© 2020 Benjamin Windle

  • Benjamin Windle

Why live streaming is not the full answer for churches during COVID-19.

Learn the new model that will work for Millennials and Gen Z.

7 dimensions to an Online Church Community model.

If churches cannot meet on Sundays:

A shutdown of Sunday services will have massive ramifications for local churches. Across the globe, governments are introducing mandatory closures of any kind of worship gathering, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is hard to predict if churches will need to suspend regular services for weeks, or if it will become months. If it is only for a few weeks, and life goes back to normal, we will all celebrate. This guide is written with the assumption that large-scale worship gatherings may be disrupted for an extended period, and the longer that period is, the more intentional our strategic response needs to be. None of us have this figured out, so please consider this early conversation in unchartered waters.

My White Paper on leading Millennials and Gen Z has helped over 10,000 Pastors around the world. This formed a helpful framework to consider how we can not only retain, but reach Millennials and Gen Z during this situation. You can get it here for free.

The good news is that there is a solution: shifting our churches to an online model. If this was twenty years ago, it would have been a truly devastating situation. The reality is we have been operating, for the most part, in analogue mode in a new digital world. We haven’t even scratched the surface of the potential that the internet offers us to do ministry in new and creative ways. This will force us to think digital in a much deeper way. We are blessed to live in a digital era that enables us to continue to serve and minister to people! The take-up rate of the percentage of people who regularly attend church in person, to the number that subsequently engage online, is crucial. If Sunday services are suspended, or attendance drops out of fear, every person who does not migrate to online engagement will, essentially, be lost to the church during that period. And none of us know how long this period will be.

As countries move into recession and economies are hit hard, the situation filters down to individuals in the church, and may adversely affect their ability to contribute financially. Like any organization, if a church experiences a sudden and extenuated decline in income, this will affect its ability to fulfil its mission of serving the community and proclaiming the hope and grace found in Jesus.

The conversion of moving people from physical attendance to online engagement is going to be the single most important thing we can do during this season.

With the right online engagement, churches can worship together, preach, pray for each other, give financially, and build community.

Live streaming is only a first step:

Let me state upfront what I am advocating, and then provide my rationale: If you need to suspend normal weekend services, live streaming church services for people to view at home is only a first step. It is not the full solution. Rather, we need to shift the entire model of church to an online community with multiple ministry expressions.

We have to be prepared for a shutdown of Sunday church services that may last for weeks, or possibly even months. The best way to do so is not to view the situation through a technical filter (for example, what equipment, technology, and online services do we need?). Technical matters, but it is secondary. Church is a people community, and this situation is best viewed through a people-centric lens.

People have behavioral stages to adopting new things. Some are early adopters. This segment of your church will have no issues swapping over to live streaming. But, many are ‘laggards’ when it comes to technology. They struggle to make fast, immediate changes to core aspects of their lives. Yes, functionally speaking, someone may be able to watch a live stream of your church service, but there are additional layers of human behavioral psychology involved.

Adding a live stream and thinking that’s the solution is like a university adding a camera into a lecture room and calling it ‘online campus’. It’s not the full expression of what a campus is: it’s just a camera feed. It doesn’t make up for walking with friends to the lecture hall, lunches together – all the moments that create the social fabric of an environment.

It’s the same with our churches.

If a local church cannot meet on a Sunday, substituting the meeting with a live stream is not going to be a comprehensive-enough solution for a month or longer.

If people are used to a physical Sunday service, it will take more than one video to compensate for what that experience used to bring.

Put simply, a live stream is not the full answer: it is part of the answer. But, if churches are in sustained lockdown, we need to think beyond a live-stream of a Sunday service, and we have to think about how to function as a church digitally.

The best solution – a new model for a new world:

We have to go to the extent of thinking about a new paradigm. For example, I recently went to a clothing store that had a live DJ with pumping music, friendly staff that chatted with me, and I got to physically touch and try on the t-shirts I was looking at. It had a cool vibe. Imagine that store sent out an email and said they were forced to suddenly close their doors, and that people should now use the online shopping option. Functionally, the same purchase can be made. However, is an online shopping cart the same emotional experience as the in-store experience? No. I can complete a transaction, but I miss out on the experience.

That’s for something as simple as a retail store. Church is not a transactional function – it is a much deeper emotional, spiritual, relational experience.

Sunday services are what I am calling the 'bricks and mortar model'. If we can’t meet on Sundays in corporate church services, we can’t just tweak our model a little – we need to pivot to something new during the extent of this virus situation. And we need to do it fast. To compensate for and replace bricks and mortar church services, we need a multi-dimensional approach.

'Online Church Communities’ is what I am calling my new proposed model. An Online Church Community is online first, and physical second. The online is not just an optional add-on to the bricks and mortar model. It is rebuilding the model from the ground up. We can still be biblical churches. Good can come out of this.

To transition from a bricks and mortar church, to an Online Church Community, we have to help people emotionally transition and feel familiar with a new approach. However, this will take more than a Sunday service camera feed.

7 dimensions to an Online Church Community model:

So, how do we help people transition emotionally from normal weekend services, to an online community? I have put together a 7-dimensional approach to being an Online Church Community will help you to reinvent your church model in the midst of the global pandemic:

  1. Live stream the Sunday service on multiple platforms. Facebook, Instagram, and www.churchonlineplatform.com are free. A good, paid option is: www.livestream.com.

  2. Nominate an Online Pastor. They can be a volunteer or a staff member. They will host the online chat and engagement.

  3. Create a simple webpage that lists all of your online expressions (live streaming, giving, etc.). We created a new, no-frills homepage that makes our online model first and central.

  4. Start a ‘Wednesdays at Home’ live devotional from the Pastor’s house. To see an example of this, please go to my Facebook Page to see what I do. It’s a different message and concept to a Sunday service, and adds new value to the online model.

  5. Emphasize small groups and live ‘watch parties’. If governments allow small gatherings at home, micro-communities can gather to watch the Sunday service live and pray for one another.

  6. Have a daily, live online ministry time on social media that includes things like prayer, communion, and scripture reading.

  7. Move as much financial giving to automated online options by speaking openly and candidly to the church.

Not being able to host large gatherings may force us to relook at the Acts church and rediscover the importance and joy of grassroots ministry, caring for our local community, and relying on the Holy Spirit each day. We have become used to crowds – it is time to rediscover the infinite value of the individual.

We need to find innovative new ways to add extra value that didn’t exist previously. My suggestions are really just conversation starters. A totally separate article could be written about how the church has a unique opportunity to serve those in need outside the church during this time. I think there are more qualified people to write that piece than myself.

We need to adjust our Sunday service to keep in mind how it will be experienced online.

Consider the following practical suggestions for online ministry:

  •  Shorten services. Attention spans are lower when it comes to videos (1-hour total). 

  • Camera engagement – emcees, worship leaders, and preachers should regularly make eye contact with the camera and specifically address their online viewers. 

  • Live video – thoughtful, authentic content over studio production quality. Don’t just repost cut up content of the Sunday preaching. We need to provide a variety of online LIVE offerings each week, in order to enable the church to keep the same momentum. Think of daily opportunities to go live, and exponentially ramp up the number of live videos. 

  • Blank page what you do on social media. In many ways, we need to scrap most of how we have used social media for churches, which is not a bad thing. I think we were all growing a little fatigued of curated photos of stage production and preaching. We now need to use social media for genuine ministry, not just highlight snippets. I’m talking raw, basic, down-to-earth times of devotion, scripture reading, prayer, communion, and so forth. 

  • If you can’t live stream from a church building, do it from home on a smart phone using Facebook Live.

How to live stream from your house on Facebook

I want to briefly provide some basic instructions on how to do a live video feed from your home. I will include the equipment you need in order to do this on a small budget, but still at a reasonable quality.

At present, we will live stream our Sunday services from our church facility, and our new ‘Wednesdays at Home’ devotional from our home. However, it may be that, in the future, we have to stream exclusively from home. Don’t worry: it is easier than you think! You may need to pick up a few extra items to get the quality right, but it will be a worthwhile investment.

  1. A smart phone. The latest generation smart phones tend to have outstanding cameras. Personally, I use the iPhone 11.

  2. A microphone. Audio is more important than the video. There are ways you can run a regular stage microphone into a phone using a pre-amp. I use a high-quality lapel microphone with a built-in pre-amp that plugs directly into my phone: https://apple.co/3cXyjm7

  3. A tripod. Mount your phone to the tripod. You can get a dedicated mount from a camera shop. Today, I used zip ties as a makeshift adapter.

  4. A light. Budget permitting, get a light from a local camera store. It significantly improves the quality. The one I have is overkill, and you can get much cheaper options, but, for your interest, this is the model I use: https://products.aputure.com/ls-c120d-ii/

  5. Basic backdrop. Think about what is behind you. My wife and I moved a couple of couches in our living room and created a little studio that’s uncluttered and warm.

In Facebook, you can start a live video free of charge. You can do the same in Instagram. Please note, you may need to mount your camera in Portrait Mode instead of Landscape Mode when doing live videos on social media – so, be sure to test this. I am doing live videos from my phone in Portrait Mode (the phone is in a vertical position).

If our regular weekend services are suspended due to the pandemic, offering live-streaming as a standalone solution is insufficient. We need to pivot from operating a bricks and mortar model to an Online Church Community model. It is a philosophical shift that will then lead to significant changes in ministry expression during this time. God is with us, and good will come from this.

Benjamin Windle

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