On March 15, in my Sunday morning sermon to worshipers at Church of the Holy Cross UCC in Hilo, Hawai’i, I said, “When our Board of Deacons meets following worship today, I will recommend that we not meet for worship for at least two weeks. I have already begun planning a worship experience via live video over the Internet in anticipation that we will need to do this at some point. It won’t be what we want. It may not satisfy the thirst of our souls. But we need to satisfy a different thirst first.”
The Board accepted my recommendation. Not long thereafter, Hawai’i Governor David Ige issued a stay-at-home order that prohibited gatherings greater than ten people until the end of April. Church of the Holy Cross shifted to worshiping via streaming video over the Internet, a new endeavor and one with which relatively few of us had any familiarity.
Fortunately, I’d done something like this before when I was on the communications staff of the Connecticut Conference UCC. I also had been producing short pre-recorded videos as part of the church’s life each week for three and a half years.
That gave me some technical background, but I also had to think about reformatting the Sunday service. We simply could not replicate the in-person event. It was irresponsible to bring in the choir to sing. The sermon needed to get shorter. The children’s moment needed to be included, and so a story became the first section of my meditation. Music was still important, but we would have to feel our way into it for practical and copyright awareness reasons.
What are the essentials of worship? A moment to call ourselves into that place… a prayer to bring ourselves to God… reading of Scripture… a story… a message… an invitation to give… a consecration of those gifts… a blessing.
Others will have their own ideas about the essentials I’ve omitted (confession and assurance, for one). This was how I started, and it has turned out to be a good framework.
The next questions were all technical. First, how to share? I wanted to make it as painless as possible for the end user to view and participate in worship. There were several options, boiling down to three major groupings.
One that many churches have used is Facebook Live, a live video option within the social media platform. It offers some limited interaction – rather delayed by processing time – and Facebook is a widely used platform. It was not, however, widely used in my existing congregation. Requiring people to subscribe to a social media service in order to worship seemed like a bad approach.
A second option was a video conferencing application like Zoom or GoToMeeting. This had the strong advantage of offering interaction during the service; lag time exists in these technologies but is usually not noticeable. Although there are in-browser options, the principal players in this field require the end users to download an application. That seemed to me like a significant barrier for people unfamiliar with these technologies.
So I chose the third option: Live streaming over a video distribution service, in this case YouTube. I had an advantage. I’ve had a personal YouTube account long enough that I was already authorized for live streams. That resource was in place. I’d had plenty of practice embedding YouTube players into the web pages of our church site, so people could find us in a familiar interface. Best of all, YouTube has worked hard to be a “visit us and it works” technology. It almost never requires an end user to install anything.
Streaming, however, was not enough. There might be audio or video issues. There might be breakdowns or technical failures. There might simply be people straining to hear from a small computer speaker. Live subtitles didn’t seem practical without special equipment (I’d be willing to be proved wrong about this). I had to provide the texts easily and in advance.
As a result, the worship service text gets posted to a web page, including links to a PDF version of the service so that people can print it and follow along while they keep the YouTube box centered in their screen. I write and post a text for the sermon and pastoral prayer as well, generally early on Sunday morning, so that people with hearing or audio difficulties can follow along. Subscribers to our email newsletter receive the link to the service’s web page on Thursday or Friday, and then again a little over an hour before worship begins. Nobody should have to search very far for the link to the service text and video.
Now it was time to test things. There is a camera in my laptop computer, but I doubted that it would work well (or that the microphone would work well) for worship streaming. One test later, I was on my way to the electronics supply store looking for a better webcam and a long Ethernet cable. With the webcam, a Logitech C922, mounted on a camera tripod I could separate the camera from the computer that controlled everything. It also improved both video and audio quality (with one persistent audio problem I’ll discuss later).
Early tests had showed an undesirable number of freezes and drop-outs. Why? Wifi, of course. The long Ethernet cable immediately evened out the audio and video.
Still eager to test this in a small but “live” environment, I settled on performing a song each Wednesday. So on March 18, I went live for the first time.
The audio quality is… odd. The spoken portion of the video has a fair amount of room echo in it, but by and large it works. During the music, however, the input level rises and falls without rhyme or reason. I would discover that this is a frequent issue on Windows – some process adjusts the sound input levels based on its best guess – but finding it proved to be a more time consuming than I could manage.
We went into our first worship service with this setup: one webcam and built-in microphone feeding into a “Webcam” stream on YouTube Live. We simplified the setting. We placed two chairs on camera, which remained fixed. Participants moved in and out. I stayed on camera for most of the service, a practice we later changed.
Once more, we had issues with sound during the musical performance.
To try to fix that, we turned to better microphones and an audio mixer. It improved things a little, but we still had the curious problem with levels changing by themselves. We reduced the room echo, however, and that was all to the best.
We also brought in a guest preacher via Zoom.
I have to hand it to Zoom: their online help is superb. Setting up an account to stream a Zoom meeting to YouTube is not an easy task, nor is setting up a meeting to be streamed. The instructions they provide, however, are clear and detailed. I did a test (of course) that included the audio mixer (it connects via USB) and Zoom simultaneously. It worked.
And on Palm Sunday, our preacher addressed us from 6,000 miles away.
We also added prelude music that day. Worshipers had told me that they really missed that time of music. It helped them center their spirits. A member recorded a piano performance in audio, and we played it through the board. One of our three-person production team began moving the camera, so it was no longer quite as static. We were slowly adding technical capability as we went.
For Easter Sunday, our piano accompanist offered a video recording of a piano adaptation of Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus. That meant adding a new level of complexity, because combining pre-recorded video with live video meant using a video switcher. I’d been experimenting tentatively with OBS, which is both powerful and free, but had avoided adding that level of complexity. Well, now we needed it.
Using OBS meant three changes. First, it meant configuring the software for our combination of video and audio inputs. That took some experimentation. Second, it meant switching from YouTube Live’s webcam interface to its stream interface. I was somewhat familiar with that from prior experience, fortunately. Third, it meant that one or two of us would need to be familiar enough with OBS to make the switches happen during the service itself.
We made those changes, and discovered something else: using OBS eliminated the strange changes in audio levels we’d been hearing. I immediately switched to using it for the Wednesday songs as well.
If you’ve lost track, we currently use:
- A single webcam on a tripod,
- Two dynamic vocal microphones in mic stands,
- An analog audio mixer with a USB output, and
- A laptop computer running OBS using a wired Internet connection.
We have plans. We’re not entirely happy with the video. It’s difficult to move a video camera smoothly. It’s awkward to move one that doesn’t have its own viewfinder. The camera operator has to use a side view of the laptop screen. We have ordered a hardware switcher and have camcorders available. Using their HDMI output, we hope to be able to produce a better looking video. The switcher, however, has been on backorder for weeks and I do not know when this will change.
Finally, I determined to do something different and special for Good Friday. Some years ago I wrote a song based on Psalm 130. I set up several cameras and microphones, recorded several takes, and assembled a final video using the editing software I’ve used for years.