Olly Knight, musician and worship leader for The City Church in Canterbury, has found remarkable inspiration in live streaming amidst a total shift in how he reaches and leads worship with his congregation. For the past 18 years, he has been a part of the worship team at City Church. Seven years ago he took on the role of leader of a team of around 30-35 musicians. “We’ve got four set bands and then we’ve got three other leaders that lead acoustically at a smaller site that we had in a village just down the road from Canterbury before the pandemic.”

The team is like a family, “Everyone’s very humble, everyone’s very faithful,” he says. “We have singers, musicians, and  about ten or eleven worship leaders. I think that’s been really big on my heart over the last ten years. To just raise up more worship leaders that not only can sing the songs, but really care about the people they’re leading through the time of worship.” Throughout the week the team would host group meetings, spending time to nurture and equip and practice musically. 

On Sundays, the worship experience was very community led, “We’d have people coming up sharing scriptures, sharing pictures, sharing impressions from God, and it would be very much a community together at the time of worship.”

And then, of course, lockdown happened. “It’s been really different, to be honest. We were like, right, what we do? We didn’t have any equipment to do live streams or anything. So I literally just recorded worship on my phone here in my home study.”

Olly Knight leads digital worship from his home, with just a guitarPre-Recording Worship and Feeling Disconnected

“We stripped everything back so that it was just me to phone on the acoustic, just singing. And our pastor recorded preaching on his phone in his lounge just because we couldn’t really do anything else. So that’s how it started,” he says.

But prerecording everything during the week felt unsatisfactory and disconnected. They carried on in this manner for a month, but the feeling of disconnect was discouraging and Olly and his team knew they had to make a shift. 

“We started involving an online band. I’d record a bit, send onto the drummer who’d recorded over that, send under the bassist, and so on. For the visual, we’d create a grid system on the screen, so the congregation would see the band together,” he say. This would take round 20-hours a week to pull together and edit. While the response was initially great from the congregation, it soon lost its effect. 

“The congregation was really appreciating at first. But then we found after a while they were kind of just really wanting us to step back and be authentic. Not to say that a big band isn’t authentic, but in this context there was a need to strip back to just one person on one instrument.” 

Keeping it Simple with Live Stream

After some feedback, the church’s leadership, including Olly, knew something had to change. “I think people were feeling like they were just tuning into any pre-recorded YouTube channel. Which they were. It just didn’t have the interaction and was beginning to feel too predictable in the style.”  So once again, they made a shift. This time to live streaming. With the church closed indefinitely (City Church in Canterbury rents space in a public school, which is too problematic for cleanliness adherence), they adapted. 

“We’ve changed our church offices into a soft of studio. It’s all black backgrounds and nice lights. And we’ve invested in monitors so we can see people’s comments as we live stream. And we basically just started a simple set up where it’s broadcasting from the offices. Live worship, live preaching, live host and staying distant.” In practice this means that there’s one worship leader per service. If they’re part of a household of another singer or another musician, then two people can lead. “Musically, it’s a lot simpler. But I think people are really engaging with it,” he says.

And for now, this setup is working. “Nothing’s going to replace everyone’s singing together in the same place. And we long for that. But live streaming is better than what we were doing.”

Finding Inspiration in God in Dark Times

Soon after lockdown, Olly and his family had to quarantine when his young son developed a cough. Olly, unable to be the outgoing worship leader, felt a nudge for a new outlet. “With the cough we were not allowed outside. And I was then thinking, man, I just want to sing! and I just want to praise and pray with other people. I just felt a natural push from God to do something about it.”

That night, Olly launched an endeavour that would prove to be a beacon of light in dark times. “I never really use my music Facebook page too much. But I thought, you know what, Facebook seems to like live videos and I’ve never really led like this before. But let’s just let’s see how it goes”. 

For the first, in what would become an ongoing event, Olly made a graphic and prepared three songs, prepared a bit of scripture teaching that he could pray into. He built it for anyone having to self-isolate and just wanted to praise with a few other people. “And I thought, you know, if it’s me and 20 other people, that would be great. So I put out on Facebook and Twitter and I woke up and it had been shared hundreds of times!”

The event which he called “Come Sing with Me,” was a simple setup with a big impact. Featuring Olly with just his guitar in his study, and using only his cell phone, he went live every day and sang. It attracted up to 700, joining in and singing along.  

He continued this open invitation every weekday. “It’s been amazing just hearing testimonies. People who were struggling in lock down were joining in the morning worship, sharing their stories, and sharing God’s love.” They also shared the series with non-Christian friends and family members who also felt the pull. 

When One Door Closes, Another Door Opens

“I never did it as a form of work. And I never I never expected it to bring support to me and my family,” said Olly of the daily worship series.

About two weeks into “Come and Sing with Me” a friend of Olly’s recognised the financial burden that loss of work was probably having on Olly’s family. Besides worship leader, he typically photographs around 20 weddings a year. This year he only had a few. Most are on hold until after the restrictions lift.

A friend shared a”Go Fund Me” with people that were tuning in daily and quickly raised enough to help support his family through this loss of work. “I just thought, well, I’m just going to give myself to this. And if this is God saying, you know, you don’t need to look for other work, I basically just gave myself for the summer to do Come and Sing with Me,” he says.

Spreading the Blessings with Others

The outpouring of generosity and encouragement led Olly to release a pandemic-inspired album to help raise funds for other musicians whose livelihood was impacted. 

You Hold the World Pandemic LPI’ve received a lot and really seen God’s generosity providing for me and my family. And I saw my friends who were really in in desperate need of work. So many friends lost their work. I had this bank of songs I’d written during lockdown. I just thought, let’s record these songs and try to do an album.”

Each musician recorded on the limited equipment they had in their homes. Together they launched a Kickstarter with a goal of raising £4,500 in 30 days. They met the goal in less than 24 hours.

Inspired, they decided to offer CDs for the older generation who maybe missed out on the Facebook Live events. In the end, they raised £10,000 in 30 days. Olly, laughing, admits to a promise he made (and kept) if they reached that stretch goal, “I said on Come and Sing with Me, ‘if it gets to ten grand I’m going to do an Irish dance in my wife’s leggings in the kitchen. And we got there. I think the evidence is still up on social media somewhere and they are trying my best Michael Flatley impression!” 

The album features songs about the hope that we can have in Jesus, even in this moment. “We don’t sing because of our circumstances. We sing because He’s the victor”

The album pushes the boundaries for Olly, musically and creatively as well. “The one lyric that’s really stayed with me throughout the whole pandemic is when the darkness gets dark, your light will shine brighter. And then coupled with that, when the troubles are greater, our songs will grow louder.” 

Inviting Leadership and New Voices

Leading daily worship meant a lot to Olly as well as those who tuned in. But it was also difficult at times. “Since September, I’ve given it to others people to lead and it’s been amazing. I think I’ve been blessed more through doing it than people showing it the love.”

Leaning into his feeling that there are other great worship leaders out there, the series now has five leaders. “It’s been great just seeing them running their own days and not having it all linked to me.”

This is part of a recognition that burnout is all too easy. “After starting come and sing with me after doing it for a while, I realized that my quiet times were effectively planning Come and Sing with Me. I was really reminded of the Mary and Martha passage and I felt like Martha. I was going around and doing all this stuff and preparing, getting everything ready. And I actually needed to be more like Mary singing to Jesus, and enjoying time with him and listening to what He was saying”

The 2020 Come and Sing with Me line up of worship leaders

Alice Watts in London with her guitar does Mondays. Tuesday it’s Philip Moore in Nottingham who leads on keys. Wednesdays Lou and Nathan Fellingham share leadership – he plays the keys while she leads. Olly’s kept Thursdays. Then on Fridays it’s Simon and Anna Brading. They will keep up this path through December and then see how it goes. 

Relying almost entirely on word of mouth or social sharing, Olly and his friends continue to reach hundreds weekly from all over the world. Some have even tuned in for the Sunday services at Christ Church. 

Whether You’ve Been Online or Are Just Getting Online Now: Spreading Worship

“Leading to a camera when you are used to attending to people in your room is so different. So don’t be surprised if you get discouraged. Don’t be surprised if you get fatigued by doing it. But just think about who ultimately you are singing to and think about who you’re serving as well. And so just try and refresh yourself in Jesus.”

A few other tips for leading worship online 

  • Remember,  you’ve got every reason to sing. 
  • Carry on encouraging people in what you’re singing and in what you’re bringing in between the songs 
  • Facial expressions really matter, let your face show that delight! 
  • Showed the joy in the Lord and how you lead. 
  • Enthusiasm in how you sing and in the encouragement you bring as well.

“I think it’s important to try different things sometimes. So try getting people to read out scripture where they are in the homes together, try to engage with families and kids as well,” Olly says in closing.

You can catch Olly on Thursdays on “Come and Sing with Me” and stream his album “You Hold the World/Lockdown LP” on Spotify.