Chris Witham

Livestreaming Church

Posted by: Chris Witham - Posted on:

Who is this for?

If you’re used to my healthcare and technology posts, this might not be what you’re expecting. However, even if church isn’t your thing, there may be some useful tips here for creating hybrid workspaces or community engagement events.

This is a reasonably technical article but hopefully there is something for none technical people here who are looking at the considerations for livestreaming or creating hybrid meetings. I want to share my experience of livestreaming church to help other people who may be trying to achieve something similar.

When I get into the technical setup, it is probably best suited to medum size churches who have some existing audio visual equipment and are looking to build on that. It is probably not best suited to smaller churches who are just starting to look into the world of audio visual kit, there are simpler and cheaper options available. If you have more budget available, there are probably more fully integrated solutions that might suit your setup better, but some of the concepts and technologies here may be useful to you. I’m also using some of the same equipment and techniques to livestream our Town Council meetings.

Online church and its benefits

Throughout the Covid pandemic, our church has mostly met online. We have made a lot of use of Zoom to meet, worship and share fellowship together. We’ve also used our YouTube Channel to livestream services of morning and night prayer most days. As the lockdown and restrictions have relaxed, we have started to hold more in person meetings in our church buildings. While meeting online, we increasingly conscious that being online made our services much more accessibile to members of our community who sometimes find it difficult to visit one of our church buildings. Whether caring responsibilities, chronic illness, disability, sickness or something else, there are many reasons why people may not be able to be physically present in one of our buildings at a particular time. When we moved back into our physical buildings, we were keen that we continued to engage as many people as possible.

Hybrid Church

Enter “hybrid church”, not just online, not just in person, both. Lots of people are talking about hybrid church and it is likely called different things too. To me, Hybrid Church needs to be unobtrustive to those in the physical space but needs to feel real and engaging to those in the virtual space. It should not just be a broadcast. Church is a community and everyone should feel engaged and able to play their part.

Benefits

  • Inclusion – people who would be restricted, excluded or intimidated by our physical buildings can still access and be a part of our community.
  • Watch again – children’s football game, holiday, family emergency, feeling under the weather, you don’t have to miss out on a service or event altogether. Our services are available to catch-up on YouTube.
  • Accessibility – Facebook Live automatically subtitles our livestreams in real time (and does a reasonable job), YouTube subtitles our videos for catch-up. People watching the livestream can watch in an environment that suits them, with less distractions and adjust the audio level. We’re working hard to ensure the audio quality is the best we can make it (it’s improving, but still more we can do).

Things to think about

  • Licencing – Trying to figure out which licences a church needs to be able to broadcast online is somewhat complicated. CCLI is a good starting point. Throughout lockdown, our church band recorded our own versions of songs we knew we would be able to broadcast and we mostly use these as we don’t have a live band back in our church buildings yet. Resound Worship is a good place to look if you don’t have your own recordings as they have been clear about how you can use their music in online settings.
  • Privacy – Not everyone will be comfortable with the concept of livestreaming. Be clear about what is being shown or recorded. Which areas of the building are on camera? Who can people speak to if they have concerns? We don’t currently capture any of the seating areas on our cameras and ensure anyone going up to the front knows they will be livestreamed. We show a static image during the distribution of communion.
  • People – Who will operate the livestream? We are fortunate to have an existing regular presentation and sound volunteer. Due to the band not playing live in church currently, that frees up me and another techie person to support and run the livestream. When the band returns, we’ll have to have another think. Possibly training other people or I have a remote I could use to run the livestream from behind the drums!

Equipment for livestreaming church

A Mevo Start Camera with a Rode Wireless Go receiver pointing at the front of an anglican church with a cross on the communion table.
A Mevo Start camera with the Rode Wireless Go II receiver plugged into the back.

Below is a breakdown of the current equipment we’re using and a rough guide to costs. There are many different available options and I wouldn’t necessarily buy this kit if I was starting fresh, we utilised a lot of existing equipment. I’ll go into some more detailed considerations individually later on.

  • Mevo Start Cameras – we have two of these and they are excellent, versatile pieces of kit. £399 or £999 for 3.
  • Mevo Start PoE Adapter – we don’t use power over ethernet but it does give us a rock solid ethernet wired connection for our cameras. ~£150
  • Netgear 8 Port Switch – we could have gone for PoE but I had a spare one of these and we didn’t need the additional expense. ~£20
  • Netgear Orbi LTE Router – we don’t have a phone line or broadband in our church buildings. Mobile broadband gave us flexibility up front. £370. I actually got ours at £100 off. There are many cheaper mobile routers, but I wanted ethernet and something that would stand up to passing video feeds internally as well as streaming.
  • GiffGaff Sim (referral link) – flexibility month on month and we weren’t tied into a long contract so we can change what we’re doing if needed. £20 per month.
  • Steinberg UR22C Audio Interface – I already had one of these for my MIDI drums but would buy it again. This allows me to get a good quality signal from our existing mixing desk into my laptop. ~£120
  • Apple MacBook Pro – This is my laptop so church didn’t have to buy one. I’ve heard a lot of people say Windows PCs are better for livestreaming, but this was what I had, I like Macs and it does a good job. ~£1300
  • NDI Tools – This is installed on our presentation laptop (existing) and provides the presentation as an NDI feed to add into our video mix. Free
  • Open Broadcaster Software – A brilliant open source piece of software we use to mix our video feeds, add in graphics and livestream. Free
  • Faith Online – Online streaming platform, allows us to stream to one place and then shares on Facebook and YouTube at the same time. £39 per month.
  • Rode Wireless Go II Mics – Not necessary for livestreaming if you’re using existing audio equipment like us, but we needed a new radio mic and I bought a pack of these. Brilliant quality and easy to use. They also pair well with the Mevo Start Camera if it is used on its own. ~£275
  • Miscellaneous – we have two mic stands for the cameras, a bunch of ethernet cables that I made myself and a USB-C ethernat adapter. £100-200

Total cost in the region of £3,000 for the inital install and ~£60 per month ongoing. This could be less if you have existing kit like us.

This is for a two camera setup which is plenty for us. It is worth noting that we could add additional cameras (with adapters) for £550. Our current system could take another 4 cameras before we needed a bigger network switch.

Livestreaming cameras

We were very fortunate to get a covid recovery grant from our district council which allowed us to buy the two Mevo Start cameras with ethernet adapters.

I explored PTZ (pan tilt zoom) cameras which tend to be a lot more expensive. Whilst often good quality, they need a bit more setup and a controller to get the most out of them. I thought they’d be under utilised in our setting and the cost would limit us to a single camera. They’re also not as versatile.

The Mevo Start camera has a good quality Sony sensor in it and the onboard mics are good quality too if used standalone. It can record to a mini SD card or livestream direct from the camera with a single button press (super useful when I’m away and we need a straight forward solution). We’ve used these cameras a lot for pre-recorded content too. The new Mevo MultiCam app is incredible and allows you to mix and livestream multiple camera fields with just a smart phone. A great option for people just starting out. You can easily plug the Rode Wireless GO receiver into the back of a Mevo Start or use another smart phone as a bluetooth mic to improve audio further.

We use the Mevo Start camera in NDI mode so it streams the video feed across our network and we can pick it up in OBS to mix into the livestream. A recent update has enabled NDI HX which lowers the bandwidth it uses on your network while maintaining 1080p quality. The cameras can also be used as USB webcams plugged straight into a computer. Very versatile and easily portable for when we record services in our buildings that don’t have mobile signal.

The only downside of the Mevo Start I’ve found is that there is no option for HDMI output. Which is a pain if you really like hardware mixers like the Blackmagic Atem Mini (they look great). But if you’re mixing on a computer in something like OBS, NDI avoids the need for HDMI – USB converters which tend to be expensive.

Networking

We initally planned to get a free mobile router with a mobile data monthly contract. However, this would likely give us substandard equipment and tie us in to a long term plan. Whilst more expensive up front, although not bad when considered as monthly installments over 18 months, the Orbi is a very capable router. We haven’t needed to use them but it can have external 4G aerials connected to it which may be useful for some stone and lead church buildings! We tried GiffGaff and Lebara data sims both of which have good pricing and stuck with GiffGaff as the speeds seemed slightly better for our area in my limited testing. Mobile broadband was much quicker to setup rather than waiting for a phone line to be installed. We also had issues with one of our church builds not being a registerred address and so telecomms companies could not gauruntee us speeds. I often say wired is better than wireless, I have Cat6 everywhere in my house, but our mobile data speeds have been as good as local fibre broadband and the connection is solid. 5G routers are avilable now but where we live, we’re not expecting 5G anytime soon and could upgrade in future if needed.

Livestream video mixing

As previously mentioned, I really like the looks of the Blackmagic Atem Mini hardware mixers.If I were starting from scratch, I’d be really tempted to go down this route. However, that would require me to use cameras with HDMI output or expensive adapters. We could output the presentations into a HDMI input easily, but that would require another port on our presentation laptop and a more complicated setup there. Turning the presentation into an NDI stream is a single click and uses the existing screensharing setup which is nice and neat and involves less change for volunteers. Without buying a more expensive model, the Atem Mini is limited to 4 inputs. Whilst that would be plenty for our current 2 cameras and signle presentation, I’d be concerned about locking us in to a solution we couldn’t easily expand later.

Using a software mixer and sharing video feeds using NDI presents some other benefits too. When we have the band back in church, we can easily add more screens in the band area for the presentation. Potentially useful if we need to socially distance. Our existing VGA setup means we only have a single screen for the whole band, one for the leader and one for the projector. With NDI, any smart phone or old laptop can connect to the wifi network and show the presentation that is on the main projector through a free app. This could mean every band member gets their own screen with a BYOD policy (bring your own device) to keep costs down. If we want to show the presentation or in fact the service video feeds, these can be shown on a TV at the back or in our junior church room fairly easily with a Raspberry Pi or similar plugged into the back of a TV.

OBS takes a bit of getting used to but there is a huge community of support and lots of people willing to help. In my opinion, software mixing makes it easier to bring in different graphics and adjust video crops and layouts which has proved very useful when preachers stand in a slightly different spot or unexpectadly move around. Something I’d have struggled to respond to if we had been using a hardware mixer.

The Mevo Start cameras output 1080p. We stream at 720. While higher quality might be an improvement, not many of our members are watching the service on large screens. 720 gives us a biut more breathing room and reliability on our upload. It also means we can crop in the camera views to give us some different angles and options when mixing the videos and overlaying graphics. All this is possible through a hardware mixer but you start needing another monitor, keyboard and mouse etc which starts adding to the costs and complexity. I tried to keep the project as modular as possible and give us flexibility to change or upgrade as we learn more about how we might make best use of technology to support our hybrid church.

Multiple destination streaming

I found streaming directly to YouTube was hit and miss. Under 1000 subscribers, you can’t stream from mobile which is rather annoying. Even through the Mevo app or OBS, I found streaming to YouTube was buggy and I really wanted something reliable.

There are many different services that now offer to provide you with a single RTMP URL and then restream that out to different services for you. We have different groups of people who engage on Facebook and YouTube so wanted to stream to both. We could add more services but currently don’t see a need for it.

Faith Online provides a multiple destination streaming service with a few added benefits. You can schedule livestreams and display a calendar on your church website (This isn’t perfect and often creates a lot of unecessary posts on our Faccebook feed which is distracting and frustrating). There are some interesting features to enable people to use their landline phone to listen to services or existing recordings which may be useful if you have members of your congregation who aren’t online. The livestream can also be embedded on your website which may be useful for people who aren’t into social media. Comments are shared from all platforms and private chat rooms can be added to any livestream.

We haven’t used the scheduling features the way I imagined for our daily prayer services so I might explore other multi-streaming services which could bring the monthly costs down but provide the easy single end point. Faith Online only allows for a single thumbnail that is used for all events, our daily prayer services have different thumbnails so this has limited in making better use of it.

Future improvements

Interaction

Currently, although we get some engagement in the chat box and comments, I think we’re too much towards a broadcast. I want people who are in the virtual space to feel engaged and properly connected to the event. Allowing people in the virtual space to contribute would be much better. Given most of our congregation are very familiar with Zoom, I think a zoom meeting that the church building then joins too would be interesting. OBS can run a virtual webcam so the livestream video could easily be put into a Zoom call. I’d then like to integrate the Zoom call back into the presentation that is shown in the church building. This would open up opportunities for people in the virtual space to read or lead prayers. People in the physical space could possibly see people in the virtual space and vice versa if people were happy to be seen. Possibly a camera/TV setup when we’re back to having refreshments after the service so people can connect across the physical and virtual spaces? However, I’m yet to get my head around how we route the audio for this without ending up with horrible feedback loops. Whilst I think this would be really good for helping people feel engaged, it would move the solution further away from being able to be operated by lay volunteers.

Audio

I’ve been playing around with the audio and improving the output. The audio interface gives me some control over the signal coming into the laptop but we’re currently reliant on the live mix of the main PA. I end up having to ride the mono out fader on our mixing desk to prevent clipping in louder music sections and increase the volume in speaking sections. I think seperating out an aux mix on our mixing desk so I have a mix independent of the main building PA may give us the control we need and better options if we start integrating Zoom calls too. Easy now but it’ll be a tradde off when we have a live band back in the building as our current Behringer mixing desk only has two independent aux mixes.

Final thoughts

There are many different ways to livestream from a church. No single solution will ever be right and everyone will have different setups, budgets and needs. Hopefully in sharing what I have done and found useful may help others to share their services too.

I’d also say, livestreaming isn’t for everyone. Just because some churches are moving into a hybrid model and are investing in livestreaming doesn’t mean everyone has to do it. For some congregations, it will be too complicated, unecessary or there will be other priorities. I wouldn’t want anyone to feel pressured into providing livestreaming. I’m very grateful for Andy’s constant reminders to KISS (keep it simple stupid)! I’m very capable of building a Death Star if left to my own devices and need to remeber the user’s needs first and ensure what we’re doing is actually adding value, not just scratching my need for tech itch. It’s worth noting, I’ve spent 12 weeks off work after a serious accident and had a lot of days in bed to think about various options and combinations of equipment.

I’m really keen to learn and keep exploring how else the church can make good uses of technology. Please share your experience or feel free to ask questions in the comments. Are you livestreaming church? What do you find works well? What would you avoid if you were starting again?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *