Among the many ramifications about the spread of COVID-19 is a sudden need for churches everywhere to rethink their Sunday services, moving from a physical to an online gathering for a season.
But livestreaming a sermon or Sunday service can be a daunting challenge, especially for small-to-medium-sized churches that lack the budget and team to execute such a production. The following is a practical guide for how small- or medium-sized churches can get started in livestreaming.
What Platform Should We Use?
The two major options for video livestreaming are Facebook and YouTube, but there are other options. It’s worth considering the pros and cons of each.
- Facebook. Facebook is an easy choice because most churches have invested time and resources into their Facebook pages. If you use Facebook, you’ll be able to reach some of your existing followers via a notification that your church is “going live.” The negatives of Facebook Live are also worth considering. Facebook is monetized by content producers who pay to have their content reach more people. For this reason, Facebook is incentivized not to help your live video reach your entire audience. They want you to pay for an expanded audience. In practice, I’ve found that Facebook Live video notifications are received by about one-third of page followers. Another consideration is that, although Facebook Live videos are accessible to non-Facebook users, the interface and ease of access is limited. If you wanted, for example, to embed your weekly video on your website for those who couldn’t watch live, Facebook Live videos are not easy to work with. Despite these setbacks, Facebook Live may make sense for your church depending on your existing presence on Facebook and how you want to handle the videos after they’re complete. For a how-to guide for Facebook Live, check out this post. The most helpful thing you can do is to a trial run with the privacy setting on “private.” This will allow you to test the interface before going public for the first time.
- YouTube. Most small- to medium-sized churches tend not to invest much time or energy into YouTube. For that reason, I suspect many churches doing live video for the first time will select a different option. Despite the challenge of setting up a new YouTube channel for your church (linked to a Google account in YouTube), there are some excellent reasons to consider YouTube. First, YouTube monetizes its platform via advertisements and not via content producers. This means YouTube is incentivized to make your video available as broadly as possible, encouraging you to create more content and reach more viewers (in hopes that you’ll be eligible for advertisements sooner rather than later). Like Facebook, subscribers receive notifications when your channel goes live, and I’ve found their notifications are more ubiquitous than Facebook’s non-boosted live videos. YouTube plays well with websites, embedding nicely after the video is finished, and you can also share the video link on Facebook. A missional consideration for YouTube is that their platform is the primary place where millennials and Gen-Z go for content consumption. YouTube provides much easier on-ramps for non-churched people to discover your livestream. Here’s an article on how to go live on YouTube.
- Zoom. Depending on what kind of live format you want to pursue, Zoom is a reliable method for smaller and more intimate gatherings. For example, some of the house churches in China have used Zoom to enable pastors to continue teaching small groups while they cannot meet in their main facilities. A number of churches also use Zoom to facilitate Bible studies, staff meetings, and sermon discussions throughout the week. Zoom is free if your meetings are less than 100 people and shorter than 40 minutes. If you go larger or longer, you’ll need to pay. Other alternatives such as Skype and Google Hangouts Meet are viable options, but issues with reliability have pushed many organizations toward Zoom.
- Third-party options. Although a variety of alternatives to Facebook and YouTube exist (even some built specifically for churches), these seem less helpful for a number of reasons. First, your church members already “live” in certain online spaces (such as Facebook and YouTube). It’s far easier to provide them resources on platforms they know than to try to implement something new. Second, Facebook and YouTube are well-maintained and reliable. They tend to behave in expected ways (both when they succeed and when they fail!) whereas non-standard platforms can experience many unexpected technical issues.
Best Practices for Church Livestream
Once you’ve landed on a platform, you need to consider what format your livestream experience will take. Here are some common questions and best practices to consider.
Should we attempt to stream an entire service, or just the preaching/teaching?
If you’re doing more than singing music written before the 1920s, you are likely performing copyrighted content. There are complex ways of handling this, but for simplicity’s sake and legal reasons, I would recommend omitting the musical portion of your worship service from the livestream. If there are announcements you’d like to give or specific issues you want to address, just keep in mind that you are potentially reaching a worldwide audience. You also want to ensure that your camera is placed in a way that does not capture minors, victims of abuse, and so on, for their safety and for your own legal purposes.
Should we stream monologue preaching or attempt something different?
The best use of a live video is not a camera in the back of the room gathering content, but video where the speaker engages with the live comments either during the video or afterward, via comments or in person. Churches attempting to livestream for a congregation that is entirely remote may feel more comfortable retaining the traditional preaching model. But it seems worthwhile to consider encouraging viewers to comment with questions or feedback that can be answered following the sermon. Someone running the camera can be monitoring comments on a separate device and preparing them for the post-sermon discussion time.
Alternatively, some churches may opt to more strategically use livestreaming in a dialogical or hybrid format, breaking up teaching with designated Q&A slots (“Be sure to comment, and I’ll discuss your questions in 10 minutes”) or engaging in ongoing audience interaction throughout the video (“Thanks for your question, ____, let’s answer that . . .”). Zoom or other more direct video mediums may lend themselves to a more dialogical environment if you don’t mind limiting the audience.
How should we place the camera, interact with the camera, or set the stage?
Live camera placement always looks best when the angle is eye-level with the speaker. In an ideal live-only scenario, the speaker is speaking directly to the camera, making eye contact with the video viewers. Angles from below the speaker tend to be unflattering. Simple lighting in the form of lamps, a ring light, or a basic lighting kit can go a long way toward enhancing your video, depending on how you engage with the camera.
What technology should we use?
If you are starting from scratch when it comes to video-recording technology, here are some options to consider, tiered according to your budget and the tech skills of your team.
Level 1 is shooting live video via mobile phone. The strength here is in its portability and cost. It’s essentially free (you could add the cost of a $20 phone mount and a $30 microphone to improve quality), and it provides a great, informal experience that lends itself well to live video platforms, providing a personal and “behind the scenes” experience for followers that can be lost as production quality escalates.
Level 2 is shooting video via a dedicated live camera. The dominant player in this space is the Mevo camera. For somewhere in the $500 to 1,000 range, the Mevo provides a great solution for live video. Production quality on the Mevo is significantly higher than the mobile phone, retains some of the informality of the platform, and provides a cheap fixed-point live video solution. Starting at level 2, you’ll be able to broadcast to both Facebook and also YouTube at the same time.
Level 3 is a hybrid solution that gives you more control than Mevo but doesn’t require a substantial media budget. One of the best examples here is Boxcast. For $100 per month, you get the hardware and software necessary for streaming your service on the web. You’ll also need to invest in cameras capable of HD capture (in the $500–1,000 range per camera) as well as a high-quality microphone and amplification (perhaps what your church already uses will work). Other computer-based software solutions (such as Restream or OBS) can achieve some of the results of Boxcast with a little experimentation and technical know-how.
Level 4 involves HD video capture that is processed and streamed live via multiple cameras. Level 4 is usually only accessible for churches with seven-figure budgets or substantial media teams. Production quality is extremely high, but it’s also important to note the principle of Ockham’s razor: the more cameras, audio equipment, computers, streaming software, and so on that are involved, the more likely it is that something will go disastrously wrong. An organization should only attempt level 4 live production when an experienced team is at the helm.
Deciding between these approaches involves three factors:
Budget: Level 1 will cost between $0 and $50. Level 2 is between $500 and $1,000. Level 3 is a $1,200 per year investment with initial costs around $1,000. Level 4 could easily start around $10,000.
Crew: Talk with your deacons, pastors, or A/V team to determine what they’re comfortable with or use most often. At the same time, be cautious about committing to obscure or complex hardware, software, or streaming methods that won’t work unless a single member of the team is able run them.
Vision: Although your church may be making a temporary compromise with livestreaming, wise planning for how you invest during this season can reap dividends for your ministry down the road. So, make sure that whatever purchases you make or methods you try will serve you well in the long run. Think about future uses of your technology, should you decide to stop livestreaming your services. This might include midweek update videos, pre-recorded announcements, baptism or other testimonies, special non-Sunday teaching series, Q&A videos, or non-English teaching videos. Perhaps consider doing a special daily series of videos for Holy Week or during Advent.
Slow and Grow
When it comes to livestreaming, start slow and grow with time. Allow your first attempt to feel like a disaster, but be sure to debrief, look at comments, examine analytics, and make your next attempt a success. Ask other pastors in your area or in your network to provide insight on best practices. Consider hosting a Zoom call with the A/V leaders in each church.
Through this collaboration, you may find ways to improve your efforts while helping other churches grow in their capabilities as well.
Portions of this article are excerpted and modified from a previous article on the author’s personal blog.