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.

Roland