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How to make the transition from video conferencing to a physical church service. 

By Dan Meakin – Course Leader for BA (Hons) Event Technology & Head of Technical Services.

If your church is currently meeting over Zoom or Meet or similar services, this will sound familiar. Maybe you come from a small church that had never considered online services until a global pandemic and lockdown, or maybe you’re from a large and tech-savvy church and you’ve found the transition easy. Hopefully the following will help you improve the audio/visual elements of your digital, physical, or hybrid church services, no matter what your technical background is.

Opening the Window – Connecting in an Online-Only Context

If you really were communicating with someone through windows in an adjacent tower, you would take certain logical steps in order to make this conversation easier. For example, you would probably open the windows and turn all the lights on to ensure they could see and hear you. It’s important we take the same logical steps to ensure our online conversations are visually and aurally clear – this will make communication clearer.

Turning the light on: visuals & lighting

  •  There are some simple things you can do to correct your lighting, like adding secondary light sources (don’t underestimate the power of a well-placed lamp) or rotating so that you’re not face on to a window – natural light can be your best friend if you find the right placement.  
  • Write some guidelines on how to compose a webcam shot so that it’s aesthetically pleasing without being distracting. Sending these guidelines out to church leaders can raise the overall standard of your church’s online content. 

Opening the window: spoken audio

The real technical challenge with conference calls is not the video but the audio, as I’m sure we’re all familiar with by now. A built-in mic in a boxy home office is always going to be uncomfortable to listen to.  

  • Use wired earphones and an external mic and get it as close to the speaker as possible. This could even be the cheap earphone/mic set that came with a mobile phone.  
  • Add some drapes and as many soft furnishings as possible to absorb as much sound as possible in the room.  

Opening the window: worship audio

The worship can be much more of a challenge, as the conference call audio processing tries to actively kill the tones of an acoustic guitar or keyboard, even if played back from a pre-recorded video. This is the same even if we bypass the noise cancelling on our device, as it’s still engaged on all the devices listening, especially mobiles.  There are, however, a few ways you can minimise these problems.

  • Pre-record the worship using DAW software and file sharing systems, allowing for more processed audio and a more comfortable sound.  
  • If we broadcast to Facebook or YouTube directly from our videoconference application, the noise cancelling isn’t needed as it turns into a one-way stream and the audio is a lot better.  

Although some of these steps may improve the quality of our services, they also run the risk of actually closing the metaphorical window; a high-tech, pre-recorded worship set may interrupt the spontaneity or community of congregational worship. This is something to be carefully considered, and there is not one solution that works for every church.

Opening the Doors – Connecting in a Hybrid Context

By now though, we’re all looking forward to being able to have an in-person church service, but perhaps with half or more of our congregation will still need to attend virtually. Let’s talk about how to keep that digital window open between the physical and virtual spaces in a hybrid church service. This need not be a large expensive exercise (webcam quality is fine; all of our standards have dropped!), but it’s important that the congregation joining from home still feel connected.

Streaming Your Service

  • A simple video setup can use a pair of iOS devices, a reasonable spec computer and some network cabling and adaptors (most of which you might already have). Add these to our usual sound desk and projection system and you’re mostly there.  
  • You could use tools like the NDI HX app to stream the cameras to OBS studio on the computer, combined with an NDI feed from the projection PC and audio from the sound desk, and sent straight to a streaming service.  
  • For a typical small church, we only really need a static wide view of the church, and possibly manned camera to follow whoever is leading at any given point. 
  •  Lighting really does need to be considered, especially for the person preaching, and a lot of thought should go into the layout and background to make it comfortable for people to watch through that little digital window.  
  • The audio can be a mix from the PA desk to start with (maybe mixed in with some ambient mics in the OBS Studio application). We can add a dedicated mixer later if budget allows – remote tablet control of an auxiliary mix is possible with most digital consoles.

Choosing your Platform

The choice of virtual platform is where the digital window analogy is important, as a live stream only goes in one direction, therefore it’s hard to keep the two-way conversation going over text chat. One way to avoid this is to send the feed to our familiar video conferencing app instead of a one-way streaming service.

We could also then set up one of the cameras so that someone could be a bridge between the physical and virtual congregations. Sort of like sitting in the digital window. They could be a virtual door greeter, meeting host, and prayer partner.  It’s even possible to set up a feed from the video conferencing app to go to the projection and PA system, allowing contributions from anywhere in the physical OR virtual congregation.  

All of this has the potential to keep that digital window open as wide as possible in order to continue building community.  The key is to always make the technology serve the needs of the congregation

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