For Reverend Kevin Williams of the Holy Trinity Baptist Church in Brooklyn, New York, the pandemic has been devastating for the social, in-person tradition of church services. Back before the pandemic, Sunday crowds would range from 40 or 50 people to nearly 150 on especially busy days. Now, those numbers are basically zero. “It’s been very, very, very tough,” Williams says.
But that hasn’t stopped him from preaching, albeit remotely. “When this first started, I went right into my living room and I started preaching,” Williams says. “Then I said no, I can’t do this in my living room because I’m feeling a little stifled.” So he and other church elders gathered in the church with some basic technology and started preaching to a remote congregation – over the internet and by phone. “We’re on YouTube, we’re on Free Conference Call,” he says. He’s even started experimenting with broadcast sermons on Facebook Live. “We had to make major adjustments to the time that we’re living in.”
Williams is not alone. Churches across the country are experimenting with taking their services online, and recruiting the help of video streaming companies such as TruthCasting and StreamingChurch.tv. But Williams wants to take the idea even further, beyond the temporary pandemic response to a new way of running a ministry. As part of a church redesign started before the pandemic, the Holy Trinity Baptist Church is adding a new feature that may become a more commonplace part of places of worship: a video studio.
Tucked in a corner of the new building, the studio will be professional grade, with a small engineering booth looking into a larger soundproofed room with space for a full band. The video studio will be a dedicated space for Williams to record and broadcast himself to his congregants wherever they are.
“What the studio’s going to help me to do is to be able to speak to people in their homes directly, and hope and pray that they will come to church,” he says. “Because the great minds are not always in church. There are some great minds that are at home but they need to be sought out. So this is going to help me seek them where they are.”
The video studio was first suggested to Williams by Victor Body-Lawson, the architect behind the redesign of the church. As new development has come to this section of Brooklyn, between Stuyvesant Heights and Bushwick, low-rise churches like Holy Trinity Baptist are being redeveloped into mid-rise, mixed-use developments, with the churches retaining a street-level presence and apartments or condos rising above. Body-Lawson says this has given churches the opportunity and financial capacity to rethink their spaces. For the Holy Trinity Baptist Church, originally built in the late 1800s as a theater, the redesign offers a chance to redefine how the church interacts with its congregants.
Other smaller churches are also considering adding their own recording studios, and Body-Lawson is already working on adding a studio to the plans for another Brooklyn church redevelopment.
He says the studio at Holy Trinity Baptist Church will be “plug-and-play,” ready at the flip of a switch to record or broadcast the pastor – ”and maybe even the choir,” Body-Lawson says.
But Williams says a fully remote church is not the goal. Much is lost when he’s unable to preach to people in person, he says. “Especially the feedback. You know like if you say something good, you can hear somebody say ‘amen,'” he says. With a one-way video feed, “you can’t hear them express themselves.”
Given the pace of real estate development and the process of construction, the studio is not going to be a short-term solution. The entire development is expected to complete construction sometime in 2022. But the studio can be a new part of the way the church works, Williams says. He’s planning to use it not only to preach, but also to conduct direct visits to older congregants who can’t physically come to the building, and to send out messages to the congregation that would have otherwise been printed out on paper. Overall, he says the studio is a powerful new way to keep his congregation connected.
“We’re living in uncertain times right now,” Williams says. “So part of the reason why I need for that development to happen is so that if anything else goes wrong then I can still be able to reach God’s people, by video.”
He’s hoping that in the post-pandemic future the studio will enable him to expand the types of offerings the church provides, and open up avenues for new partnerships. He’s planning to use the studio outside of service times to conduct video interviews with other church leaders from other faiths throughout New York, and maybe beyond, as a way of reaching new potential members through the screen.
“It may not be big right away. But if we start off small and we see that people are gravitating to it, we’ll be able to expand our ministry and expand ourselves,” he says.