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Notes on Sunday’s Live Streamed Church Services

During Week 1 of Closed Churches, Here's What I Learned Online...

Since our local church building was closed here in Los Angeles on Sunday because of COVID-19, I stayed at home, and being the media guy I am, started watching quite a number of different church services online. And as usual, I made notes (I won’t mention names.) The good news is that church leaders are finally taking live streaming seriously, so to hopefully encourage pastors and leaders to get online and make it more effective, here’s some things you should consider before your next online service:

1. Make it easy to find! I was amazed at the number of churches who barely mentioned the live stream on their website. With a few church sites, I had to go through 5 or 6 clicks to actually find it. Whether your building is closed or not, this is the time to make the live stream button BIG and prominently positioned on the home page.

2. Send out a reminder text right before the service starts. Even well intentioned people get involved with breakfast, getting dressed, or sleeping late, so think about sending them a reminder.

3. Give the early viewers something to watch. In my experience, significant numbers of viewers will tune in up to 30 minutes before it actually starts. So don’t make them stare at a graphic or blank screen. Provide an on-camera host or online pastor to prepare them for the service. It’s a great time for sharing church announcements, a prayer time, or other ways to strengthen the connection.

4. When the service starts, consider having the pastor begin with a greeting and/or prayer. Do it just for the online viewers and it will make them feel more a part of the church family.

5. If you’re just starting online because you can’t meet in the building, I wouldn’t introduce new worship songs. I’d keep this part of the experience something that’s more familiar to the online viewers. So use worship songs, choir numbers, or hymns that the congregation already knows well.

6. If you don’t have a live audience, don’t fake it. Talk directly to the camera because that’s where your audience is. It may take a little practice to be comfortable, but it’s worth it.

7. If you have multiple cameras and no audience, you’ll most likely need to move the cameras from their normal positions to maximize the online experience. Plus, there’s no need to do a lot of side shots, or cutting between cameras. Focus on creating an intimate space between the speaker and the viewers on camera. And don’t shoot it wide! The connection is in the facial expressions and the eyes. Remember, they’re probably watching on a mobile screen, so the image is already small. Shooting wide shots only makes the speaker look even smaller.

8. Speaking of the audience, during challenges like the Corona Virus, when your church is physically closed, even if you have your staff acting as a small audience I wouldn’t show them on camera. Online viewers may get confused as to who they are and wonder why they can’t attend as well.

9. Use graphics! If you have a graphics capability, add scriptures, sermon points, and other notes to help the viewer. Some studies suggest that videos and TV programs that use extensive graphics help viewers remember significantly more. So fire up your ProPresenter or other graphics tools and get more helpful information on the screen.

10. Get a proven platform like the Church Online Platform for your live stream. Professional platforms allow you to insert a countdown clock, chat room, response tools, and more.

11. Don’t wait until the end to take an offering. You’d be surprised at how many people will leave the stream early, so if you wait until the end, you’ll lose a significant number of potential givers. Find a good break earlier in the service to deal with giving.

12. Make the live stream available 24/7. I was surprised at the number of streamed services that ended when church ended. Blank screen. Nothing. I wasn’t able to replay it. The truth is, you’ll get more viewers outside the normal service times if you just make it available on demand.

13. This is the most important lesson: COVID-19 or not, it’s time to consider your online audience a legitimate congregation. From this point on, you should treat your online viewers as a campus. That means, if possible, have a campus pastor for your online viewers and in the chat room, provide them resources, and be more intentional about making them feel welcome. We often forget that even without the medical challenge we face right now, there’s always a potential audience watching online. Students away at college, business people who travel, families on vacation. My wife Kathleen and I travel extensively, but no matter where we are, on Sunday morning she opens her laptop or mobile device and pulls up our home church’s live stream.

Regardless of your theological position about what a church service should be, the practical matter is that you’re ignoring a potentially significant number of people when you don’t take your live stream seriously.

I’ve also released a special report on live streaming – particularly during this time of the Corona Virus. It’s a resource that will help you maximize your live stream experience. My suggestion would be to print out this post, and download this special report, and go over both documents with your leadership team before your next online service.

And please – share in the comments below how your online services went this week!

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21 Comments

  1. Hi Phil! We don’t have online services. We are a church less than 200 with two services due to the building not being big enough. However, we have one teenager who has had Lyme disease for 10 years and right now her immune system is doing a good job of fighting it. Her mom texted me to say that they were not going to take a chance of taking her out since her already taxed immune system just could not stand another virus. She asked me about using the church’s FB page for a live video and I put her in contact with my daughter since I am not on FB and am technologically-challenged. 🙂 My daughter live streamed the service and I found out multiple others watched as well. That was pretty cool to hear. Her only glitch was right was left and left was right and the lyrics on the screen were backwards. I believe she was able to fix that. Anyway, that’s how ours went.

    1. That’s a fantastic testimony Bill! It’s so easy now, that it really doesn’t matter how large or small a church may be. And like you say, it’s often surprising who’s out there watching! Thanks for sharing!

  2. Fortunately, we added online over the last 15 months and been adding tweeks to our production. Free software like OBS, makes adding a good camera economical, and a couple video cards to integrate songshow and teaching materials make it a more than passable effort.

    Make sure you are somehow mastering your audio feed and not just using ambient mics. There’s lots more we could do but we were ready for last Sunday.

    You can get a lot done in 5 days, and even more by Easter with some amazon boxes.

    http://www.cornerstoneberean.org

    any feedback would be welcome.

  3. Important observations and I do hope pastors and media teams take those suggestions to heart.

    I would also add that mixing audio for television is very different for mixing audio for a live setting. Our church has terrific sound capabilities, but the live stream worship was unbearable. You could barely hear the vocals while the lead guitar and drums sounded like they were from a Metallica concert. Needless to say it did not facilitate nor enhance worship; to the contrary.

    Mixing audio for television and live streaming can be tricky. It’s a little bit like an electric guitar versus an acoustic. You hear all the flaws. Make sure you have someone who is really capable or your audiences will tune out. Literally.

    1. Great advice Jody. I couldn’t agree more. Mixing audio is SIGNIFICANTLY different between the room and any other media – live stream, video, or broadcast TV. Thanks for bringing that up!

  4. This is great information to obtain even if you are not a ministry. you can take notes even if you use streaming services for business.

  5. Great point in regards to audio. Sometimes with the worship portion the sound can be off and you end up muting until the pastor speaks and the level sound so much better. I don’t know why sometimes the music can be terrible but the speaking portion can be awesome!!

  6. Thanks Phil, we made a couple tweaks from what we’ve learned. We have been streaming on Facebook for months but we ramped it up this weekend.

  7. This is awesome! THANK YOU for doing this and sharing your insights. I found a few things here we can benefit from immediately, and am sharing it with our team. For me I KNEW I needed to look at the camera, but muscle memory caused me to keep looking at the “congregation” (of empty seats!!!) I’m making myself learn and grow in that, and I have great hope that our whole team will learn much in this crisis season to better serve our congregation and city online after the crisis ends.

    1. So glad you’re doing that Tim. It does take some practice, but you’ll find the impact is SO much greater. Please keep us updated!

  8. Hey Phil, we were able to meet last Sunday (we’re currently a church of 60) but are now cancelling services for the time being. We have live streamed for years, but I continue to get feedback from some saying that the live stream cuts out, audio drops, among other problems (though many say they don’t have any problem while watching). So our plan is to do a prerecorded service that still feels like it could be a live stream. What are your thoughts on that?

    1. Many of the “live stream” services I watched Sunday were actually pre-taped. There are some reasons Facebook likes “live” events over a tape, but I wouldn’t hesitate to pre-tape and edit the event if that made you feel more comfortable with the quality of the presentation.

  9. Hi Phil – this is so helpful thank you for these valuable tips and resources. The joy of watching church online Sunday was a friend in faith offered a “watching party” for it through Facebook which enabled me to see other friends that we had in common that I did not know otherwise.

  10. Phil, this will be our second week of no live congregation services and all have gone well so far. Our viewership is almost triple the regular numbers we usually have watching the stream.

    One comment though, there is usually an additional streaming license needed along with a live stream license for music, one that covers an archived/recorded service for playback on demand. We pay a healthy sum yearly to stream our music portion of the service live, that healthy sum approaches ridiculous to have services available on demand. So we choose to not have archived services available. We are investigating it but the cost to allow it for this season is rather steep.

    As a reminder to others, the CCLI license you might have to project lyrics does not cover streaming rights to anything. I’m not a lawyer nor do I wish to hijack this thread but I’m a very firm believer that artists should be compensated for their works. Don’t steal, pay the fees and artists will be paid as well!

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