses an ordinary tablet. The rest of the teleprompter parts should run less than $35 total. The teleprompter reflects the tablet’s screen, which allows you to look directly at the camera while reading the script. If you read from something held to the side of the camera, the viewer can tell. You might even look shifty if your eyes dart back and forth from the camera to the script, and the foundation of 90-second sermons must be authenticity. (Go to
for directions.)

4. Enlist your friends.
Once the video is available, your target in social media is not the people to whom you’re directly connected; it’s their friends. Encourage your friends to pass your piece on to their networks. Recent changes to Facebook’s advertising structure make it easy to “boost” your post directly to the friends of people who have “liked” your page. This is a paid option, but it is cost-effective. Boosting a post to 1,000 of your followers’ friends usually costs less than $10. When you have a particularly compelling piece, boost it.

Other digital strategies
At FPC Englewood, the 90 Second Sermon is just part of our broad digital strategy for weekly worship. We encourage parishioners to bring their phones and tablets to worship (the sanctuary is Wi-Fi enabled) so that they can download the free YouVersion Bible app and follow along as we upload sermon notes each week. Worshipers can even take their own notes. Signups for church activities are now taken online, through SignUp Genius.

But FPC Englewood is not alone. Hundreds of other Presbyterian congregations are embracing digital strategies to share God’s Word.

This winter, Winnetka Presbyterian Church in Illinois held a “Social Media Sunday” to show congregants how technology can be incorporated into the worship environment. According to associate pastor Adam Walker Cleaveland, one goal “was to help remove the stigma of seeing someone pull out their phone in worship.”

“We live in a digital age,” Cleaveland says. “Our ‘digital natives’ do everything on their phones, and then they come to church, and the church seems irrelevant.”

That’s not always the experience, however. A digital ministry called His Way gathers young adults both on- and off-line, deepening their faith through a cyberspace connection while bringing them together the final Sunday of each month for service and worship. Launched by Jennifer Swier as one of the PC(USA)’s 1001 New Worshiping Communities, His Way brings a whole new approach to pastoral care. One participant, Hanna Larsen, says: “The hardest part of being a young adult is trying to figure out faith. It’s difficult to go to church and say, ‘I’m not sure how I feel about this aspect of God.’ Yet we long to connect not only to each other but to a larger, multigenerational faith community that has more experience than we do.”

New media provides a pulpit like no other and can be a valuable part of a church’s toolkit. With advances in digital technology, we have a growing opportunity to use technology to go far beyond our congregations without ever leaving them behind.

Kellie Anderson-Picallo is a first-career TV producer. Rich Hong is a first-career technology consultant. Pastors at First Presbyterian Church of Englewood, New Jersey (, they are crazy about Jesus.

5 goals for a faith-based social media presence

  • Consistency: Have standards for terminology and style. All your posts should sound as if the same person wrote them.
  • Authenticity: Present yourself as you really are. Speak conversationally. Don’t just broadcast news; interact with your followers by posting questions, prayer opportunities, and responses
    to comments.
  • Openness: When managing a website, do not require that comments be approved before they appear. If someone posts something objectionable, respond but do not remove it except in extreme circumstances. You will not be judged for what someone else posts; you will be judged by how you respond. (Grace helps!) In addition, consider creating and posting a covenantal agreement for interaction. Then, if someone breaches that agreement, message that person and invite him or her to repost.
  • Transparency: If something goes wrong, admit it, explain why it happened, and discuss how you’re trying to prevent it from happening again.
  • Reaching friends of friends: Remember, the target for anything you post isn’t the people who first read your post—it’s their friends. Success is when people share your posts with others.

Media resources to expand your ministry

  • Book: Click2Save: The Digital Ministry Bible by Keith Anderson and Elizabeth Drescher:
  • Workshops: Auburn Media Training can help you tailor your ministry to meet the needs of TV, radio, print, and the web:
  • Podcast: NPR’s On Being with Krista Tippett features quick bites and substantive interviews about faith in the public square:
  • Magazines: Presbyterians Today, of course! But when you’ve read the latest issue, consider checking out Relevant:
  • Web resource: ON Scripture, a free online resource that uses current events in its approach to the Bible, features Bible discussion questions, short videos, Twitter chats, and biblical commentary with noted scholars:

May 2014 cover

order the special issue Guide to Young adult ministry and read more articles like this one





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