Is Live Streaming Still Necessary for Your Church?

by | CFX Community, Production, Streaming, Video, Video Connections

Recently, a large church in Portland, Oregon announced their decision to stop live streaming their worship services. The church still plans to share videos of the teaching portion of their Sunday services so people who cannot attend in person or who prefer to watch online can still access the teachings.

The church leadership’s reasoning for making this decision was not one of limited resources, budget, or volunteers. In fact, their reason was purely mission-focused: as a large church with a global online community, they want to be one less digital distraction from people’s lives and instead to encourage people to attend in-person and get connected in their own communities. For those in the Portland community who attended online only, they’re changing their goal of engagement to be almost solely dependent on physical gatherings on Sunday mornings and in the weekly community group meetings.

This has led to a large discussion all over social media about whether this was the right decision, and it has many churches asking the question if they should keep live streaming their own services. I was curious what people thought, so I did my own investigation on Facebook and LinkedIn, asking people if they thought live streaming was still a necessary requirement for churches to thrive. As expected, there were a number of people who responded out of a more emotional response because of their own personal experiences regarding live streaming (and these responses were on either end of the acceptance-rejection spectrum). However, there were also a number of responses that had some great points to help you consider your own considerations.

The Downsides of a Live Stream

Many believe that live streaming detracts from the main goal of having people engaged physically in the service, and consequently, from being actively engaged in community in the church. Ryan Austin, Pastor at First Baptist Church in Sibley, Iowa, says, “…church is an assembly of people. You need to meet regularly. And when you meet you encourage, rebuke, teach, practice discipline, sing, hear the Word—in a single term: worship. We need each other. Online churches provide a way for people to feel like they belong to a group that they’ve never met and that don’t know them.”

Another view is that live streaming has made it easy for people to be spectators of church instead of attenders. Nate Hultz, Senior Pastor at Avenue Church in Ontario, OH, has struggled with this question. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wondered if we should keep live streaming. Outside of those who are sick, homebound, or on vacation, I’ve found that live streaming the service has become something I watch instead of who I am.” 

Others focus on the detriments to the actual stream itself from a logistical and technical perspective. It can be quite costly to keep a live stream going with excellence. Many people who have watched live streams have commented to me over the years that if the audio or lighting is bad, they just can’t stand to watch it, and they turn it off. If the stream is performed with excellence and keeps people from watching, what’s the point in maintaining it?

The live stream can also be a big distraction for the techs who run it, dividing their attention between the live stream and the live event. Melissa Hagman, a technician in Pennsylvania, says, “Often we are live streaming to only a handful of people. We have started questioning if this audience could be served with the recording after the event instead. When streaming works it is good, but when it goes bad, as a tech, you are divided trying to solve the issues. At the same time, it requires monitoring of both the live and virtual services. If you have staff to cover both, that is great, but when you don’t, you have to make the call on which one gets your attention.” For churches with limited volunteers or staff members, this can be a big issue, often causing both the online and the in-person service to have issues due to lack of focused attention on each.

The Benefits of Live Streaming

The majority of people I questioned actually thought live streaming is still a need for many churches. According to the comments, they say the largest group of people who need live streaming are the sick, the homebound, the emotionally fractured, and newcomers who are looking for a new church. For those with major illnesses, live streaming can be a lifeline to stay connected with their home church, even though they can’t physically be there.

Specifically, live streaming can be a great way to reach those who have experienced “church hurt” or who have had traumatic experiences that make crowds and strangers feel unsafe. Watching services online for a season may be what someone needs to feel like your church just might be a safe place to visit. “How do you know that you aren’t interacting with someone that is looking for some sort of hope to make them want to take the next step forward and step foot into a church?” asks Molly Porter, an online host at Avenue Church. “What if there is just one person that is listening and watching and maybe one service becomes the moment they decide to take a step and actually go to a church?” Stories abound of people who encountered a live streaming service “accidentally” and ended up encountering Jesus in a way they uniquely needed in that moment.

Others agree that live streaming can be used as a great marketing tool, when used well. “If a spiritual institution is really dedicated to outreach and comfort,” says George Tucker, a freelance streaming engineer in Yonkers, NY, “streaming is a no-brainer.” Oftentimes having a live stream is a great way to help newcomers check your church out without having to physically attend. Once they experience your church online and see the value in attending in person, many people end up choosing to visit the physical building and often end up becoming regular attenders.

Some churches also can use the live stream for revenue generation purposes by streaming through a monetized platform where views translate into dollars. This typically only works well for churches that have large numbers of viewers but is definitely an option to consider.

Steven Long, Executive Pastor and Chief Financial Officer at Calvary Chapel 14:6 in Surprise, Arizona, sees it as a way to engage with the younger generations. “Social media and live streaming is the new wave of engagement, similar to what newer worship and the Jesus Movement was in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Churches who decide to avoid this movement will miss out on an entire generation of people (Gen Z) who engage online.”

Determining if You Should Continue Live Streaming or Not

“Many churches don’t have a strategy for how they approach online ministry,” says Graeme Spencer, a Digital Ministry Strategist with Media Mentoring, LLC. “There is a danger in thinking ‘live streaming’ is a strategy—it isn’t. It’s an outworking of a strategy. For many, it will (and should be) a part of what they do—particularly if they want to take a missional approach. But for many, it could be a drain on resources that could be used more strategically to move their mission/vision forward in the online space. I hope that churches everywhere take the time to look at what strategy is right for them.” 

So how do you determine if live streaming is something your church should consider ending or keeping? Here are some questions that your leadership team needs to discuss:

  1. What is our church’s overarching mission? Does live streaming our services fit within that mission?
  2. If not, will we still record the services and post them later? How will we communicate to our volunteers and then to the church community the change we’re making?
  3. If it does match the mission and we plan to keep live streaming, what is the main goal of keeping it going? Are we meeting that goal?
  4. Are we offering the best live stream we can?
  5. Is the amount of effort, expense and resources to live stream balancing out the attendance numbers? If not, is that okay with our overall mission?
  6. Do we need to re-strategize our live streaming ministry to better use our resources? Do we need to create or re-vamp our ministry team to engage with our online community?

Keeping the Live Stream Going

When deciding to keep the live streaming ministry going, there are a number of factors your church should look at and consider. 

Do you have enough resources to produce two shows: the live stream and the in-person service?

To produce a quality live stream, a strong recommendation is to have two dedicated production teams for your worship services: one solely focused on the in-person experience, and one solely focused on the broadcast. Streaming requires a different workflow, which can make it challenging to do both in-person and online well with only one person doing both. Services that try to do this tend to have one experience be much better than the other, or else both services tend to struggle with achieving excellence because the tech’s attention is so divided.

Do you have the right equipment?

Having the right equipment is also a factor to consider. Do you need the most expensive cameras, video switchers, and audio/lighting systems? No, but you do need to make sure that the equipment you have is right for both audiences. Talking with an AVL integrator is a great way to have someone who’s looking out for your best stewardship interests help you get set up with the right equipment and training.

Training Your Team

Speaking of training, you need to make sure the techs in your production team are skilled in not just how to use the equipment, but how to use it to create the end result that matches your church’s vision and mission. There are a number of resources online that you can encourage your team to use, or you can encourage them to attend conferences like CFX to build their skills.

Online Engagement and Ministry

Finally, you need to consider your engagement with your online audience. “As church members we must realize we are the ‘hosts’ and as such, we have a responsibility to be present when our guests arrive,” says Steve Kuhn, an Elder at Christ Community Church in Franklin, TN.

If you plan to keep live streaming, do you have an online ministry? Meaning, do you have a plan that includes ways to not only engage people online during the live stream, but also connect with them in other ways throughout the week? Visiting the homebound and sick and offering them support when needed is always a great idea, but are there other things you can do to help them feel part of the church community? What about people who struggle to feel safe going in person because of past trauma? Does your church have ways to connect with them that are safe options and help them in the ways they need?

Consider options that include both physical interactions (i.e., home visitations, getting them connected in small groups, inviting them to special events, etc.) as well as non-physical options (i.e., virtual small groups, online bible studies, pen pals, etc.). The main objective is to first of all determine if this is a priority for your church, and if it is, then you need to find a way to make it an actual ministry that meets the needs of your online audience.

Another option is to consider creating additional online media content for people to access. “Church leaders spend most of their time preparing a sermon for Sunday, so why not intentionally develop a team and tools to use that content during the week? The content is there, but the time is limited to adapt that content to short video clips for social, curated library resources, and weekly/daily podcasts that include all of the ‘content’ that for time’s sake didn’t make the sermon,” says Jeff Keifer, a web designer at Clear Designs.

Final Thoughts

While live streaming may not be necessary for every church to thrive, it may be an essential component of some churches’ ministry opportunities. Evaluate what the priorities are for your church’s live stream, determine what strategies align with your church’s overall mission, and then seek ways to bring everything to life with excellence in a way that fits your resources and abilities. And if live streaming isn’t aligning with your overall goals any longer, don’t be afraid to make a change. Ultimately, you need to determine what is best for your local church body and your community.

About the author

Stephanie Lippi is the Conference Manager for Church Facilities Conference & Expo (CFX). Over the course of her lifetime, Stephanie has served on her church’s worship and production teams, as the Women’s Ministry Director, and has also served in many other church ministries as well. She is honored to now be using so many of the skills she’s learned to help bring educational and networking opportunities to life for CFX.

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