Churches have always sought better ways to engage the community beyond the walls of the sanctuary. Whether through outreach ministries handing out food in a city park or providing needed yardwork for elderly neighbors, the local church is there to aid and assist by putting legs to the message. Now, in light of the current situation, a new challenge to conducting ministry has arisen. However, technology has developed a reliable, cost-effective solution in the form of live streaming and it is tailor-made for churches who want to reach their congregations and the community at large.
Live streaming, as its name implies, takes a video and audio feed of an event and sends it over the Internet in real-time where it is accessible to viewers. In contrast, a broadcast ministry captures a worship service with multiple high-grade cameras and later combines these discreet images and multi-channel audio via a post-production suite into a finished project, much like a TV show production. While broadcast takes considerable time, money and TV slots, live streaming it accessible and available to practically anyone with a smartphone. However, production values still matter and just because something can be streamed doesn’t mean people will watch it. Let’s look at some ways to engage and improve the viewer’s experience with an eye toward cost-effective solutions.
While it is tempting to simply lean an iPhone against a seat back and call it a day, a little foresight will go a long way toward making a live stream enjoyable and compelling. The first step is to evaluate what the camera will see. If the stage is cluttered, the video will be cluttered as well. Start by cleaning and organizing the platform area. Reroute cables out of sight, put away unused instruments and stands and remove dust and trash from the stage. Next, consider the lighting since it will directly affect the viewer. While the human eye compensates for tone and color, the camera does not, so any mis-match will be clearly evident on the stream. Look at ways to smooth the light level across the width of the platform, including moving and re-aiming lights, changing out lamps in non-LED fixtures and purchasing an inexpensive ($80) light meter.
Once the stage is evenly illuminated, it is time to consider cameras. A web-cam is technically functional, but not appropriate for church environments where the distance between the camera and stage is considerable. A better option is a compact video camera, much like families used to take on vacation, but with the latest technology. These cameras are quite capable of delivering excellent streaming results. One example is the Panasonic HC-V770 ($449) with a 20X zoom lens, meaning it can be placed in the tech booth and still capture tight shots on the stage. This camera also has the required HDMI output, image stabilization and ability to function in HDR (High Dynamic Range) mode to present the best possible image.
A good camera is only as stable as its platform and when shooting from 60’ back, any small movement will be multiplied exponentially, making a high-quality tripod a necessity. Budget about $150 for a decent tripod with a fluid head which makes panning smooth and elegant.
A one-camera shoot is acceptable for ministries just starting out, but that one static shot gets old rather quickly. As soon as funds allow, add a second camera, preferably the same model as the first to maintain consistency. With two cameras, the options expand greatly. Camera one can open the scene with a wide establishment shot while camera two is ready with a close-up of the worship leader as the first song begins. While camera two is tight, camera one can reset to a group shot of the praise team and, once the switch is made, camera one can move over to capture the keyboardist. With this back and forth process, two cameras can look like four when switched correctly.
Speaking of switching, one is needed to take in the various signals and route them to an output. Roland’s VR1-HD ($995) is a good example of a low-cost four-input switcher with all the features needed to combine, process and output HD video in a simple-to-use format. Roland also offers a bundle package with the VR1-HD and a web-streaming video capture device for $1195. The HDMI to USB 3.0 device is vital as it allows direct connection from the switcher to a computer for uploading to the web. A popular stand-alone video encoder is the BMD Ultra Studio Mini Recorder ($150) which adheres to the Open Broadcast Software (OBS) format.
Video is only one-half the streaming equation since audio is equally as vital to success. One low-cost way to deliver clear audio to a stream is to dedicate a post-fade (FX) send on the church mixing console to handling audio for video. If the main mixer outputs are sent to streaming, the result is a mix minus the room as it reflects what is missing in the room experience. With an aux send, the stream mix can be built independently of the room mix and tailored to the stream needs. Typically, a stream audio mix will have lower vocals, more rhythm and some audience response added to it to balance the mix properly for viewers at home.
Once all the pieces are in place, a streaming service is necessary to take the signal and deliver it to the viewers. Ministries just starting out can use YouTube Live or Facebook Live to get a feel for the medium, but will want to upgrade to a paid service as soon as possible. Free services tend to have unwanted ads which can be inappropriate and their uptime is often compromised. A dedicated premium service will have tech support, free recording, no ads and reliable delivery, making it an obvious choice considering the value of the presented material. A solid and fast internet connection is also a requirement.
After a few Sundays, live streaming will become as natural as the service in the room. Some things to note include: make use of graphics and visuals as much as possible to improve retention of the material, keep movements smooth and seamless, think ahead to the next shot and focus only on the key elements.
In summary, live streaming represents an excellent way to broaden the reach of ministry at a reasonable expense and will be an essential tool as the church moves forward.
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Kent Morris is a 40-year veteran of the AVL arena driven by passion for excellence tempered by the knowledge digital is a temporary state.