The great thing about technology is that while prices start high, they tend to go down and do so quickly. When I first started doing church video, we used to tell churches that if they could afford to buy an organ, they could afford to buy the equipment to do video. Now, the barrier to entry is so low that church plants often launch with equipment that established ministries could only dream of a few years ago.

Live streaming is like that. When I was in seminary, we did a live stream between two campuses and to do so we needed dedicated internet connections, specialized equipment, and a week of set-up. Today, we could accomplish a better quality live stream for less (including the equipment) than the cost of the labor of my boss and me doing the work in 2000.

Additionally, we don’t need a special connection to the internet. For most churches, what they can get from the cable company is adequate for at least SD live streaming.

This causes a problem though. Since the equipment is so inexpensive, compared to what it was, often churches try and make it even more so. A system that costs a few thousand dollars might be outside of their grasp, but one that costs a several hundred may not be.

At its core, live streaming is just taking a video image and sending it to an encoder which then sends it to a streaming host or CDN. The video may come from a simple camera, a video system with switcher and several cameras, or even a prerecorded source.

Cameras and Switchers

I can’t imagine a situation that wouldn’t include any video cameras in a church environment. Webinars are often merely live streamed screencasts, but for church, you’d at least sometimes want to see the people talking. So, a camera is essential.

Cameras come in various forms from security and web cams to broadcast quality, cinema, and special use cameras.  Because of cost, I often hear of churches trying to get away on the lower end of the spectrum. More than once, I’ve answered questions like, “can I get a webcam with an optical zoom” or “how do I get my security camera to show up in my encoding software?”

The problem is that neither of these types of camera can do what you need them to do in a church environment. Web cams are designed to be wide so that people can sit fairly close to their computers during video conferences and the like. Security cameras are normally designed to interface with security DVRs, not live-streaming software, so attempts to connect them to computers will give you mixed results, at best. Even if they do connect, either the format of the video is wrong for a good live stream (codec), frame rate is too slow (less than 24 isn’t enough) or the resolution is too limited (320p for example).

I’ve written before about the minimums and that webcams can be a part of that kind of system, but while the monetary cost for these is low, the cost of flexibility is high. This is what webcams and security cams share — lack of flexibility.

If your church isn’t willing to put a webcam closer to the front, perhaps you should consider a camcorder instead.  One caution: Don’t be fooled by digital zoom. You want the lens of any camera you use to do the work of magnifying the image before it gets to the sensor.

Even optical zoom comes at a cost, though. When you zoom in, you magnify the image, but also the apparent movement of the camera. This means a good tripod is all the more important.

Don’t forget that zoom compresses the distance between foreground and background, too. So, that means that anything that’s in the background will appear closer than it is. From a video standpoint, it’s better to move the camera closer to the subject. From a church perspective, it may not be. Balance these needs to do the best you can given your individual circumstances.

Innovative Solutions for Small Churches

small church live streamingI’ve told you about some of the challenges. There are innovative solutions that might be great, especially for smaller churches. In some situations, like a streaming message from the pastor, maybe a service like Meerkat or Periscope would be appropriate. Remember the problems with digital zoom versus optical zoom? These iOS only services have that same problem.

You can do something to get past not being able to zoom. I mentioned placing the camera closer, if you can have multiple cameras to switch between.  Right now, neither Meerkat nor Periscope give you anything other than the main camera.

Happily there is another choice.  I first heard about using an iPad as a switcher for several iOS devices with an app called RecoLive. Soon, I found its big brother Switcher Studio. While RecoLive switches and records, Switcher studio also live streams.

The bad news is that Switcher Studio and Switcher Studio Pro operate on a SaaS (software as a service) model.  So, while you can save on hardware for your live stream, you’ll be paying every month and if you stop, so does your switching capability.

A lot of churches are using entry-level switchers for live streaming and slowly upgrading from there. You could start with a BlackMagic Television Studio or Roland V-40HD to switch between your camera and computer. Later, you could add a second and third cameras.

Encoding Choices

Once you have your video signal, you need to encode it. There are three choices to do so: 1) You can do it in the camera (whether it’s a smartphone or camcorder with that feature), 2) you can capture the video and have a computer encode it, or 3) you can use an encoding device.

The downside of doing it in the camera is that you only have one video source. If you want to add another camera or computer, you’re out of luck.

By encoding with a computer, you have a couple of advantages. You can switch between video sources if you use something like WireCast as your encoding software. You also probably already know at least a little about computers.

The disadvantage is that it’s a computer and everything else you do with it makes it less stable. Encoding is pretty taxing on the computer, so churches often make the mistake of buying a cheap computer and expecting it to do what a much more expensive computer can. OS updates may also cause problems, so a well-meaning volunteer who updates your computer could cause problems with your encoding software.

The other possibility is an encoding appliance. These devices can cost from a few hundred to several thousand dollars. Their advantage is that they’re not computers. Their disadvantage is that they’re not computers, so they’re mostly stuck with the capabilities that they have at the time of purchase.

Whether you’re using software or hardware to encode, don’t try and save a few bucks by buying the proprietary version that only works with one live streaming host. Should you ever change, you can kiss that money goodbye and the sunk cost of the proprietary solution may dissuade you from switching when you actually should.

Internet Access

Depending on the quality of your stream, you may need a very fast connection to the internet. Here, the upload speed matters a lot more than download speed. If the ISP offers “up to 50 Mbps,” it might not be enough if the upload speed is 1 Mbps or less. You can stream at 640x360p to get by with slower upload speeds, but that’s really a lower bar than you want to aim for. If possible, 720p is a good starting point, especially with UHD on the horizon.

CDN, DIY, or Live Streaming host

Now, you need a partnership to distribute the video to all the people who watch it online. YouTube’s free streaming may seem like the perfect solution, but I know of two churches that abandoned it after their stream was pulled during service, even with the correct licenses. Other services have similar problems, like interrupting the service with ads that replace the content while the ad is running, or restricting what you can do with the live stream.

Two of the more technical (but potentially cheaper) options are using a CDN (like Limelight or Akamai) or setting up a live stream using rented server space (from Amazon EC2, Rackspace, etc.). Don’t attempt these unless you have someone who is highly technical an has experience with them. They’re much more complex solutions than a live streaming host.

The extra you pay for a live streaming host (like, WorshipChannels, StreamMonkey, etc.) pays for itself with ease of use, additional features, and support. With these services, you may be paying either a flat-rate or a variable rate, depending on use.

Final Considerations

As you’re making these decisions, don’t err on the side of “good enough” if it comes at a cost to the future. If you buy the minimum today and tomorrow have to replace it with what you should have bought, have you really saved money? Try and build a foundation that you can, not a barely capable system that will need to be replaced.

Live streaming is a growth area. We’re seeing it more and more online. Your church can join the revolution, just don’t be too cheap or move before you’re actually ready to do it.

Here are some other really helpful articles on live streaming here on CTT: