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To Stream or not to Stream

To Stream or not to Stream

that is the question every pastor should ask before diving in.

So, you're thinking about streaming your services and events to the Internet. There's a good chance that you have no idea where to start with this endeavorhaving your services appear on people's computer screens around the world seems rather magical, and certainly daunting.
 
Shane Rushik, executive director of technology for Legacy Christian Church in Overland Park, Kansas, can tell you exactly where you should start. Indeed, it's the same place you should start with any new venture.
"First of all, you need to ask why you want to do this," states Rushik. "Is this really going to be beneficial to your church ministry? Will it cause your church to grow, or will it just enable people to withdraw and stay home instead of being in community with other believers at your church?"

Andrew Stone, production manager & audio director for Church on the Move inTulsa, Oklahoma, concurs with this evaluation process. "We've actually seen our on-site attendance drop s little since we started streaming, but overall we have found streaming to be a benefit to our church. We started with using streaming during conferences so that more people could attend when the conference sold out. We then started streaming special services like Easter for a similar reason. Eventually, we saw benefit to streaming all our services."

Starting Simple with Audio Streaming
With streaming, there are many options available, and you can manage it with a small investment or a large one depending on your goals. While generally people assume video when streaming is mentioned, that doesn't have to be the case.

"When we started to do streaming," says Pastor Charles Lincoln of ChristUnveiledMinistries in Garland, Texas, "we started with online audio streaming. We created our own online radio station which broadcasts 24 hours a day. The programming rotates six hours of contemporary Christian music, followed by six hours of Gospel music, with bible studies and our service intermingled within the broadcast.  
We have anywhere from 50,000-200,000 listeners each month. It’s actually rather baffling, as we're a small church with around 200 in weekly attendance. We have an audience in every country except Iran and China."
"We started with the streaming service Live365," Lincoln continues. "However, we found it expensive at that time. So, last year we moved to Primcast to handle our streaming platform and CCLI to cover our copyright and royalty payments , and the cost dropped significantly." Primcast currently offers packages starting at $8.99/month, and Live365 has packages starting at $39/month.

To handle playing the content for their radio station, Christ Unveiled uses a software package called SAM Broadcaster. This software lets them specify specific audio files to play at specific times, but also lets them set up a block of time where it picks music automatically from a music folder. "We have it always play the song that's been played the least to get the best variety of music," comments Lincoln. They can program out far in advance, and it just runs in the background with almost no supervision or maintenance.

"To stream the audio for the radio station at 96 kbps, it's fairly low bandwidth," comments Lincoln. "A regular broadband connection works just fine."
To handle copyright and royalty payments on the music, the church uses a combination of a CCLI license and SoundExchange. Lincoln estimates they pay about $600 in royalties per year.

Moving to Video Streaming
After running with the Internet streaming radio station for a while, Christ Unveiled looked into adding video streaming as well. "We were already capturing video at 1080i to produce DVDs of the services for the congregation," states Lincoln, "so the video capture infrastructure was already in place. We just needed to add the streaming capability."
 
The church uses ChurchStreaming.tv (also known as YourStreamLive.com) for hosting the streaming of services for about $100/month. They stream their services and events live, and then ChurchStreaming.tv archives the streams and makes them available for later viewing as well.

Adding video streaming, however, required them to re-evaluate their internet connection. "Streaming HD video is another matter, and we needed a good fiber optic line. Our internet connectivity is now 35Mbps for both up and down to handle the video stream."
A Larger Scale
While lower-cost options exist for streaming, there can be reasons to not take that approach.

Rushik shares his experience, "We started several years ago looking for the least expensive way to make video streaming work directly from the church," he says. "We had just a few viewers. Once our viewership grew, we needed a CDN (content distribution network) we could send the stream to, and they would distribute it to the viewers. This cost around $50/month. This got us to the point where the church leadership recognized there was value in doing it. Then people started complaining about the experience. It would stop playing, and the audio mix was terrible. It was low quality and low resolution. It would pause and people might have to restart the stream. People were tolerant for a while, but people’s expectations increased and grew less tolerant of the issues."

Legacy Church invested in the technology needed to add a second audio position solely dedicated to mixing for the video stream. They bought a better media encoder from Kulabyte to get a higher quality video stream. And then they switched to a more robust CDN provider.

"After a few thousand dollars in equipment and increasing the monthly expense to a few hundred dollars, we had the quality needed for people to want to watch," says Rushik. "We put enough money into it to be the best it can be."
Rushik summarizes, "Our first year in testing the concept really put a highlighter on the areas we needed to improve, if we were going to embrace this technology. Just putting a live video feed on the internet is not enough; it has to be done with excellence.  We dedicate a lot of resources to be sure that our live video experience is the best it can be, not because we're prideful, but because God deserves our very best; and for those watching, this may be their one opportunity to hear the Word this week and we can't let technical distractions pull them away."

Streaming Video for Multi-site Support
Getting content to the Internet is only one purpose for streaming. Many churches that have video-venue satellite campuses use streaming to get their live sermons to remote venues to use for services.
"We use direct point-to-point video streaming to get our sermon video to our satellite campus," states Stone. "Although the term streaming' tends to make people think of distribution to a large number of viewers, so I prefer to refer to this stream as an Interlink.'"
"We found an internet service provider that could give us a direct link from our main campus to our satellite campus," Stone continues. "Our video stream for the satellite campus goes directly to the campus, and they are the only ones who receive it. It's very high quality, and very reliable. The stream is decoded at the satellite campus, and fed into a DVR (digital video recorder) from Grass Valley. This enables the satellite campus to record the service as we transmit, and then play back the sermon portion when they are ready to start the message at their site, usually a few minutes after the sermon starts at the main campus."

Church on the Move also provides a stream for viewers at home through the CDN LiveStream, and is very happy with the service they provide. Their initial package with LiveStream cost $99/month, but recently upgraded to get additional features they needed to LiveStream's Enterprise level for $1,000/month.

"I've also explored a CDN called Stream Monkey' that I've heard is very good, and we'd consider using them if we weren't so happy with LiveStream."

But—First Things First
Considering the addition of streaming to the methods you communicate with your community (and indeed, the world) is all well and good, but make sure you don't get ahead of yourself.

"If your live service doesn't look or sound that great," cautions Stone, "it won't matter how much time and effort you put into your stream setup it still won't look or sound that great. In fact, it might come across even worse than being there live. Before you spend too much time on your streaming situation, you may want to spend some time getting your live presentation together. How well does your stage come across on video? Does your mix translate well to a recording? Do you need some audience mics to help communicate the feel' of your room better to a stream audience? I encourage you to spend as much time as it takes evaluating your live service so your stream product can be as good as possible."

Be Intentional
But the most important thing in contemplating adding streaming is to be intentional about it.
 
"Make sure you know why you are doing whatever you do, and are not just doing it because another church does it," comments Stone.

And Rushik concurs: "Knowing what aspect of your church's ministry streaming is fulfilling will guide you on what you should do and how much you should invest."

"We’re supposed to do our best for Christ," summarized Stone. "Is your stream personifying that? Is it demonstrating the very best that Christ has to offer? Or is it making Christianity look mediocre?"
[Writer's note: There is much more we can talk about with regards to implementing and managing streaming in your church; look for more articles on the subject from me at worshipfacilities.com. ]

Terminology
Streaming: The process of transmitting audio or video to the Internet
Bandwidth: How much data that can be moved over a network in a given amount of time. A typical entry-level broadband connection provides about 5Mbps (5 mega-bits [or million bits] per second) download speed, and 500 Kbps (500 Kilo-bits [or thousand bits] per second) upload speed (1/10 of the download speed). In streaming, it's the upload speed that's important. 
CDN: Content distribution network. A CDN takes an audio or video stream from a source like a church, and handles the distribution to all the listeners/viewers of that stream. This greatly reduces the amount of bandwidth a church needs to support streaming. For example, if a church was providing a 5Mbps video stream and did not use a CDN, they would need 5Mbps of extra bandwidth for each viewer. If they had 100 viewers, they would need 500Mbps of upload bandwith, which would be outrageously expensive. With a CDN, the church needs 5 Mbps to stream to the CDN facility, and then the CDN facility handles the connections to all the viewers.
Fiber: A fiber connection to the internet is implemented through a flexible glass-like cable and uses light to transmit the data. Fiber can support higher bandwidths than traditional copper-based cabling.
DVR: A Digital Video Recorder allows the recording of a video signal while simultaneously allowing that recording to be played back while still recording. A church will use a DVR at a video venue to start recording the sermon when the transmitting campus reaches that part of the service, and puts the playback of that recording on pause at the start of the sermon. As soon as the satellite campus is ready to start the sermon at their location, they hit play to resume playback on the video screens while the sermon continues to record from the transmitting campus. This lets them "time slip" the sermon by a few minutes to line up with the needs of the satellite campus.

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