You Stream, I Stream, We All Stream; But Why?

Every time I attend a technology conference, I hear a lot of talk about streaming. In fact, I was just asked to speak at a day-long workshop devoted to streaming (and after this post, I may not be invited back…). Wherever you go, you hear streaming. I talk with techs all over the country who want to start streaming their services live. Or their pastor just found out you can do it, and they want to be “live on the internet” next week.

But what I don’t hear talked about much is, “Why are we streaming in the first place?” Let me say this at the outset; I don’t think streaming is bad. It’s a technology and as such, it’s not inherently good or evil. Stream or don’t stream, doesn’t matter to me. But if you are going to stream, at least know why.

When I hear the people talk about why churches should be streaming—and this quite often comes from people who sell technologies or services related to streaming—similar themes crop up. 

You can reach your shut ins; you can get your message out to your community and the world; and you can reach people who watch TV on their mobile devices. 

None of those goals are wrong. But let us consider each one. 

The Shut In

Certainly we have people who once attended our churches who can’t any longer because of health reasons, or maybe due to an injury. It is a noble goal to bring the service to them. But before we invest $10-50K (or more, depending on your existing infrastructure), not to mention the ongoing monthly cost for bandwidth and streaming services ($1K+), perhaps we should see exactly how many shut ins we have. Maybe it would be more cost-effective to duplicate DVDs of the first service and have volunteers drop them off on the way home. If you’re a shut in, watching the service at 11:30 is just as good as 9:00. 

Again, streaming to reach the shut in is not a bad idea. Just be sure you know the real cost for that ministry and know that it makes sense in the big picture.

Reach the Community, Reach the World

This is certainly a laudable goal (and one we’re charged with). And if you want to reach your community by streaming your services to the internet, by all means, get on it! But don’t forget to include a sizable chunk of budget for marketing. Simply turning on a stream won’t get you an audience of even one or two by accident. 

There is so much noise on the internet right now and simply having a stream out there is not enough. You need to tell people about it. A lot. Over and over. Make it easy to find. Treat it like an actual marketing campaign. 

And don’t forget to have someone available to interact with your new congregation. Few churches do this well, but the ones that do have an “online pastor” who cares for this flock. Someone is going to have to answer the e-mail and comments, tweets and Facebook posts (or at least someone should). Who is going to do that?

Again, this is not a good or bad thing‚ Just be sure to consider the whole picture. Technically, it’s not that difficult to set up a stream anymore (especially if you partner with a good CDN), but you’ll be wasting a lot of money being cool if you don’t treat it like a real ministry.

Church on your iPhone

This is the reason I have the biggest issue with. Ostensibly, because young people do so much on their smartphones, some have reasoned that they would like to go to church on their phones, too. I think this is inaccurate.

The 18-28 year-olds I know don’t want to go to church on their phone. In fact, they don’t even care about going to a church that has super-high production values. They go to be with their friends, be in community and talk about Jesus. In fact, if you really want to engage this demographic, ditch the traditional lecture service style and make the service a dialog (now I’m really stepping on toes, right?). 

This age group (as far as I can tell) is much more about relationships and much less about technology. Yes, technology enables a facet of their relationships, but they value spending time with each other far more. 

Moreover, the idea of “church” is not a building or service time. It’s the body of Christ coming together for corporate worship, fellowship and learning (and celebrating the sacraments, depending on your tradition). Watching the service on your phone doesn’t really facilitate any of those things well.

This is not to say that the church can’t change and adapt, but I wonder if we’re trying to adapt because it’s necessary or because this is just cool now.

I should point out that this entire post is referring to live streaming of the service; I’m not talking about video on demand, which is significantly easier and cheaper to do. We use VOD, posting our sermons on our website on Monday morning. This is relatively easy, costs very little and brings a high return on investment; at least for the 20-30 people who watch each week. And also know that I’m not against streaming your service live. If you want to do it, great. I just always want to be sure someone is asking the question, “Why?” How does it fit into your ministry plan? Who is actually watching and how are you interacting with them? I’m not afraid of streaming, though I honestly don’t think we’ll ever get to a point of having virtualized churches; it’s just not the same. 

So if you’re thinking of streaming live, be sure to count the costs—all of them. If you’re not streaming live, do not be ashamed (in fact, be grateful, it’s a lot of work). And don’t let someone talk you into doing it because it’s what all the hip churches are doing (because they’re not).

What’s your take? To stream or not to stream?

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