Live Streaming: Why Most Churches Probably Shouldn’t

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As someone who loves technology, is invested in the future of the church and longs to see it use technology well for the furthering of our mission, this might seem like a strange article to write. Yet it feels important, so I’m just going to say it.

Most churches probably shouldn’t be live streaming their services.

There I said it. It might seem to fly in the face of common sense, it might even upset a few people but I’m increasingly convinced it is the best advice I can offer. Why would I possibly think this?

Megaphone

Live Streaming For Churches So Far

Churches have been live streaming their services and events for a fairly long time now. I still remember logging on to the IHOP live stream (Not the pancakes – they are definitely better enjoyed in-person) more than 10 years ago to enjoy their worship, beamed across the globe to my living room. So live streaming is not a new thing. It has undoubtedly allowed churches to reach people both locally and globally bringing worship, teaching and ministry to the furthest corners of the earth. As churches have sought to harness the power of the internet, live streaming has provided a sense of immediacy and togetherness that has been powerful.

Rewind to March 2020 and the start of a global pandemic. The weeks and months that followed were what I’ll call “The Great Online Scramble”. Churches realised that they had no choice. They had to figure out the online digital world quick if they were to survive at all. Or at least that’s how it felt. The model for how to do this was already there. The handful of very large and well resourced churches who had been broadcasting their services for years.

What seemed simple at first soon became massively complex! It turns out that even with the reduced cost of streaming technology it is still a real challenge to do live streaming “well”. It turns out sticking a phone on a tripod at the back of the room was not enough to do it well. Separate broadcast and live audio mixes, multiple camera angles, multiple volunteers to operate words and visuals and audio.

In the summer of 2020 most churches across the entire globe reached for live streaming to broadcast their services onto the internet – to a global audience. For those stuck at home it was like a pick n mix of church worship services. You could join any church anywhere, not just the local one down the road.

It has now become a default for many churches approach to their online presence. I suspect however this may be a case of getting swept up in the moment rather than an intentional step forward. Let me explain.

Here are 3 reasons why live streaming your service is probably not the right choice for most churches.

1. Service Broadcasts Create Spectators

This season has given most of us a chance to experience a broadcasted church service or two. At the simplest these are a single camera at the back of the church which captures the worship, notices and talk of the normal service. The more complex simply add many camera angles and clever production touches. This is the most common approach certainly.

In these settings we are mostly anonymous and we can be sitting in our joggers eating breakfast whilst it all happens. When we sit down to watch something on our TV or laptop we slip by default into a passive posture. We simply don’t respond in the same ways as when we are in the same room that the service is in. If we get thirsty we pop out the room and put the kettle on. I’ve seen very few people actually stand for the worship and raise their arms in adoration. Most sit back and watch the worship band whilst perhaps managing to mouth along to the words. The majority of people simply don’t sing at the top of their lungs in their own home. It makes them too self conscious.

So these sort of presentations of our services don’t encourage engagement, they encourage spectating. Now, for the first time visitors it could be perhaps argued sitting back and watching is a helpful first step, however the hope would certainly be that they don’t stay sat passively on their sofa in their joggers.

Live streaming of services can train us to become spectators at church. Perhaps safely critiquing the song selection or sermon from our sofas. The big church venue simply feels too disconnected from our living room. For me it comes back to the fundamentals of what the church is. It should be a family of interconnected relationships where we join together to worship, share our lives and grow. Spectating a service doesn’t for the most part support this.

If we were starting with a blank sheet of paper and we wanted to have online church I suspect we wouldn’t land on the live streaming approach. We would be more conversational and intentionally connected to people where they are – in their living room/car/kitchen etc. More on that below.

Church is not supposed to be a big event that wows us. It’s meant to be the family of God living out our faith together.

The question we need to be asking in this season is are we making disciples or spectators?

2. Doing It Well Is Very Resource and People Intensive

For those who have seen behind the scenes, or been involved in making a live stream happen, you will have seen the amount of energy it takes. Yes technology has moved forward a lot, but even the core skills needed to deliver a live stream, and do it well, remain out of reach for most people.

Behind every church live stream you watch is a whole team of people and a whole pile of kit. The operators prayer life is dramatically increased as the live button is pushed each week. At any point a drop in internet connection can wipe out a well executed plan. The only way to negate this risk is to spend even more money on faster internet connections or back up lines etc.

To do it well will require as a minimum an additional sound person mixing for the broadcast, an additional video mixer, potentially multiple camera operators, and someone overseeing it all and managing the stream chat.

For most churches finding enough volunteers to fill these roles is tough. Add to that the additional pressure that live events bring with them this area can be an easy place to burn through good people.

Of course it is possible to decide to broadcast something of a lower quality. However, at some point it stops being engaging and instead becomes distracting. Unfortunately people will vote with their mouses if given the choice between a poor live stream and the large church down the roads offering.

When it comes to quality, most churches simply can’t compete with what the larger churches can offer. My suggestion is that they probably shouldn’t try.

If your goal is to further your global worship ministry then perhaps live streaming your worship sets may prove important but that simply isn’t the goal for most churches.

Live streaming being resource intensive or hard work isn’t necessarily a reason to not do it, except if there are better ways to use those resources.

3. There Are Probably More Effective Methods

As I stated at the beginning of this, I’m actually a big fan of making the best use of technology to serve the church. If we begin by reflecting on what the church is and what it means to be “successful” I hope this helps. In your context you may still come to the conclusion that a live streamed broadcast is the best option. The important thing is that we pause and think it through.

Our goal might for example be to help people grow and worship even when they can’t be in the same room together. So then the question is how do we best do that online?

What I’m not saying is that churches shouldn’t engage online or find a way to offer a service online. I’m just saying there may be other options that haven’t been considered.

Here are just three further questions for you:

a) Does It Need to Be Live?

This is the first question I’d ask. Live streaming has its place. Its sweet spot is where the content directly engages with the people watching. For example if you are directly engaging with the questions or comments others are giving during a stream. That is where live streaming is particularly helpful. It becomes more like a conversation.

If you don’t have that kind of interaction in your content I’d seriously question whether it needs to be broadcast live. Even if your content remains the entirety of your service the simple act of recording and later uploading will save you a serious amount of resource and dramatically reduce the “live” pressure for your operators.

It is also worth asking how people will view your content. We live in a world that now expects content on demand. There are very few events that people watch exclusively live these days. Sporting fixtures are perhaps one of the last in this category. Even these many record and watch at a time that suits.

I suspect that for most live streams the majority of views happen after the stream has stopped. Technology enables people to watch at a time that suits them. For most that means a time other than Sunday morning, particularly if you are catering to those who can’t be with you that week.

b) Does It Connect Well?

If you were designing your online service for the person sitting at home would you still pick to stand on your church stage and broadcast mostly to the people in the room with you?

If we want the people watching from various screens at home to feel connected we need to directly speak to them. As though we are communicating into their living room. We need to acknowledge them and do what we can to reduce the distance they might feel. Watch how the best YouTubers do this for an example.

We also need to think through things like worship. What will help a person sitting on their sofa worship. Perhaps it needs to be more contemplative? If there is singing maybe it needs to be in a lower key? Maybe there are creative ideas that are beyond singing? Maybe 30 minutes of band led worship is too long if you are not in as an immersive environment?

Thinking of visitors – maybe what you need is a simple video that is directly aimed at them. A welcome to your church that explains who you are and what church might look like if they turned up. I suspect this could be more effective (and shorter) than just asking them to watch a full service.

So does your plan for online help you as a church connect with someone?

c) What Can You Do Well?

I think its appropriate for churches to weigh up what they can do well and sustainably. I’ve already raised multiple questions as to whether live streaming a service should be your go to, but if you still conclude that is your choice – do you have the resources to make it happen well?

I know “well enough” is a relative term here and that different churches will approach this differently but I do think we should simply offer the best we can.

In my mind it would be better to do something simple and execute it really well. Rather than try to be complicated and produce something mediocre or worse.

Whether we like it or not, in the digital world, everyone is getting used to a much higher standard of production. If you want to gain traction online you have to hold to certain standards.

There are exceptions to this on some social media platforms but mostly for short form content. This could be a great option for your online content if you decided this is what you could do well.

Should You Live Stream Your Service?

Live streaming definitely has it’s place. Sometimes you want and need to have everyone together at the same time. However, for most churches, who are probably under 200 people in size, live streaming your service every week is probably not the most effective way to engage your congregation or visitors. It will also use a lot of resources, require a lot of volunteers and honestly most churches don’t have the skills to produce a high quality broadcast. Even if you can, it is important that you stop and ask whether it is the best way to serve your congregation and fulfil your mission as a church.

What do you think? Let me know below.

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4 thoughts on “Live Streaming: Why Most Churches Probably Shouldn’t”

  1. Thanks for this very well explained article.

    The points you raise are the very reasons we decided not to Live Stream. We had video services pre-recorded when we were in lock-down but delighted to back face to face, where we can engage and encourage one another in ways you cannot when watching from home.

    A recorded version of the service or at least the message is made available afterwards for those who are UNABLE to attend.

  2. Hey Neil, thanks for the thoughtful article. While I agree that service broadcasts can create spectators, and that is something to be mindful of, I want to push back on your other two points.

    Doing it “well” is subjective, and I contend that the people who care about production quality probably fall into the “spectator” category. A committed church member who wants to watch the service online because they’re sick or quarantined doesn’t care much about production quality. A visitor who watches a service because they’re looking for Jesus or looking for a community of believers to connect with is likely to be much more interested in the content than the production quality as well.

    I think you could also make the case that if a church’s goal is to bring people to worship together in person, then a live stream that shows inspired teaching, heart-felt worship, and genuine community but has mediocre production quality would more likely lead people to want to have the full experience in person. 🙂

    1. Thanks Paul. I really appreciate you taking the time to leave a comment.

      I completely agree that production quality isn’t everything and it makes total sense that those already committed to a community will put up with a lower threshold. Content is ultimately more important, but as is so common on the internet, sadly the best content is often overlooked because of the package it’s delivered in. This is why preachers learn to preach better and we only let people who can sing well lead our worship. When skill, heart and the right tools are brought together it’s powerful. It lowers the entry barrier for people and makes the church more accessible.

      My main assertion is simply that people should think through their choice to live stream and that there may be alternative options that are more engaging, use less resource and also help a church fulfil its mission. I’m not saying live stream can’t produce results, I’m simply saying there may still be a better way.

      For me if churches are aligning their decision on live streaming with their vision and strategy then that is the most important thing.

      Appreciate your thoughts Paul. Glad we can share in the conversation.

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