Back in 2012, those of us at Crossroads Community Church started webcasting our Sunday services. It came about quite suddenly.
I’ve written about it here before, but to quickly summarize: We had an evangelist come for a revival meeting. Along with him came his webcast production team. It was great. Between the momentum of the meetings and the explosion of online activity, our church was on a roll.
When the meeting ended, though, our webcast left with our guest, effectively ending a promising new ministry. Wanting to strike while the iron was hot, my pastor immediately ordered a webcast system to replace it.
I was a part-time staff member at the time, so I walked into church one afternoon and suddenly found myself in charge of a weekly church webcast. I didn’t have time to ask questions of peers or research the best gear and platforms. If I only knew then, what I know now.
Here are six things I wish they told me:
Being There is Better
As a rule, when we have two things that are similar, we make natural comparisons. “Is this better or worse?” When you have an online service, comparison to the live service is a natural trap. A lot of time, money, and energy can be spent, trying to make it equal or better.
Honestly, it can never be better than being there live. This is generally true for every live event on TV. This is why people spend thousands of dollars on a Super Bowl ticket, instead of staying at home and watching on TV. Even as great as the broadcast is, there’s just something special about being there.
One simple reason for this is how our brains handle all the input at a real event. There are so many sounds and sights and smells happening at the same time. You can’t possibly process everything equally at once. Our brains choose what to focus on.
For example, while you are looking at this article on your screen, you can probably also see your eyelashes and nose in your field of view. But for most of you, you didn’t actively “see” your nose until I mentioned it. Your brain is too busy with other things to worry about this inconsequential detail. At a concert, we do the same thing. We can focus intently on the lead guitar while ignoring the background vocalist. We can choose to think about the way the stage lighting looks on the ceiling or we can instead watch the drummer. The experience is so big, we all take away different impressions, based on our perspective and preferences.
Now take that whole unique experience, and force it down to the size of your phone. No matter how many mics or lights or cameras are used to stream it, the experience is now small. It’s much more difficult to isolate the lead guitar from the background vocal. Since the sound is now coming out of two small speakers, instead of surrounding us, people can only experience what we show them.
Different is Good
Instead of thinking of the webcast as better or worse versus if we were attending in person, try to focus on how the webcast is different. How can you present what the user sees online in a way that you can’t experience live?
Two simple ways to move ahead are interactions and resources. When I grew up in church, I wasn’t allowed to even turn and look at the people behind me. Talking during the preaching was absolutely not OK. But the modern online audience can comment, react, and emoji as much as they want.
And so can you!
While the service is happening, you can pray with them, converse with them, or simply say “Hi.” Don’t ignore the power of interaction! This is unique to the web. Have the best commenting experience you possibly can! It doesn’t cost a thing and can be a huge advantage.
Likewise, you can give resources. Think of the last time you watched a baseball game and all the resources they add: Every batter has stats. Every home run has a replay. Every blooper has a reaction from the dugout. Live at the game, you don’t see any of this. Watching sports on TV is no longer better or worse, it’s just different. The experience you prefer is now up to you.
If someone mentions last week’s sermon, you can post a link to the replay. If they mention a recent Men’s Breakfast, post a picture. If there’s an upcoming concert, post a link to the Facebook event. Connect people.
“Entertaining” is Not a Dirty Word
When we think of our ministries and what we want them to be, what words do use?
How about “Entertaining?”
That word, though, is a little more taboo, isn’t it? But most of the places new people will encounter our webcast will be on social media. Social media is inherently an entertainment medium. People go there to have fun (and post cat videos). If we want to reach new people, we need to first serve their needs.
Even if you avoid Facebook and only webcast to the church’s webpage, now people need to seek you out rather than accidentally discover you. Perhaps even more now, this experience must be of high enough quality to justify their time.
Many potential new guests to your church will first take the time to watch your stream, before they come through your doors. Make the most of every opportunity!
Production Value Matters
So how can you make your gentile, soft spoken pastor into someone who can be entertaining?
You can’t ... don’t even try.
What I mean by “entertaining” in this context is good production values. We’ve all seen a church webcast where they set up a phone camera way, way back in the hall and just turn it on. You can see the people in the back row better than you can the worship team. The pastor is the size of an ant, from this perspective. Worse still, the audio is being picked up just from the phone mic, instead of a proper sound feed.
Who in the world wants to watch that for 90 minutes? It’s blurry, basic, and boring.
It is well worth your money to buy a proper, professional camera. It’s also well worth your time to teach someone from your congregation how to use it. If you can zoom in, you can see the faces and emotions of the preacher and singers. These are details that can’t usually be seen in person, but can be seen with good camera work.
Again, this can make the broadcast different in a good way. If they walk out of frame occasionally, that’s not great, but I’d rather watch close camera work with occasional mistakes than a long, boring lockdown.
Good sound can be even more important.
If for some reason your video feed cuts out but the sound is still live, you can continue to enjoy the song and follow the sermon while the video is repaired. If the video looks great and the audio cuts out, even committed audience members will only give you about 30 seconds to fix it, before they even move on. Make sure you have a feed from a mixer. A phone recording video and audio in a large cathedral is just hard to understand.
Webcast is a Team Sport
Finally, stage lighting immediately adds a more professional vibe. At a bare minimum, try to make the lighting even. Sometimes this will require help from your preachers and band. Our sanctuary platform is 80 feet across and 30 feet deep. We don’t have enough light to make every inch look great. We ask our pastor and musicians to stay in a zone and promise they will look good if they stay there. Their help is essential to making the most of the lights we have.
We also had to learn how to set the stage for both the in-person audience and the camera.
Despite the large stage, we had people standing in front of each other on camera perspective. Or people standing behind effect lights that would obscure them. Or standing in places with no light at all. These choices involve not just the tech team, but the pastor, the worship leader, the bass player, and the service programmer.
By only changing the tech, we could have never solved these problems. A good webcast is a team sport.
Do It Anyways
The church treasurers and deacons reading have been adding up numbers in their head for the past few paragraphs. Webcasting can cost a lot to do it right, easily spending tens of thousands of dollars to get up and running.
Should you then wait until you’ve bought the perfect gear to start webcasting?
While it is valuable to discuss your goals and have a growth plan, you’ll learn so much trying to make it work.
Do it anyways.
Remember that cellphone in the back of the hall example? Realistically, a lot can be improved if you just move the phone to the front row. Or put it in the sound booth and add an audio feed to it. Then grow from there.
Our webcast from 2012 was pretty good, at the time, or so I thought. Now I can get an uneasy feeling watching how dark and fuzzy it looks.
I expect to feel the same way in a few years looking back on 2018. The technology will get better, but so will we. Have fun on the journey, and make the most of your opportunities.