Buy with Purpose

Though I’ve been doing this for a long time, now that I’m in the business of helping churches with their technology, I see a lot of depressing things. I’ve lost count of how many churches I walk into and see stacks of mismatched gear lying around, some of it not even connected. When I ask about it, the answers vary, but usually center around the theme of, “Yeah, that didn’t work like we hoped.” I’ve seen stacks of wireless mic receivers, their antennas touching and ask how they work. “Some work OK, but we get a lot of noise, dropouts and some don’t work at all.” Many of these tech booths are just a mess and to be honest, it breaks my heart. I see a lot of money wasted, visions not fulfilled and operator frustration. And most times, it could be avoided.

Beware the Internet

The internet has been a boon to the tech community. The relationships we have not with each other is fantastic and would not have been possible without the old inter-webs. The internet has made it possible for people to learn about products and processes they would otherwise have had a hard time with. It’s even possible to get advice from others. But, and this is a big but, not all the advice is good advice. In fact, I see a lot of really bad advice out there. Well-meaning people, with a very limited scope of knowledge want to help, but often end up steering people in the wrong direction. 

It’s also possible to simply go online and buy gear. Heck, Amazon will just about anything to you in 2 days for free. Again, unless you know what you are buying, you can make a lot of mistakes. Wireless mic’s are an easy example. I’ve found so many churches with wireless mic’s that don’t work because they just bought whatever they found online and didn’t bother to coordinate frequencies. My friend Karl Winkler actually took a support call from a church that didn’t even know the frequencies could be changed; they just used whatever the mic powered up with—until they bought another one on the same frequency. 

I’ve been telling people for years, get a plan together before you start buying stuff. Now that I’m in the business of taking out all this gear that doesn’t work, my resolve for spreading that message is stronger than ever. Don’t waste your church’s money; get some profession help first.

It’s Not More Expensive to Hire Professionals

A lot of churches buy their own gear because they think they are saving money. And maybe they are up front. However, in a few years when the professional is finally called in and all the mismatched, non-working and ineffective gear is taken away and replaced, how much did you really save? Here’s a secret, simple formula for you; 2x > 1x. That is, buying something twice is more expensive than buying something once. I hate telling churches, “Oh, I wish you had called us first before you bought that…” And I hate it not because we lost a sale; I hate it because I see money wasted. Please, call someone first! 

There are dozens of great integrators all over the country who make it their business to stay on top of trends in technology and can give excellent buying advice that I almost guarantee will save you money in the long run. Moreover, you’ll get better results with less frustration. 

This topic has been top of mind for me lately as we’ve been out visiting a lot of churches and I keep seeing the same things over and over. Now that we’re in the new year, with new budgets and everyone is itchy to start buying equipment, do yourself and your church a favor and get some professional advice before running out and buying stuff. It really will cost you less and deliver better results in the long run, I promise!


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Why Your Online Video Has To Be Good

Image courtesy of Steve Bowbrick

Image courtesy of Steve Bowbrick

Last time, we touched on the issue of live streaming or not. I am hearing more and more churches that want to live stream their services and I always ask why? I’m not going to rehash that here; go back and read the last post. Today, I want to focus on those that have made the decision to have an online video presence. And I want to tell you why it has to be good. 

The Competition is Fierce

North Point, Life Church, Church on the Move, Willow Creek, Saddleback and dozens more giga-churches stream their services every weekend. And they do a great job. So if someone wants to go online and watch a well-produced online church service, it’s not hard to find one. Now, you don’t necessarily have to go to that extreme; but you had best not simply throw a consumer grade camera up at the back of the room and post the resulting video online. Not only will no one watch it, there could be more harm than just a low view count. 

Who Watches Anyway?

There are several classes of people who watch church services online. The first class is your own congregation; they couldn’t make it that weekend for whatever reason, and wanted to see what the sermon was about. They are probably the most tolerant of poor video quality. But even then, if the shots are grainy, out of focus, or poorly cut together, or if the audio is poor, they won’t last long. It’s a lot harder for most people to just get up and leave a service in the middle if it’s not meeting their expectations; but closing a window online is easy. You have to do a good job to keep people engaged. 

Another class is the church shopper. We’re finding that more and more people check out a church’s website before visiting the first time. And this may seem like a great reason to post videos of your service. And it is. But only if those videos are good. If the video quality—technically or artistically—is subpar, you have probably lost the chance make a personal impression. Poor video tells people you don’t care enough about church to do this well. It tells them that your church is not worthy of their time. For this group, no video is better than bad video. With no video, they have to attend your church at least once to see if they like it. That gives you at least one shot at making it a great experience for them. 

Don’t Do What You Can’t Do Well

A lot of churches will justify poor online video by saying, “We’re just getting started, we don’t have to have it all dialed in at the beginning.” I would suggest another approach. Start small, but start well. A smaller church probably can’t afford to jump right into a 5 camera shoot with a jib and a full broadcast mix. That’s OK. But start off with a single, high-quality, manned camera and just do the sermon. Get that nailed. Make sure your lighting is great, the image quality is excellent and the audio is top-notch. This isn’t that hard, though it’s also not necessarily cheap. 

Later on, you can add additional cameras and a switcher for more visual interest. You can even start adding graphics. Only after that’s fully dialed in should you attempt the music set as that is easily the hardest. Your lighting will need to change, and you’ve got to figure out audio. It’s not impossible, but it is difficult to do well. If you’re a volunteer-run church, plan on spending some money to have professionals come in and help you get that set up. That doesn’t guarantee every weekend will sound amazing, but it’s a good first step. 

It’s a classic walk before you run situation. Start small, but start well. Don’t make the mistake of putting poor video online and thinking that just because it’s there people will watch it. Pastors (hopefully) don’t phone in their sermons because it’s not that big a deal (it is). We shouldn’t be doing a poor job on video simply because it’s online. If anything, being online should mean it’s more important because anyone can see it. Put your best foot forward and do a great job in everything you do. Hey, that sounds scriptural!

  Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. Colossians 3:23-24

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To Stream Or Not To Stream

Original image by Quinn Dombrowski, modified by me.

Original image by Quinn Dombrowski, modified by me.

I’m always fascinated on how I end up having the same conversation with multiple people over the course of a few weeks. Topics rotate, but when one hits, I end up talking about it a lot. In the last two weeks, I’ve had at least four conversations about live streaming church services. I’ll start by saying I’m not categorically opposed to live streaming church services. I can understand why many of the big churches that live stream do just that. What I struggle with is smaller churches, especially those with volunteer tech teams wanting to stream. I always ask the same questions when churches talk to me about streaming. I offer them here for your consideration. 

First Ask, “Why?”

I shouldn’t be, but I am often surprised that many churches have not even asked why they want to stream. Many heard it’s possible, or saw a big church at a conference doing it, or simply have big church envy. But let’s really break it down for a minute and back up a step. What is the purpose of the church service? It seems to me—as a non theologian who never went to seminary—that the church gathers corporately once or more a week to worship together (usually defined as singing, which may or may not be worship; but that’s another post), teaching, the administering of the sacraments and fellowship. At least two of those is hard to accomplish sitting in front of your computer, and one is a marginal experience. Only the teaching portion really translates well. 

So my question is, if we can’t deliver a good experience for 75% of why the church comes together to do, why are we doing this again? For a large church that has the infrastructure, it’s not that much of an incremental cost to stream. But the small church run by volunteers has a harder mountain to climb. Plus, people like to attend small churches (and I’m defining “small” as below about 1,000 on a weekend) because they feel more connected to others there. And watching on the computer makes it hard to be connected. 

Often, people push back and say, “Well, we want to stream for parents who have sick kids or people on vacation.” I’ll tackle the vacation question first. I would be willing to bet that approximately 2% of churchgoers watch a live streamed service of their church while on vacation. And that may be generous. So that’s not really an issue. Now, I understand parents of sick kids might benefit from being able to watch the service at home. But…

Is Live Really Necessary?

I’ve had sick kids at home. And when they’re little, you’re up and down all the time. It’s hard to watch a TV show on a DVR when your kid is sick, let alone a live stream of your church service. Again, I suspect very few people actually do this. In fact, it is likely that it would be far more beneficial to said parents to be able to watch it on YouTube or Vimeo later in the day. They can pause, rewind and skip forward as it suits them. They could even do this later in the evening after the kids finally conk out. If the service was only live, chances are they missed it. 

Live is hard; you need a solid internet connection, a good video feed and a great audio mix to make the experience one worth watching. It’s a lot easier to deliver a good experience after the fact. By recording the service, it’s possible to sweeten the audio, maybe add some graphics and upload it in a format that is easy to view. 

Also, it’s important to ask if video is necessary. A lot of pastors want to video podcast their messages. I’m not sure I understand why. When I listen to sermon podcasts—and the key word is listen—I listen to them on my phone in the car or at the gym. I have never actually watched a sermon, except when doing research on lighting, number of cameras and set design. And even then, I watch 4-5 minutes. Sometimes, audio is a much better option. And that’s easy to do well. 

Does Live Streaming Advance Your Mission or Is It Just Cool?

I always encourage technical artists to tie their ministry back to the mission of their church. In this case, I challenge church leaders to determine of live streaming really advances their mission or it’s just cool. A lot of churches do it, but that doesn’t mean you have to. Does a live stream really help you reach your community? Do you have a way to engage with those watching at home? Do you have a marketing plan to let the world know you’re streaming? How do you follow up and make sure your audience is connected, serving and giving? Can’t answer those questions? Back to the drawing board. 

Again, I’m not against streaming; I’m against doing things we haven’t thought through just because we can. And when I say, “we can” I mean the tech team has to somehow figure it out, often without appropriate resources, training and support. And we haven’t even touched on the quality aspect. But that’s another post (that you can read next time).

Does your church stream? Does it align with your mission or is it an add-on? Let us know in the comments.