A View from the Pew: Adventures in Live Streaming

If your church began live streaming worship during the pandemic, chances are someone in your church made the joke on social media, “Look! The pastor is a televangelist now!”

I don’t have hard data, but anecdotally, I can say every church I know offered some form of recorded worship during the pandemic. Our church sent out via email each week an order of worship with embedded links to YouTube videos of the Scripture reading, sermon, hymns and solos. You may recall a prior piece I wrote about what parts of the service remote worshippers skipped.

We didn’t dip our toes into the world of live streaming until relatively recently when our worship services moved back inside the building from the parking lot. We wanted to offer those who were still unable or uncomfortable worshipping together indoors an option to participate at home.

If you’re on the Audio/Visual Committee in your church, now is your time. If you run the sound board, you’ve never had a moment like this in the tenure of your service. Our church, like a lot of churches, is blessed to have a couple of really smart guys, Jim and Chad, who understand the technology and know how to make things work. They helped us navigate the transition and overcome some early hiccups.

I played a very small role in the effort, which gave me a front row seat to the decisions we were having to make. I also called my youngest brother, a pastor near Dallas, Texas, who walked me through everything his church does and explained how they gradually ramped up their equipment and sophistication. Now, they live stream each week on both Facebook and YouTube with a multi-camera set up that can show both the person at the podium and whatever is on their video screens. Many weeks, his teenage son runs the whole operation.

I’m also currently chairing a pastor search committee and have enjoyed a wide variety of online presentations of worship services as we conduct our due diligence. I’ve seen streaming worship done well, and I’ve seen it done not as well. Here’s what I’ve learned from this experience. Perhaps you can relate.

Technical difficulties are inevitable. Most churches don’t have the resources of Netflix, Disney+, Amazon Prime, or Hulu. Streaming is not built into churches’ business models. When there is a problem with the live feed, and there will inevitably be a problem, give grace, be patient, and don’t give up.

Equipment makes all the difference. I’m not so tech savvy that I can recommend specific devices and set ups, but I can recognize the difference between a good live stream and a bad one. The first week we live streamed at our church, we didn’t have a lot of time to prepare. I set my laptop on a stepladder in the back of the sanctuary and used the built-in camera and microphone to capture the video and stream it through our YouTube channel. It was as simple and straightforward as you can get.

Audio was inconsistent. Video was often blocked by people walking or standing in front of it, and nearby construction has knocked out our internet connection multiple times, forcing us to switch at the last minute to a personal internet hotspot that relied on cellular data transmission.

Now we have a computer connected to our soundboard, and we are using live streaming software. We have the audio from the mixing board feeding directly into the computer, so the sound is clear and appropriately amplified. We have multiple camera locations in the sanctuary so we can switch from a wide angle to a narrow field of view. Adding just a few pieces of good equipment has made a tremendous impact.

Finding an answer to one question raises five more. Live streaming is deceptively complex. Do not attempt to figure it out a half hour before worship. It requires researching solutions and best practices. It takes money to buy the equipment you need to do it well. It takes experience with delivery platforms like Facebook, Vimeo, and YouTube, and you have to be able to communicate to your members and potential members where and how they can watch. Even if you start simply, you will quickly get in over your head.

Live streaming can be unintentionally hilarious. Worship is important to me, and I have stressed to my children that they must behave during the service. That can be hard with live streaming. I suppressed a giggle when I watched one pastor deliver an impassioned Easter sermon with two choir members in the frame behind him in dueling gigantic hats. I’ve seen feeds drop at inopportune times and heard comments captured on camera not intended for the viewing audience.

I inadvertently provided such a moment in the opening seconds of our church’s inaugural live stream. I stood in front of my laptop starting the stream on YouTube while my youngest son stood behind me waving at the camera. The first words would-be digital worshippers heard when they logged on was me angrily saying, “Will you get out of here!” That was not exactly a warm welcome to worship.

Live streaming is an adventure for churches in this unusual time. My prayer for your church is that you are able to figure out a solution with minimal cost and disruption.

And if you were hoping live streaming would go away before you had to deal with it, I’ve got bad news for you. Everyone’s preacher is now a televangelist, and live streaming is here to stay—at least until someone cuts the church’s internet connection.

Lance Wallace is a Baptist layperson and member of Parkway Baptist Church in Johns Creek, GA. He earns a living in higher education communications and writes a blog at newsouthessays.com.

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