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‘Church attendance is an individual choice’

Stated Clerk speaks about in-person worship and the coronavirus, and a PC(USA) office has gathered live streaming guidelines

by Paul Seebeck and Rick Jones | Presbyterian News Service

Services live streamed by Westminster Presbyterian Church in West Chester, Pennsylvania, provide people who are traveling or who can’t be in worship the opportunity to connect each Sunday with their friends and fellow members. (Photo courtesy of Westminster Presbyterian Church)

LOUISVILLE — The Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is urging congregations to make decisions about worshiping in person based on what’s best for their community and the people gathered for worship.

“In this time of crisis, we are presented with a challenge that calls us to engage in deep prayer and commonsense protection against a virus that we are not able to contain at this time,” the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, said Wednesday. “Our understanding is that church attendance is an individual choice. It is also a representation of the grace given to us by the Almighty God. “

The decision on whether church services should be canceled “is between each congregation and their presbytery leaders,” Nelson said. “They need to determine what is best for their community and the individuals who gather for worship.”

In response to Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, who said Wednesday that communities of faith in the Bluegrass State should cancel services amidst the coronavirus outbreak, Nelson said he agrees with the governor “that individuals should exercise extreme caution as it relates to public places, but this should not only be about church services. All public venues and events should be included in this, such as basketball tournaments and other events that draw thousands of people to our convention centers and meeting places.”

For the churches that have decided or will determine soon whether to worship in person this Sunday and into the near future, the Office of Theology and Worship has just released a resource (see below) with guidelines and suggestions meant for temporary and emergency situations.

In the introduction to the resource, the Rev. Dr. David Gambrell, associate for Worship, says that live streaming is a way for churches to stay connected as the body of Christ, glorify God together and seek the healing work of the Holy Spirit.

“This may be particularly important for the elderly and those with compromised immune systems, or in regions where public gatherings are being discouraged or restricted,” Gambrell said.

Gambrell said he hopes the guidelines provided will assist pastors and leaders offering services of worship in a faithful and effective way. He notes that the suggestions offered are not meant for long-term use in live streaming worship services, nor is the document intended as medical or legal advice.

The guidelines briefly address hybrid gatherings, the sacramental celebration, daily prayer, congregational participation, the offering and copyright permission. They also address audio/visual production, technical specifications and platforms for streaming — along with a list of links, articles and resources that might be useful in learning how to livestream worship services.

Guidelines on live streaming services

As the COVID-19/Coronavirus outbreak advances, congregations are struggling to respond. Some are turning to live-streaming video as a way to glorify God together, stay connected as the body of Christ, and seek the healing work of the Spirit. This may be particularly important for elderly members and those with compromised immune systems, or in regions where public gatherings are discouraged or restricted.

The following guidelines are provided to assist pastors and other leaders in offering such services of worship in a faithful and effective way. Please note that these suggestions are offered with temporary or emergency situations in mind, not for long-term use in live streaming worship services. Also be aware that this document is not intended as medical or legal advice; consult a doctor or attorney as needed.

  • Hybrid Gatherings. Many congregations will begin to experiment with live-streaming by providing a way for some people (particularly those who are home- or hospital-bound) to join an existing public gathering by viewing the video feed. In these cases, the order of worship may remain the same for those gathered in person (with the exception of new practices around passing the peace and communion). Leaders should find ways to acknowledge and connect with online participants before, during, and after the service, so they don’t feel isolated from the community. Musical selections that will appear in the video should be in the public domain (see below) or must be omitted from the live-streaming portion of the service.
  • Sacramental Celebration. Where local situations require online-only gatherings, congregations should reschedule and refrain from sacramental celebrations (baptism and the Lord’s Supper) as these require physical presence, material elements and embodied participation.
  • Daily Prayer. Services of daily prayer — such as those found in the “Book of Common Worship(WJKP, 2018) or “Glory to God(WJKP, 2013), or in the PC(USA) Daily Prayer app — are good options for the order of worship when a congregation is gathering primarily or only in virtual space. The primary ingredients of such services are psalms, Scripture, and prayers of thanksgiving and intercession. A sermon or meditation may be included after the reading of Scripture.
  • Congregational Participation. Make use of the features of your chosen media platform to provide for congregational participation through comments, posts, likes, shares, etc.
  • Find other ways to collect the offering, such as giving through text messages or online giving platforms. The Presbyterian Foundation’s online giving service provides a quick and easy way for people to set up regular, automated gifts to the church.
  • Copyright Permission. Be advised that a standard license for congregational song from OneLicense or CCLI will not cover rights and permissions to live-stream the words or music of copyrighted hymns/songs; a special broadcast/streaming license must be purchased. Additionally, anthems, hymn arrangements, and other musical offerings under copyright are not covered by such licenses. These require further permission to broadcast. For this reason, leaders just beginning to explore livestreaming are advised to select hymns and songs in the public domain. For service music and anthems that will be live-streamed, consider using a hymn in the public domain.Gratis streaming licenses are now available from OneLicense through April 15. This will cover a great deal of the copyrighted material in Glory to God. (You can search here to find out what is covered:
  • The Harry Fox Agency is a good source of information for licensing questions regarding choral anthems.
  • Audio/Visual Production. Think carefully about camera (and microphone) placement to allow for clear, non-distracting visuals and good quality audio. Be sure there is adequate lighting and projection or amplification of voices. Be mindful of what appears on screen, especially if you are broadcasting from a place other than the church sanctuary.
  • Technical Specifications. Some leaders will use their smartphones to broadcast video. If you decide to purchase another camera for this purpose, be sure it has HDMI or SDI out components. A digital SLR camera may also be used, but the ability to zoom may be more challenging. You may need special hardware to convert the camera signal into a USB format to stream through your computer.
  • Platforms for Streaming. Commonly used and widely accessible platforms for video-conferencing and live-streaming include Facebook Live, Google Hangout, Periscope, Skype, YouTube, Zoom.

Here is a list of links, articles, and resources that may be useful in learning how to livestream worship services:

This website provides information on copyright laws:

Here is a news story on the live-streaming ministry of Westminster Presbyterian Church in West Chester, Pennsylvania:

Tom Trinidad of has offered set of best practices for pastors and congregations on his blog:

John Fong in Elizabeth Presbytery is working on digital discipleship resources for churches affected by the coronavirus:

The PC(USA) Office of Theology and Worship has drafted a statement that may be used in church newsletters or at the beginning of a worship service.

For further guidance on developing a congregational plan for an outbreak of contagious disease, please see this resource from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (available in English, Korean, and Spanish):

Constitutional interpretation has issued an advisory opinion about congregations and councils continuing to function under the current circumstances.

The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada provides guidance on congregational song:

The information provided here does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal or medical advice; instead, all information, content, and materials available on this site are for general informational purposes only. Information provided here may not constitute the most up-to-date legal, medical or other information. It also contains links to other third-party websites. Such links are only for the convenience of the reader, user or browser; the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), A Corporation and its members do not recommend or endorse the contents of the third-party sites.

Thanks to Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) national staff Mari Elia Evans, David Gambrell, Randy Hobson, William McConnell, Paul Seebeck, and Robyn Davis Sekula, as well as Mary Margaret Flannagan (New York), Mark Koenig (New York), Don Lincoln (Pennsylvania), Tom Trinidad (Colorado), and Nathan Young (Washington) for their contributions to this resource.

Creative_Commons-BYNCNDYou may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.

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