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Religious Organizations Take Streaming to the Next Level

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In March of 2020, churches were scrambling to maintain community when all religious services were forced to go virtual during pandemic lockdowns. It wasn't just churches that were affected, as mosques and synagogues also shuttered their doors for several months, directing the faithful to virtually attend prayer services and sacred text readings from the comfort of their own homes.

In my consulting practice, I helped Bethel Church, a megachurch in northern California, launch its streaming initiative almost 14 years ago. With Bethel and other customers, I thought I had a good handle on the direction of live streaming at houses of worship, but like every other market vertical touched by the streaming industry, the pandemic accelerated the use of streaming across all religious communities.

Here at Streaming Media, we saw an uptick in interest from houses of worship around the basics of live-streaming services, which until then had primarily been limited to large churches or key mosques and synagogues. While streaming can't replace the communal experience of in-person gatherings, it certainly opens up new opportunities for both religious organizations and the faithful, who are no longer limited by geography as they pursue spiritual enrichment.

"As we've seen a significant uptick in moves to our area," says Chad Roberts, lead pastor at Preaching Christ Church on the Tennessee-
Virginia border, "we've had a number visit the church having already watched us online and finding they're drawn to the community we provide. This seems especially true for those who are just getting settled in the region."

Building an Online Presence

The growing interest in live streaming faith-based events led us to explore the topic, with the help of sponsor company Tulix, during a session at Stream­ing Media East Connect 2021. We had three guests on the panel, two representing different Christian denominations and one representing the Jewish community of faith here in the U.S. Parts of this article are taken from that session, while other parts are from additional interviews done specifically for this article. 

Phillip Brock, who serves as the technical and creative director for the online community that centers on Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Ky., was one of the panelists. He has been with the church for 13 years and heads the production team for both the church's website—which he calls "SE Online"—and the on-campus Southeast TV channel. To put in perspective how big of a task that is, Southeast Christian Church has 14 campuses with about 25,000 worshippers on a given weekend. 

The scramble around Easter 2020 was a moment when the website suddenly was front and center as a way to maintain community at Southeast Christian Church. "As the pandemic hit and churches started shutting down, along with all the other businesses that were streaming at the time," said Brock, "it became hard to acquire a lot of equipment. We were just lucky that we were able to get into streaming and get everything set up for what had almost been like a side project for our church."

Brock said that SE Online had been running for about a year prior to the pandemic, but that the "side proj­ect" suddenly took on an urgency once the lock­downs started. "They weren't really paying attention to us much," he noted. "We were learning a lot, but once that all started, all eyes turned on to us."

Michael Paley, who is the IT manager at Jewish Broadcasting Service (JBS TV), a Jewish educational and cultural network, was also a panelist on the Streaming Media East Connect session. Paley started out working in the Russian-language television market in the early 1990s. "I've been in broadcast going on 30 years," he said. "[JBS] has been around for quite a while in different forms. It is a PBS-style channel that focuses on culture and education."

As part of his work for JBS TV, Paley helps distribute its television channel via traditional cable and satellite providers as well as via streaming through various platforms: web browsers, Apple TV, Fire TV, and Roku devices. "COVID has required changing the production at JBS from a studio to a remote-based workflow," he said. "We had to completely change the way we worked. The studio in Times Square has not been used in about a year. … That was, for us, a fairly sudden shift, where we really had to bring even local people in as a remote. It was technically not terrible, because we had been [prior to the pandemic] doing interviews with people in Europe and in Israel."

Paley said there was a shift from Skype, which the network traditionally used, to Zoom. This facilitated a different way of presenting an interview's host and guest. "Our own production sort of had that same shift, where most of our employees went to work from home," said Paley. "So we had to equip them, at least minimally, to be able to do some of that work. Editing was a combination of local and remote. The biggest shift was [interviews in which] instead of round tables and more in-person interviews, we went to a side-by-side format."

Panelist Blake Martin said that his prior relationship with a New York City landmark house of worship, St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue, was valuable in offering advice and solutions when the pandemic hit. "My background is as a filmmaker," said Martin, who now serves as the director of communications at St. Thomas. "I'm making all different kinds of content from documentaries to commercials to music videos. I had a pre-existing relationship with St. Thomas, and when the pandemic hit, they called me because in-person worship was not allowed.

The control room at Southeast Christian Church in Kentucky, where Phillip Brock oversees the production team for the church’s website and the on-campus Southeast TV channel. The church has 14 campuses with around 25,000 worshippers every weekend. 

"We needed to come up with a way to record and send out the services," continued Martin, who spent multiple hours each week of the first several months of the pandemic filming and editing services to be posted online as on-demand videos. "That led to a longer-term project, which was to invest in live streaming."

One of the issues for a house of worship like St. Thomas is the challenging acoustic environment. But Martin said the church had invested in a quality audio upgrade several years prior, which meant that the only focus for streaming involved choosing and mounting cameras. "St. Thomas is lucky enough to have a very talented audio engineer who is mixing the services live to get the absolute best quality that we can," said Martin. "So in a way, at St. Thomas, which has a very rich oral tradition, audio paved the way for a more seamless expansion into live stream because that groundwork had been laid in … and we've been building an audience around audio webcasts."

Southeast Christian Church Ross Carbonite Yamaha QL1

Phillip Brock and his team at Southeast Christian Church use the Ross Carbonite Black Solo12 video switcher (center) and the Yamaha QL1 digital audio mixer (right)

For video, Martin chose to go with 4K-capable PTZ cameras, the details of which are available in an excellent interview that Streaming Media's Steve Nathans-Kelly did with Martin a few months back. "It's a comfort to know that we're capturing the image of that quality," said Martin. "I think the whole ethos behind what we're doing at St. Thomas is creating a kind of immersive experience. How can we bring folks into the space, into the spiritual experience? And that's an audio challenge and a visual challenge. So 4K helps us to lead with our best foot on the visual side." 

St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue Panasonic AV-UHS500

St. Thomas Church’s director of communications uses a Panasonic AV-UHS500 4K switcher to operate the entire 11-camera system.

Building Community

The buildup of community, through audio and video, has also been of benefit to those who were already streaming before the pandemic. "We were able to continue with services—although not in person, at least for several weeks, because of the streaming we'd put in place several years ago," says Preaching Christ Church's Chad Roberts.

Roberts notes that, while Preaching Christ Church was already set up and live streaming for several years prior to the pandemic, the availability of a mobile app—called Awakened to Grace—meant that those who were hungry for greater spiritual connection during the pandemic lockdowns could effectively "binge watch" full sermons via online videos or podcast formats. And that's continued forward even as in-person services resumed.

"Awakened to Grace has become our 'virtual lobby,' where visitors can learn about us or catch up with several sermons in a series before ever setting foot in our physical location," says Roberts. "Every week, I have someone approach me and say they'd first heard of the church through the app. Some of those are local, but many are people who've chosen to move from bigger cities on the coast to our small-town region." 

And it's not just community. Online giving, which Roberts says isn't mentioned during the sermons, was already strong prior to the 2020 lockdowns, but has continued to rise each month from April 2020 to the present. "At least that's what they tell me," quipped Roberts, who lost his eyesight 3 years ago but continues to preach each week. "And we're finding that online giving isn't necessarily tied to a recent sermon, as some people give after watching a popular sermon series from 3 to 4 years ago."

Southeast Christian Church's Brock said that interaction with the viewers is important, even during a live stream. "We have a team in chat, people that are on all of our platforms we're on," he said, noting that they stream on YouTube, Facebook, Roku, Apple TV, and the church's own app. "We have people manning those stations to interact back and forth dur­ing the service. We also have some graphics machines that we can copy and paste people's first names and their comments into within about 5 seconds. We're really big into interacting with the congregation during the service. … We kind of see it that we're [sort] of like a campus now, online, [alongside] the 14 other in-person campuses."

JBS TV's Paley noted that the "niche service" as he describes it, also gets viewers from outside the Jewish diaspora. "Many viewers are not Jewish," he said. "That, I think at one point came as a surprise to us because, as we did call-in shows and things, people would call, and they were Baptists, and they were from all over the country. It was a very interesting mix of interests, and quite a number of people were interested in culture, Israel, and so forth."

Paley also noted that, even for the broadcast portion of JBS TV, which started via direct satellite but now is on the majority of cable networks in America, it's not just the Jewish community they're reaching but a global audience, thanks to streaming. "We started off streaming with geoblocking," he said, "due mostly to contractual issues where we would license some content that we did not produce. We have since modified [contracts] so that we could license worldwide, and we actually do not geoblock anymore. We have viewers from all corners of the world, from Argentina and Brazil, in some cases. It's very interesting to look through the list of who's been streaming."

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