Monday, March 6, 2017

Notes from a Webcast Watcher

My health has kept me from attending church for more than a decade and a half now. Over that time I unfortunately haven’t seen much progress in churches addressing toxicity issues. One way in which things have improved, however, is that a greater number of churches are now streaming their services, which, although it certainly isn’t a substitute for attending in person, is a great blessing for those of us who can’t access corporate worship services otherwise. There are enough churches webcasting on Sunday mornings these days that I thought it might be helpful, as someone who watches regularly, to give a bit of feedback on what I most appreciate.

The best place to begin this list is with a genuine expression of gratitude to all churches who’ve made the decision to stream their services and all the individuals who make it happen from week to week. It’s very much appreciated. Online sermon archives are helpful and good, but I personally find the ability to watch a live service exponentially more emotionally satisfying. I feel less excluded and more an actual part of the congregation. When I was able to watch the same church my family members attended, we shared a common experience, at least to a degree, and were able to discuss the service over lunch. Thank you for the effort, webcasting churches everywhere. That said, here are some suggestions for optimizing the experience.

1. Identify your audience. Who are you hoping to serve? Is the stream primarily for regular church members who are unable to attend now and then? Is it for people checking out your church before visiting in person? How about folks outside of your geographic location? Your answer to these questions will determine how you handle other issues.

2. If the stream is for people other than church members, make it as easy as possible for them to know that you webcast your services and when and how to access them. I personally haven’t found any sort of central database, at least for the geographical areas I’ve searched. It would be helpful for denominational and interfaith organizations to compile and post that information.

In my quest to digitally visit as many churches as possible in my new geographical area, I’ve spent much more time than anticipated simply trying to identify my options. A simple google search for churches in my city that stream their services yielded a handful of helpful results and a lot of unhelpful ones. I also had mixed results searching the Livestream and Ustream sites. There were many dead links, but one church provided their new streaming address, which was helpful. A surprising number of churches didn’t provide their name anywhere in the video description. Some gave initials, which was at least a clue. I know the search results were incomplete, because I’ve watched services from at least one church on Livestream that didn’t appear in the results list. I’m guessing the church didn’t include the city name in their description.

Searching YouTube's "live" page wasn't very successful, and if there's currently a way to search for churches that use Facebook Live to stream their services, I didn't discover it. I was also unable to search the sites of Streamspot, Sunday Streams, ChurchStreaming, or Churchvu.

All that said, since there doesn’t seem to be any sort of comprehensive database, I suggest you make the information about streaming very clear on your website and/or Facebook page. (I’ve been surprised at how many churches apparently still don’t have either one of those things, but I’m assuming that if they don’t, they aren’t streaming, either.)  If you don’t stream every service, clearly indicate which ones are going to be available. If you want to make things easier for online visitors outside your geographical area, it’s helpful to note what time zone you’re in. Sometimes a webcast works better in one browser than another, or doesn’t work well on a mobile device, which is also helpful for potential watchers to know.

3. Monitor the feed to make sure it works consistently and have someone available to address issues as they arise. Over my years of webcast watching, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to decide whether, if a stream has consistent problems, it’s better than nothing, or it’s better for that church just not to try at all. I’ve never quite made up my mind. What I do know is that my frustration level was often very, very high when trying to watch services from a church with ongoing webcast issues. I often felt like Charlie Brown. Charlie kept believing that Lucy would hold the football long enough for him to kick it, despite her habit of yanking it away. I kept believing that the webcast problems were fixed, but they kept recurring. During some of those years, I had a way to communicate during the service that there were problems, but most of the time I didn’t. For those of us who are mostly homebound, watching a church service from home feels a bit like watching through a window because the door to church is locked and we don’t have a key. When the webcast stops working, it’s as if the curtains on the window close. The frustration level is lower when we believe someone has noticed that the window is covered and is working to open the curtains again.

4. If there are ongoing problems, look for patterns. I’ve noticed some churches seem to consistently have problems streaming the music, but not the sermon, and the pattern is reversed for other churches. Perhaps it relates to bandwidth or interference as certain equipment is used. I’ve been trying to watch services from one particular church here in town and have found that there are almost always problems near the end of the sermon. I don’t know why that is, but it’s difficult for me to relax when I tune in because I’m always waiting for the moment when the feed will stop working.

5. Start streaming on time, or, better yet, a little bit before the service actually starts. When I tune in at the projected start time and nothing is happening, I never know whether the church no longer streams its services, there are technical problems that day, or they’re just getting started late. I don’t know whether to bail out and find another service to watch or to stick with the one I’m attempting to access for a while. To compound the problem, I’ve found that for some streaming programs, if I tune in and nothing is happening, the video stream won’t automatically start on my end when the church begins the webcast. It will still show no feed until I refresh the page. That’s a very unfortunate system, especially for watchers who have no way to know they need to keep refreshing if they want to know when the service has actually begun.

6. If you have any interest in reaching people other than your regular church members, don’t ask us to create an account and log in to simply watch a Sunday service. It’s an unnecessary barrier and just doesn’t feel very welcoming. This doesn’t appear to be a common situation, but I’ve encountered it.

7. Give people who are considering visiting your church as much information through your webcasts as possible. If you have both a traditional and a contemporary service, for example, consider streaming both. Even if you have multiple services that follow the same pattern, it’s helpful to stream them all. This gives viewers options for choosing what best fits their schedule, and provides other information as well. Hope springs eternal, and I haven’t given up hope of being able to attend church in person someday. I find it helpful when the camera pans out and I can see where I might be able to sit and have potentially clean air. I also notice what people wear. Sometimes people dress up more for one service than another, which often correlates with more perfume use, a health and barrier issue for me. Other viewers may be interested in things like how many children are in the service, or if the aisles are wide enough for easy wheelchair access.

8. Make it easier for people watching at home to sing along with the congregation by providing us with the song lyrics. The easiest way to do that is to simply point the camera at the projector screens in the sanctuary when lyrics are being projected. I’ve watched webcasts from churches who project lyrics over the shots of the praise team, which is a good option for churches with the capability. One church in town has consistently wonderful music that always touches me deeply, but the camera tends to pan from the worship leader to the choir to the praise team and only occasionally gives a shot of the projector screens. I can worship with the congregation when I happen to know the song, but am left simply watching when I don’t. I was spoiled for many years by a worship leader husband who gave me a copy of all the music that was going to be used in the service that day. It’s very odd for me, since his death, to find myself in the position of not knowing many of the songs being sung, but it’s safe to assume that most webcast watchers aren’t married to the worship pastor and are in a similar position. For multiple reasons, I've often thought it would be helpful for churches to post their bulletins or order of service on their websites.  This would be especially helpful for churches that don't provide song lyrics during the webcast, because if I know what songs are going to be sung, I can look up the lyrics online.

9. It’s nice to be acknowledged. I know one pastor (my brother-in-law actually) who walks up to the camera at the end of the service and talks directly to those of us watching, telling us he’s glad we were able to join the congregation that day. I love that. It’s a small gesture that means a lot.

Again, many thanks to all churches who stream their services. Those of us watching at home certainly don’t expect perfection, and we know this is relatively new technology that requires some learning and experimentation. My suggestions are simply meant to spur thought and point out some things you might not have considered. May your efforts bear much fruit for the kingdom of God.


Marie Knowles said...

Excellent article, Martha!

Martha McLaughlin said...

Thanks so much, Marie.