By: Craig Foster

sanctuary“Now that we have a camera in the sanctuary, what’s the cheapest and easiest way we can get our services online?” 

That simple question from our pastor started our venture into livestreaming our worship services over seven years ago. We had just launched a new worship service in our fellowship hall, and we installed a camera on the front of the balcony so that all would hear the same scriptures and sermon, regardless of which service they attended. We were already live on the radio and streaming audio online. So livestreaming video was the next logical step, but it was an afterthought at first, with no budget to make it happen.

Today we no longer send video from the sanctuary to that service in our fellowship hall, but our livestream has become mission-critical. Before too long, we had a room full of our members at a retirement home 45 minutes away watching a big TV with laptop plugged into it, bulletins that were mailed to them, and a stack of hymnals nearby. Each Sunday they worship with their church family over the Internet. We turn the livestream on for them about 15 minutes before the service begins so that they can see their friends walk into the sanctuary. Now when I visit the hospital, I remind our members that they can join in worship with us from their hospital bed, and that can mean so much to them. We have homebound members who watch every Sunday. We have people who send us notes to say they watched from the mountains or the beach. Grandparents will tune in to watch baptisms and children’s choirs. It has been amazing to see the impact that this has had!

Once we were set up to livestream, we started livestreaming at other times of the week as well. We livestream most of our Wednesday educational programs. One year, we followed Jim Davison’s Year of the Bible with monthly sessions to introduce each month’s readings. We livestreamed these sessions to get broader participation. Didn’t start in January? No problem! Just start today and you can go through this time next year, using the online videos and PDF handouts to guide and encourage you. One couple completed it over and over again for three years! Occasionally, we will even livestream a funeral for a family member far away.

Here are a few things we have learned along the way:

  1. The purpose of livestreaming is different from television or radio broadcasts. Over-the-air or cable broadcasts can be outreach ministries, but people have to be looking for your online video. We are clear that our purpose is to connect with our members who can’t be at church in person. Combined with at-home communion visits, livestreaming is a very effective tool for that purpose.
  2. It doesn’t have to be complicated! I have visited churches with multi-million-dollar video control rooms, but our single-camera setup in the sanctuary fulfills its intended purpose equally well. Today, anyone with a smartphone can stream live video online. Set your sights a little higher than that, but don’t be afraid to test the waters with a very modest setup.
  3. Two cameras are better than one. With one camera, your audience sees every pan, tilt and zoom, including all the little tweaks to get things dialed in just right. With a second camera, you can set up shots before they are live. This requires a video switcher, which adds to the cost, however. We still run only one camera in our sanctuary (bringing in a second on rare occasions). But our new setup in the fellowship hall is starting with two cameras and is wired for several more. Using video switching software rather than hardware can help keep costs down.
  4. Be mindful of copyright. Just because you may sing a piece of music legally in worship doesn’t mean that you can stream it legally on the Internet or post recordings on your website. The major omnibus music licensing agencies such as CCLI, OneLicense.net, and CCS all have add-ons for online video. Many churches choose to post recordings of only the scripture and sermon to the website to avoid copyright issues.
  5. You need a video streaming service. The most popular choices for churches seem to be Livestream, YouTube Live, Facebook Live, and ChurchStreaming.tv, though there are a number of others. Some services provide everything you need to send video to them. In most cases, you will need a computer with a video capture card, encoding software, a camera, and an Internet connection with adequate upload speed. When comparing streaming services, consider whether they have telephone support on Sunday morning and how easy it is to watch on a smartphone or tablet.
  6. The beauty of live video is that there are no do-overs. You can do more, but the only editing we do after the fact is to trim the excess video before and after the actual service. Beyond that, it is what it is!
  7. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Consider visiting both bigger and smaller churches that livestream. It’s helpful to know how the pros do it, but it’s also helpful to know how to do things on a shoestring. That said, chart your own course based on your purpose. We do things differently from every church I have ever visited, but it’s right for our members and the volunteers that run the equipment.
  8. Be affirming! It’s easy to feel like you are simply livestreaming into the void. We provide an online guestbook with a comments field next to the live video window on our website. We frequently get comments about how much the livestream means to people. I always forward those on to the team.

passort-photoThe Rev. L. Craig Foster is the Associate Pastor of Education and Discipleship at First Presbyterian Church in Spartanburg, SC. He has just completed a two-month sabbatical in which he surveyed, interviewed, and visited churches to explore how congregations are effectively using technology in ministry. He can be reached at [email protected].