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Foursquare
Roger Archer, the senior pastor at Foursquare Church in Puyallup, Washington, is shown in a screenshot speaking during a sermon available through streaming, on YouTube.

Church Streaming: Excited Viewers Wanted

We need to constantly remind ourselves that every bit of data, each frame of video, encoding setting, network connection, and playback platform leads up to a very real experience for the viewer.

Spending my childhood in the San Fernando Valley, a section of Los Angeles County, in the proximity of numerous television and movie studios, random celebrity sightings occurred from time to time. 

For example, when I was 16, working at a Ralph’s grocery store, I bagged Kevin Costner’s groceries. I also happened to meet Paula Abdul in an elevator one time, while at a nice restaurant in Burbank (serious stuff, folks). 

Fast forward a few years, as a young adult, newly married, and I would try and impress my new bride by bragging about my “vast experience” in meeting famous people. Since my wife wasn’t from the area, I frequently would tell her, “If we happen to meet a celebrity, be sure and keep it cool. Don’t overreact.” 

If you are interested in learning more about streaming for houses of worship, check out the following session, "The Sunday Service Livestream Conundrum," slated for the WFX Conference & Expo this November in Orlando.

Well, getting off the freeway one sunny afternoon, I rolled up next to an exotic Dodge Viper. It wasn’t your ordinary Dodge Viper - this car was amazing, idling there with the top down, absolute perfection on wheels. A few seconds pass, as I casually look up at the driver. Immediately, I’m overcome with excitement, as I scream, “That’s Jay Leno!” Jay took one look at me, expressing a genuine “what a loser“ glance. The light then turned green, and he disappeared. “Don’t overreact, huh?” my wife said, as I sat behind the wheel in total embarrassment. 

Celebrities In Their Own Way 

I’ve spent the better part of a year working regularly with Foursquare Church in Puyallup, Washington, helping them with video engineering and streaming delivery. This is also the first time that I’ve remotely embedded, working this frequently and in close proximity with a church as a virtual resource. The work is incredibly rewarding, and I enjoy the connection and relationships I’m building with their very talented creative team. 

On a visit to Puyallup a few months back, on-site to help with their Easter production, I realized that my consistent, weekly viewing of their livestream had created a unique emotional connection with the church. 

For me, being on-site is always better than watching online – that’s will always be my preference. That said, having worked so much with this group, without realizing it, I’ve taken the time to enjoy, and benefit personally, from the content also being streamed. 

I came to this realization when I started interacting with the staff, in-person, after many months of watching and getting to know them, through the livestream. 

These people felt like celebrities to me! 

It’s embarrassing to confess, but I had to be honest with myself, in realizing that attending the church, online, fostered a very unique “larger than life” relationship with this church. I laughed to myself, when I was legitimately excited when I spotted Roger Archer, the senior pastor, in a passing moment. Other key staff evoked a similar response. 

This personal experience, which transcends technology, has taught me a great deal about the importance of understanding the individual viewer, particularly the people who choose to make an online church their home. 

The production and technology that we use to broadcast church services is more important than we realize, because it creates a personal connection, which I believe is exactly why people keep coming back for more. 

Writing this piece, my intent is to emphasize the individual viewer and work back through the technology which delivers the content, which creates a real ministry connection. 

We need to constantly remind ourselves that every bit of data, each frame of video, encoding setting, network connection, and playback platform leads up to a very real experience for the viewer. 

With this approach, I would ask this question of any team, at any level of production, from any size church: What is the most important part of a church video stream? How can it be anything less than recognizing the importance of the person viewing the content – everything else is just technology. 

Valuing the preciousness of the viewer, as technologists, it’s our responsibility to deliver competently. 

People who are connecting to our church streams depend on this service, more than you might realize. 

Let that sink in for a minute. 

The pesky, critical viewer, perhaps even the one who tends to send nasty emails about how they were unable to connect on Sunday, may very well have developed a deep, meaningful connection with the church through the livestream. Despite how we feel about it, it’s our responsibility to make sure that connection becomes and remains something that they can depend on. 

Over the years, I’ve worked with hundreds of churches, helping them build up their video streaming infrastructure. Here are five areas that I think should be considered as a top-priority when evaluating existing, or new streaming solutions: 

Network: 

The first mile that your church video stream travels, once it leaves your facility, will make or break your effectiveness. This is an area that can’t be overlooked. 

When well apportioned, 90 percent of your streaming issues will go away. When limited, you will never be without problems. 

As a best practice, perform some analysis and gain a clear understanding of your upload speed, using no more than 80 percent of the “pipe”, with the remaining 20 percent for “overhead”. When practical, opt for fiber over coaxial or DSL. Limit guest Wi-Fi, if resources are limited. 

Encoding Technology: 

Especially for multi-camera, high intensity productions, the right encoder technology will produce a stable stream that can handle scene changes and other dynamics in the frame. While a dedicated hardware encoder, like an Epiphan Pearl 2, Teradek Cube, or Wowza ClearCaster, will add cost to your project, in the end, your video engineer will spend less time in configuration and troubleshooting. 

A low-cost solution works as well, like using Open Broadcasting Software paired with a Blackmagic Ultra Studio Mini Recorder capture device, but yet be reasonable in your expectations. A stable keyframe interval is critical for stable video packaging. Low cost/free encoding platforms tend to struggle with scene changes, resulting in keyframe drift, potentially leading to paused or broken video segments in distribution. 

A simple production, with few or no scene changes and less action, will be sufficient when using a low-cost encoder. Churches that are using a video switcher, exciting lighting effects, and frequent scene changes should strongly consider a greater investment in encoding hardware. 

Camera & Production: 

The best camera may not be the most expensive. Of course, budget is key. 

If all you have is a smartphone or tablet, that’s an excellent place to start. 

When possible, get hold of some high-quality cameras for your production. The ability to zoom-in or to switch between two or more cameras enhances the scope of what the viewer experiences on the other end. This can be a simple 1080p camera from PTZ Optics or the result of a professional multi-camera production, fed through a video switcher. 

The emphasis here, regardless of your production profile, is to visualize what you want the viewer to see and hear and use that as your guide when evaluating image size (i.e., 1080p versus 720p), lens capability, image quality, and the like. 

Distribution Platform: 

There are dozens of companies that specialize in streaming church services. In addition, FacebookYouTube and Periscope offer free services which are great solutions for distribution. 

A streaming platform must provide stability, scalability, and simplicity. Stability should include adaptive bitrate streaming, providing lower bit rate options for viewers on poor network connections. Scalability is important, because of the need to grow and expand the reach of the platform, as your viewership and geographic needs increase. 

Simplicity means you and your team can learn and maintain the platform. If you’re looking for some options, look at Stream Monkey, Stream Shark, or Wowza Streaming Cloud

Interactivity: 

Watching a movie or television series, alone, can be very enjoyable, but there are times when it’s fun, and more meaningful, to share that experience with friends. The same principle applies to streaming live church services. 

Take the time to ensure your viewers have an interactive portal of some sort. The Church Online Platform makes this very easy (and free) to set up. Streaming to social media also implies comments and interaction. Make it a priority to plan beyond the technology requirements and provide staff to spark discussion and respond to comments, as part of your online campus. 

It is my hope that one day, each of you have a person visit your church, in-person, who’s also an active part of your online community. As they come in the door, and they loudly exclaim, “That’s Pastor Bob!” - be sure and be nice to them. 

Sometimes you just can’t help it.

 

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