Text and pictures by Ruben den Boer
The prohibition of religious gatherings above 30 persons has forced churches across Europe into digital overdrive. Evangelical church De Brug in Nieuwkoop, a rural town in the Netherlands, records their services to broadcast for the congregation. But with the camera’s rolling, self-consciousness takes over.
“Remind me to put on my shoes when we start recording”, says Ellen Pieters (45), the brown-haired vocalist who has been wearing flip-flops under her wide, beige pants and white top since she entered the church. It is half-past 7 on a Wednesday evening. The warm summer sun seeps into the modern building of Evangelical church De Brug. Underneath the suspended ceiling, chairs stand 1,5 meters apart, cameras are being set up and a small group of musicians is trying to find a safe spot on the stage. The only thing resembling a regular service is the cheap coffee that would usually proceed a service at De Brug.
Tonight, the drummer, keyboard player, guitarist and two vocalists of the De Brug’s worship team, are recording two songs. These will later be combined with a recorded sermon, scripture reading, and a round of announcements. The 133 members of the Evangelical church in Nieuwkoop have been enjoying the weekly services like this for the past eight weeks.
Ever since the Dutch government prohibited religious gatherings above 30 persons, churches across the country have been forced to find new ways of practising their faith. Some Catholic churches celebrate mass in an empty church, priests are calling with their elderly followers, and other churches limit their services to 29 persons. Most churches, though, seek opportunities in digital technology, something that was unthinkable to many Christians just months ago.
With the drummer sound checking in the background, bearded bandleader Ruben Duivenman (32), who opted for a simple T-shirt and jeans, praises the creativity of the Dutch churches: “There are so many innovative initiatives popping up. Not only by the big churches, but also small churches like ours”, he screams over the rumbling kick-drum. “The Mozaiek church in Veenendaal live streams a service for kids each Sunday morning, my 4-year-old loves it! There are also podcasts being made for teenagers. These are things that weren’t there before, but I hope some of them will remain once everything returns to normal.”
Ruben searches for his sheet music while he admits that there are also downsides to this digital revolution. “I’m much more practical when I prepare a recorded service. Usually, I have the chance to tell a story with the songs I pick out, I can work towards a climax. Now we only play two songs, that makes storytelling hard. On top of that, I have to pick out songs that we can play well in this alternative setting. I have to be realistic.” Once everybody is set up, it quickly becomes clear why Ruben limits himself to just two songs.
It’s half-past nine and the sun has lost his golden warmth. A regular service would have ended already, and the musicians would have been enjoying some more cheap coffee by now. Instead, they are just wrapping up the sixth repetition of the first song of the night. “People are supercritical when watching an online service”, Ellen explains while she finally trades her flip-flops for high heels. “Normally around 120 people are singing along with us. If you miss a note or mispronounce a word, it will often go unnoticed. Now, every mistake is audible.”
It’s this self-consciousness that set the tone during the whole evening. The singers’ position on the stage is moved around, camera angles are checked, microphone holders are put to the side. Everything revolves around a perfect visual presentation and a flawless musical execution. “I’m glad we don’t live stream our services. I wouldn’t be able to do it”, Ellen adds with a sheepish laugh, while she makes her way back to her spot on the stage. She’s just in time: Ruben counts the band in. Three red, blinking camera lights stare them down. It’s showtime.
After the last notes have rung out, the musicians search for a seat at a safe distance from each other. With visible focus, they face the large, wooden cross that hangs behind the stage. Ruben has found a Spa water bottle which he is now leaning his chin on. The song that they just performed is being played back to them through the two black loudspeakers hanging from the ceiling. A great advantage of recording a service is that you can listen back to it immediately.
A sigh of relief and smiles on the musicians’ faces convey that the first recording was good enough, but there is still one more song to go. The self-awareness and subsequent perfectionism that the cameras have brought into the church make for long nights. The summer evening glow has long been replaced by the dark veil of night. But in De Brug, the lights will remain on for hours to come.
Upon request, Ellen’s last name is an alias.