COVID-19 is impacting churches and schools around Australia.

In Australia, the federal government has requested all gatherings over 500 people be cancelled starting Monday. Within hours of this request, we’ve seen events as far out as a month away get cancelled – and undoubtedly more cancellations are on the horizon. While I hope and pray the spread is contained, we should be preparing for these bans on gatherings to continue for some while – and possibly only increase in severity.

So, what are churches and schools to do? Even without further restrictions, it seems attendance at even the smallest public gatherings is going to reduce. In this time, we still want to be able to communicate to and share with our church and school communities.

Thankfully, there are a variety of technology options we can consider to help us fulfil our organisation goals in this time. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, here is a collection of ideas that may be of use in this time.

General Advice

Your local country’s health authority will have the best source of advice during this period.

Any of us a part of a community (and I hope that is everyone) should keep in mind those less fortunate than ourselves. The care for vulnerable and isolated people should be at the front of our minds.

If you don’t have a Continuity Plan already, now is the time to draft one. Such a plan should outline actions to be taken in times of crisis, to ensure the organisation can continue to operate.

If you already have a continuity plan, make sure everyone is reviewing it and do a test run as soon as possible. For example, there’s no point telling everyone to work from home if no one can access the resources they need.

As with everything new, you should test it thoroughly before rolling it out. Time may be tight, be taking an extra couple of hours to test your internet connection, video and audio feeds will be worthwhile.

Small meetings, classes, and interactive workshops

If you run any sort of gathering that requires interactivity, the best way to do so is to use Zoom. This is the best video conferencing platform I’ve used (it’s robust, reliable, cross-platform, and pretty cheap).

One-on-one meetings are free, and meetings with one host and up to 100 participants costs US$20.99/month.

You can use video, audio, screen sharing, and quite a bit more.

Zoom can easily install on people’s computer and phones, and I’ve found to be pretty robust on slow internet connections.

If you run it in Webinar mode, you have a lot of control over who is able to speak/present. This is perfect for classes, where one person is typically presenting, but the rest of the participants are able to engage in a controlled manner.

There are also plenty of other solutions, such as Google Hangouts, Webex, Facebook Messenger, and dozens of others. My advice is to choose a platform that is non-exclusive and easy for people to use.

Church worship services

If you run a church service, and need to make it COVID-19 friendly, my advice is broken into a few different categories based on your current situation.

If you already have a live stream…

Fantastic! This is a great start, so I won’t bother explaining the basics of live streaming to you. There are some things you should be doing to prepare for the coming weeks and months as restrictions are ramped up:

  1. Check in on your team. Make sure anyone even remotely sick stays at home, and make sure you have enough people trained up and ready to step in. If you need to run training for extra people, consider running some sessions via Zoom.
  2. Have your platforms ready. As more and more people start producing and consuming streamed content, there will be more of a burden on our infrastructure. If you only stream to one platform currently, consider streaming to multiple from now on. Streaming to at least two different platforms will help you increase accessibility, plus also increase your options if one of these platforms has capacity issues.
  3. Communicate regularly. Make sure everyone knows how to connect with you online. Communicate via email, phone, SMS, Facebook, Instagram, and any other platforms you may have at your disposal. We don’t want to alarm anyone, but do want to make sure people know how they can still participate remotely and engage in the community.

If you don’t have a regular live stream…

If you have never live streamed church before, please trust me when I say this: it will be very difficult for you to produce a high quality live stream of your entire worship service.

As much as I enjoy a good live stream myself, and see the value in it, if it’s not regular and you don’t have a team and the required equipment, you should first consider some other options. Here are some different ways you can tackle the problem:

  1. Record, edit & upload key parts of your services. This may include the sermon, bible readings, announcements, and any other spoken segments. By recording the video, you make it much easier on yourself. If something goes wrong, you have a bit of time to stop, investigate, and fix the problem without having a live audience waiting for you. Apps such as iMovie and DaVinci Resolve are cheap and readily available to help you edit video.
  2. Record, edit & upload your entire service. Again, this gives you time to get things right, but does add in the complexity of music. You may wish to consider recording your audio as a multi-track, so you can mix it properly for online consumption. At the very least, mix your camera mic in with your audio console’s feed.
  3. Live stream part of your service. Maybe you would like to turn on an internet stream for just the sermon. This can be done with a single camera and limited equipment. I have some recommendations below on how to set this up.
  4. Live stream your entire service. If you’ve never live streamed worship before, I’d caution you against doing this. But I recognise many churches are going to give it a shot, and I recognise that. Again, I have some recommendations below on how to achieve this.
  5. Cancel services entirely, and focus on small groups. You may not need to go online before, but instead you may wish to resource lots and lots of people to form small groups. At the time of writing this, very small gatherings are still considered much safer than larger gatherings – but check with your local health authority for specific advice. Perhaps these small groups can even be conducted via video conferencing?
  6. Record a podcast. Maybe your church doesn’t need video whatsoever. Maybe you can record a podcast, and publish it online. This can be done with a microphone and a computer, and there is plenty of great equipment that can help you with this.

If today is Friday or Saturday and you wish to pull something together for Sunday, focus on the option that will get you the greatest impact for the least amount of risk.

What equipment do I need?

Most of these options are going to require equipment, and for some churches and schools there may be an investment required.

Before you purchase anything, I implore you to consider what you already have access to. There may be people in your community with access to relevant equipment and expertise already, and you should tap into that before reaching for your credit card.

The most basic recording/streaming setup possible

Here is the simplest recording or streaming setup you can possibly have:

That’s it. It’s really simple and will likely cost you a few hundred dollars.

  • If you want to stream to Facebook, you can use the Facebook app (you’ll need to be an admin on your church’s Facebook page).
  • If you want to record, the camera app on your phone will be ‘good enough’.
  • If you want to stream to YouTube, you need more than 1000 subscribers to go live from the mobile app.

With this setup, I have some general advice:

  1. Make sure everyone is using a microphone and has good microphone technique
  2. Position your camera at eye level with the subject
  3. Make sure you have good lighting from in front of the person (lots of backlight makes things trickier)
  4. Don’t try and do music. Sound will be a challenge. You won’t be able to overlay lyrics. Avoid this in the first instance.

A slightly more complicated streaming setup

If you have a couple of decent cameras, you may want to look at more advanced options.

The ATEM Mini is a great little switcher & USB-C capture device. You can connect your cameras via HDMI, it will scale them automatically, and you can connect the device into a USB-C capable computer to allow streaming online.

If you’ve never live streamed before, you will need a video encoder. This is a piece of software that takes your video feed, and sends it to Facebook/YouTube. I use and recommend OBS as a fantastic (and free) streaming video encoder.

For some general advice on connecting and configuring everything, take a look at my older article explaining how to live stream.

What about music & lyrics?

Doing worship on a live stream is hard. Here are some things to consider:

  • How can people see the lyrics?
  • What audio will people hear? How will it be mixed? How can we make it sound good?
  • What do we show visually during this time? Is the worship team visually compelling enough to show the whole way through, or should we just show some full screen motion backgrounds with lyrics?
  • Do I have the correct copyright licenses to do this?

If you have closed your church to the general public, my suggestion is to:

  • Turn off the main PA
  • Mix with headphones
  • Mix in mono
  • Find some sort of AGC/Compressor to keep your output levels high and consistent
  • Watch the level meters constantly
  • Have someone monitoring the live stream in another room, reporting on any issues
  • Don’t run vocals too loud – poor vocal performance is much more obviously online, and you don’t want to ruin the confidence of you singers

If you still have people in the room and can’t turn off the main PA, consider mixing on an AUX bus on your console. If you have a digital console, you may be able to put someone in a quiet room with headphones and an iPad app and have them mix off your AUX bus there.

If you have Dante on your main console, consider routing everything into Protools or any other DAW, and mix it separately in there. Latency isn’t a huge deal, and you can use loads of plugins!

If you want to show worship on your live stream, you will need to make sure lyrics are visible. There are two ways to do this:

  1. Take a split of your main projector/TV feed (usually a HDMI splitter will suffice), and display this full screen on your live stream
  2. Configure a 2nd lower-thirds output. ProPresenter 7 allows you to do this natively, or you could also use my HTML ProPresenter scripts to do this within the OBS Web Browser. Other presentation apps may have similar options, although I am not across them all.

A note about copyright

Whenever you publish something, you must consider who owns the right to it. If you are streaming worship songs performed by your own worship band, you will need a CCLI Church Streaming License.

If you want to play pre-recorded music content – don’t. Just don’t. Facebook Live and YouTube Live will automatically detect and take down any content it detects, regardless of who owns the rights or any license you may possess to use it.

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I'm Anthony Eden, and I'm a IT Professional, Broadcast Technician, Software Developer, and Solutions Engineer. I've been working in broadcast media since 2008, and developing software and websites for just as long. Right now, I provide freelance services through Media Realm - in particular, to the media and not-for-profit industries.

Follow Anthony on Twitter: @anthony_eden