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For Jennifer Constant, a small favor for her family grew into a big blessing for her church amid a pandemic.
Constant, a 44-year-old mother of three and a member of Lake Hills Baptist Church in Schererville, Ind., said her church’s livestreaming ministry began by accident: She started streaming Sunday morning services a few years ago so her parents, who live in Tennessee, could see their grandchildren singing and playing instruments on the church worship team. “They liked it because they felt like they were worshipping with us,” Constant said.
The livestream, which she recorded using her smartphone, became a habit. Later a pastor asked if she could begin regularly livestreaming for the church’s Facebook account, which she did.
So last week, when the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus in Indiana prompted Gov. Eric Holcomb to call for the cancellation of large-group gatherings, Lake Hills church leaders soon settled on an alternative plan: Cancel their Sunday morning corporate gathering and livestream the worship service instead.
And they used Constant’s phone to do it. Perched on a tripod, the Samsung smartphone recorded the student pastor’s sermon and the worship band as it played and sang inside a mostly empty sanctuary.
With the spread of the coronavirus in the United States and subsequent restrictions on public gatherings, many congregations across the country last weekend gathered online instead of in buildings. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended Americans not gather in groups of 50 or more for eight weeks, and some states have implemented even more stringent restrictions.
It creates a dilemma for churches: Congregations have a Biblical mandate to meet together regularly, but generally also wish to follow the law and love their neighbors by avoiding spreading deadly germs.
Livestreaming weekly preaching and worship is one obvious solution in the internet age. For example, Downtown Cornerstone Church, a congregation of about 650 in Seattle, began live-streaming its Sunday morning service to its website two weeks ago. Executive Pastor David Parker said a few hundred people viewed the stream last Sunday.
“We don’t believe a livestream replaces the gathered church (i.e. we don’t believe in a virtual ‘local church’),” Parker said in an email. “But we did publicly open up a broadcast [of] a livestream of our gathering as a way to help feed and keep our people anchored in the gospel in this season.” Many churches, especially larger ones, were already broadcasting services online long before the coronavirus became headline news.
But livestreaming raises a question for smaller churches. What if they’ve never livestreamed, and don’t know where to start?
Thankfully, it’s relatively easy to begin livestreaming your church service—and in some cases it can be free.
For starters, all you need is a smartphone and a Facebook account. Any congregant with a Facebook account and the Facebook app on his phone can record the service using the app’s “Live” button.
To make it an official church livestream, your church should have its own Facebook account. (See here for instructions on setting one up.) As long as whoever is recording the livestream has editor privileges for the church’s account, he can post the livestream directly to the church’s Facebook page.
You can hold your phone while recording, but you’ll get the best results by using a tripod. Be sure your phone’s battery is fully charged before you begin, and use a reliable wireless connection. If your church WiFi is spotty or nonexistent, using your phone’s data plan may be the best option.
Other tips: Test the angle and lighting of your video before going live. A few simple adjustments—elevating the camera, moving it closer or farther from the stage, dimming sanctuary lights—may improve the video quality for home viewers. Pastors and band members should avoid wearing colors that blend into the background of the stage.
If you position a large monitor within the camera’s field of view, you can display lyrics or sermon notes for the benefit of livestream viewers. (You might need a long cable to connect the computer running the slides.) A large, bold font will be easiest for home viewers to read.
According to Christian Copyright Licensing International, if you’ll be streaming live performances of copyrighted songs during your worship service, you’ll also need to purchase a streaming license. For congregations of up to 499 attendees, the regular cost for the CCLI license ranges from $63 to $93. (You don’t need the streaming license if your worship service will only use older hymns that are in the public domain.)
Lake Hills Baptist is a mid-size church of about 250 or so weekend attendees. (Disclosure: I’m a member.) During last Sunday’s livestream, Constant said the number of live viewers ranged as high as 98. Because many households have two or more people who may have been watching together, the church estimates at least 200 people were watching live.
Constant used her smartphone to record the stream while a church staff member watched the Facebook feed on a laptop and moderated comments in real time, replying to questions or “liking” comments from church members.
The church ran into a couple of glitches: The internet connection seemed to slow for several seconds, and the phone camera went out of focus a few times. Constant hopes to fix the refocusing issue this Sunday by moving the tripod further back from the stage.
Churches can upgrade their livestream setup by buying a dedicated camera and purchasing or subscribing to livestreaming software. That would allow a church to stream video using its own website and use audio directly from the church’s sound board. Doing so requires technical know-how, but plenty of online resources can point you in the right direction.
If all this seems too complicated, congregations have at least one other option: Join in watching the livestream of another likeminded church.
All in all, Constant said her past experience of livestreaming at her church helped everything run smoothly last week when leaders had to cancel public services at late notice: “God was preparing us then for what we’re doing now.”