Even with millions recently returning to worship services, the streaming gains achieved in the last few months shouldn’t be discarded. According to Tim Dougherty, senior solutions engineer for Wowza Media Systems, streaming went from a “nice-to-have” solution to a “must-have” solution for many churches, almost overnight.
From a Want to a Need
Prior to the pandemic, some churches experienced very small numbers of regular streaming viewers. When many churches temporarily stopped in-person worship, that changed. Many churches went from 20 to 2,000 people watching, Doughtery noted. Such a dramatic shift caused smaller churches to pivot quickly, now having to commit to streaming. Many churches turned to free options like Facebook Live or YouTube Live. Others turned to conventional streaming options, including StreamMonkey and BoxCast “where there was a lot of activity,” Dougherty said.
This sudden transition to livestreaming by many churches was also seen by Marcus Hammond, church resource director for Stark Raving Solutions in Lenexa, Kansas. “Since a few years ago, a lot of churches didn’t stream,” he said. “Before the pandemic, it was more of a passive experience. Since then, it has become more active.”
As a result, Hammond has seen churches ask much more in-depth questions relating to achieving a quality stream.
“The questions can range about what people value during the streams to, ‘Do we have to have quality audio?’” Hammond said. “There is more concern, care for quality and concern about the experience than before.”
Learning About Improving the Experience
In recent months, various platforms have made significant strides in improvement on streaming, including Church Online Platform.
“It gives you the ability to donate or to connect,” Dougherty said. “You don’t throw up a PowerPoint anymore. There are now many creative pieces to really virtualize the church experience.”
Prior to last year, many churches leaned heavily on their in-person service hospitality. In such a setting, a church often has “a greeter, a church bulletin, doughnuts, coffee and music,” Dougherty said. “In the virtual world, though, churches had to come up with creative ways to leverage getting people to connect.”
Hammond also noted that improving a church’s connectivity also meant upgrading video tools. Oftentimes, a church has opted “to add a camera or two, or add better quality [streaming] cameras,” he said. “That improvement might be where the church is going; from a camera from Best Buy to a PTZ camera.”
The updates don’t stop with video, Hammond explained. “Churches are trying to also make their audio better. That’s because they previously had 10 people watching their stream and now have 150 people watching.”
Starting Small and Adjusting Down the Road
Churches that had not begun streaming before the pandemic were pressured to immediately begin streaming, and they needed a quick solution. A good initial option might seem to be Facebook Premiere, Dougherty added, and churches will think they hit the jackpot. Eventually though, after seeing what churches like Bethel in Redding, California, are doing, “they realize Facebook Premiere is amateur. They then begin asking us, ‘What does it take for us to be a real streaming operation?’”
One instance of recent streaming improvement Dougherty recalled was at a church in southern California. The church had initially begun streaming with someone holding a phone to broadcast the service. “We had a humble and constructive criticism session,” Dougherty said, after which the church upgraded to a newer Mac computer. In addition, the church’s stream was updated using Telestream Wirecast software.
In all, the church spent $3,000 to $4,000 and it “got them into a nice process. It was a drastic improvement from where … they were using a phone,” Dougherty said.
Use Your Starting Options, But Then What?
With the success of Facebook and YouTube Live platforms, it’s no surprise many small churches take that path at first. Even so, Dougherty said a major concern is “giving your privacy away when streaming to one of those services.” A viable alternative for churches is their own encoder for streaming, like an epiphany Pearl, Teradek Cube or a Wowza or Matrox encoder.
“That’s if you want to get serious and have a little bit of a glow,” Dougherty said.
Hammond said that due to likely cost constraints, Facebook or YouTube Live is a starting option for many smaller churches. “For medium and large churches, though, they also are seeking reliability. As a result, they turn to Resi.io or BoxCast, as they do good decoding through ProPresenter.”
Alternatives Serve a Purpose
While a free option might be a logical move for many churches, reliability typically must be part of the equation.
“The [Free] platforms had problems holding up their end of the deal. There was this sudden slam, a new workload they had to do on Sundays across three time zones,” Dougherty said. Therefore, some churches opted “to move back to a real live encoder or private platform.”
Returning to “Normal” — Seeing Value in Recent Practices
As churches begin returning to live services with lessened restrictions, they must decide what happens to their streaming capabilities.
“What they have learned through the pandemic is to stream with excellence,” Dougherty explained. “There’s no need to stop that.” Even with the open access to services largely returning, Dougherty noted those who may still desire livestreamed services such as immune-compromised people and those who have found convenience in online services.
There are other reasons Dougherty sees will cause livestreaming to stay. The ability for a church to now “connect with its congregation online, feature midweek things online and promote financial support online” is something many have become accustomed to.
Hammond agrees. As valuable as video has become in recent months, so too has the importance of audio.
“Audio is 51% of the equation,” Hammond said. “With the combination of video and audio, churches will continue striving for quality audio.” On the video side, he added, “Churches are looking to add two or more cameras while thinking of interesting shots they weren’t thinking of before.”
Plenty of Change, Plenty of Growth
With churches having made significant strides in streaming, many are now tasked with getting back to creating quality live services. Dougherty explained that many church staff people find this process overwhelming.
“I was told how they [church staff] still have to do the meticulous planning for streaming,” Dougherty said. “But they now are getting back to being at the church’s mobile campus at 6:00 a.m. to set up chairs. They also are needing to help unload the big truck and set up their mobile campus on weekends.”
Doughtery believes the juggling act of balancing these new requirements and demands will lead to an increase in staff numbers at churches. Hammond also noted this, saying, “They [church staff] have two jobs. They now have to care about the live experience and stream simultaneously.”
With all the change over the past year or so, it has certainly caused many churches to learn a new way to “connect and reach new people,” Dougherty said. “For many, they have extended their online campus and will continue to do it.”