SETTING UP YOUR VIRTUAL SERVICE: A TECH PRIMER

Are you new to “virtual church services” and had this requirement thrust upon you by government mandate or simply proactive concern for your community? Chances are you’re unsure of how to make it all work.

There are two functional areas you need to solve. The web side, and the hardware side.

(None of the links on this page have any affiliate tracking, and we don't make any money on these recommendations. It's simply detailing what has worked for us, with hopefully convenient links for your use.)

Web Concerns

Let’s start with the web. You need a streaming platform on which your signal can be shown, and you need tools to virtually connect your congregation.

Facebook Live and YouTube both offer well-tested, well-trusted, widely-known pathways to get your signal out to your congregation. Probably 3/4 of your congregation’s adults and teens use Facebook at some level. Probably half have a YouTube or Google account. So you have some solid options already, if you get properly provisioned for streaming an entire service on those platforms.

There are plenty of other companies which offer to facilitate web streaming, such as LivingAsOne.com which provides reliability improvements – but at a monthly cost. It may be worth trying things without paying extra, in case they work just fine.

Bandwidth

Let’s face it – video eats bandwidth for lunch. If you want a quality 720p stream, you’re going to need at least a reliable 2Mpbs upstream from your internet service provider. 5Mpbs will be far better and give you a fairly good shot at an uninterrupted HD stream. 720p will look just fine for most people – many of whom will be watching on a small iPhone screen anyway. 1080p is great if you can get 10Mpbs solid bandwidth, but it’s not really necessary for most small churches.

You can do a lot over a cell phone data plan and YouTube stream from a cell phone, but it’s not going to look great or be very reliable.

YouTube

If you’re going to stream on YouTube, you need to get your account approved for long-duration streams. That involves a few steps which Google/YouTube document on their website. You’ll want to start that process immediately.

Facebook

If you want to use Facebook Live, you should start on their page and follow their process.

Both Facebook and YouTube offer interactivity tools, so your congregation can respond in real time.

Other Web Features

In addition, you may want to set up some kind of non-web “return channel” so congregants can send text messages and emails to your web services and/or virtual services team. If the web streaming goes silly, you really want people to have an option to reach you quickly. Also, there’s a lot of value to giving your people a method for sharing prayer requests, prophetic insights, and real-time feedback – but in ways that don’t show up in the public chat on Facebook or YouTube.

It’s probably not a great idea to publish the tech guy or pastor’s personal cell phone numbers. Rather, sign up for a free Google Voicenumber, and route that virtual number to all the important people’s real numbers. Note that you can tie this to a Gmail account, and any text messages sent to the GVoice account will find their way to Gmail if you set it up right.

This document is meant to be more a primer on the hardware, so we’ll leave the web details at that. Some research from one of your web geeks will certainly answer the how-to questions that remain.

Tech Concerns

Okay, so with the web side under control, what hardware do you really need for virtual services?

The Minimalist

If you want just SOMETHING simple to get rolling, a laptop, webcam, and the open-source free OBS Studio software are all you really need.

You’re going to get whatever image quality and audio quality are possible from a laptop, and the encoding quality will depend on your laptop CPU. You can add an audio interface and connect a wired or wireless microphone, as discussed further below, to improve the audio quality. But typical webcams are not very good at low light, and don’t have good zoom lens systems, and often have a rather grainy picture, so you’ll be very constrained on what you can do, but you’ll be able to get an interactive stream running to any of the platforms discussed above.

The More Robust System

We’ll start with a block diagram for a minimal but very functional system for your consideration, and move from there to detailing what each piece is and how they’re connected.

Encoder/Streamer

Of everything here, the streaming box is probably the centerpiece.

This device takes a video/audio input, encodes it for upload, and completely handles the upload to your preferred social media platform.

I strongly recommend the Epiphan Webcaster X2. Cost is under $300. It is a small (4”) Linux-based box that accepts any 1080p or 720p video signal, and is capable of streaming the signal to a wide variety of social media platforms including YouTube and Facebook Live. Once it’s set up, it’s pretty much one-button-click to start streaming on each day. With a mouse interface (why you need the monitor) it’s fairly easy to navigate and to train your tech crew. You’ll need to add an HDMI monitor (like almost all computer monitors and TVs today) to control the streaming and see congregation chat feedback.

You can use a laptop and the OBS program in place of a Webcaster box, but it won’t be quite as foolproof or easy to operate – and the Webcaster is cheaper than a good laptop anyway.

Camera

Next of course is the camera.

This is where you’ll probably spend the most money – between $800 and $1500 if you get a good camera. You want at least a decent camera so that you get good video quality, decent low-light performance, and good zoom. I recommend the Canon XA11, XA40, XA30 or similar. For the Webcaster X2, you must have at least 720p or preferably 1080p video output, without any display stuff like a record indicator (called “clean output” in industry terms) . It has a 20x zoom lens so you can get good shots from some distance, but it also nicely handles closeup video. It has XLR and 1/8 audio inputs, so you can grab a feed directly from your sound board or from a simple microphone. The HDMI output can be plugged directly into the streaming box. I'm partial to Canon, but of course there are other brands. At any rate, for your streaming purposes, the HDMI 1080p/720p output and the audio input are the absolutely critical features.

Audio

For audio, you’ll want a good microphone and some headphones to monitor the signal.

It’s possible to use an on-camera shotgun mic if you’re close to the speaker, but for best sound quality, spend about $50-300 and buy a simple wireless lapel mic system. The goal here is to minimize distracting sounds (like the air conditioning noise or the hum from the fridge in the pastor’s kitchen when your streaming session is in his living room). You need to also get whatever cables and/or adapters are necessary to connect it to the camera’s microphone input jack.

Don’t forget a decent pair of headphones so you can plug in directly to the camera and make sure everything sounds good before you go live.

Controlling Everything

You’ll need a laptop handy to get everything set up on the streaming platform end, too. If you’re using YouTube, you’ll need to create new events and start/stop the stream, even after you launch the data from the webcasting box. It’s also helpful for monitoring and responding to the YouTube or Facebook comments. I’d recommend a laptop instead of an iPad, simply because you have better control.

Optional Upgrades

You may also want to mix in additional video sources – like having a second camera angle - and possibly show PowerPoint or other media in real time. If so, consider adding a Cerevo LiveWedge and an iPad to control it. For about $1000 for the LiveWedge, and $300 for an iPad, it allows you to do all kinds of wipe and cut transitions between up to four HDMI sources, and also do picture-in-picture (PiP) and green-screen effects. So you can superimpose logos, or show the pastor’s slides via PiP, cut to showing videos that relate to the sermon, etc.. The Livewedge is controlled from an iPad app. There are other products available, but in our experience this is a great tool. It’s possible to use without the iPad, but trust me, the interface is vastly superior on the iPad.

Here's the wiring diagram with a LiveWedge.


Note that the Livewedge also mixes incoming audio. You can set it to mute or unmute each HDMI source, so if you’re showing a video on the laptop, that audio will end up going to the stream just like your microphone source.

What about worship?

The setups above focus mainly on presenting your sermon video and audio, and they don’t really consider adding your worship music to the mix. But if your church does live worship sets with a band or orchestra, you can add a small audio mixer between the microphone and the video camera, and get a feed from your sound board into the camera. That ends up going thru to the streaming box, and that’s all you really need.

The Bottom Line

If you’re thrifty, you can get into the streaming business with a fairly portable simple setup for under $2000 and no monthly fees (using YouTube or Facebook Live). Adding a little more flexibility will cost you around $3000 total.

Excellence is the key. Whatever you do, do it as unto the Lord. Put your best foot forward.

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