This article continues a series on church technology, particularly geared toward small and medium-sized churches. Previous articles have covered Church Management Software options and Online Giving solutions. See also the article on Church Video Distribution.
When it comes to church video solutions, the plethora of options can be overwhelming. Because costs have come down and because new platforms and technologies have brought radical changes even as recently as the past two years (e.g., live video on social media), churches are asking different questions and adopting different solutions. So let’s take a look at some of the common questions pastors and church staff are asking in regard to church video production. We’ll look at video distribution in the next post.
Should we go live on Sunday?
Facebook Live, YouTube Live, and other platforms have dominated the video conversation since 2017. Theoretically, these avenues provide a method for churches to reach further, alerting subscribers when the Sunday morning service is about to begin and giving them a chance to join-in. For small to mid-size churches that are thinking through this question, I’ll offer some quick thoughts:
- Think through your theology of the church. For some, this will seem necessary, and for others, this may seem absurd; however, I do think this is an important first step. I’m very pro-tech, and I think we should leverage the technology we have at our disposal for the glory of God. But hear me out on this possible caveat. For all that social media and live video brings to churches to expand their reach (especially on Sunday mornings), there is a flattening that’s happening as well. Social media flattens “community” to cheap interaction via posts and comments. It flattens “friends” as optional connections that don’t hear what we say when we disagree with them. It flattens “dialogue” into short tweets or TL;DR posts. And, in some ways, live video could have the same effect on our Sunday morning worship, particularly in flattening the perception of Sunday worship as an experience that’s equally relevant online as it is in person. But there may be ways to mitigate this if you’re thinking ahead of the curve. Just don’t forget to ask “what do we lose?” in addition to asking “what do we gain?”
- Understand monetization and distribution. Many of the churches and church media folks I hear that get excited about live video are attracted by the alleged reach and priority that live videos receive on certain platforms. I’ve personally done a number of well-publicized events on Facebook Live, and have found the reach to be underwhelming (i.e., distribution that was no more effective than regular video posts). YouTube Live has performed better, particularly for multi-day events that can continue to generate momentum across all platforms (pointing to it via Facebook, Twitter, web, etc.). Much of the reach issues that you’ll encounter on these platforms is because the platforms are not egalitarian. They prioritize paid content and incentivize organizations to boost the reach of their videos.
- Be aware of copyright issues. If you’re doing more than singing music written before the 1920s, you are likely performing copyrighted content. There are complex ways of handling this, but for simplicity’s sake and for legal reasons, I would recommend omitting the musical portion of your worship service from the livestream.
- Think about engagement and interaction. The best use of a live video is not a camera in the back of the room gathering video content but video where the speaker is engaging with the live comments either during the video or after the video via comments. In other words, best practices for live videos often rule out the way that churches frequently use those platforms for their ministries (i.e., livestreaming a Sunday service). Instead, live video may be a better option for churches to deliver mid-week teaching or discuss events in the life of the church. You should also take a deeper look at analytics for your live videos. The best statistic is not “views” (on Facebook, 3 seconds watched is a “view”, whereas YouTube requires 30 seconds). Instead, look at minutes watched to see an apples-to-apples comparison of your live videos to pre-recorded videos.
- Weigh costs and options. There are a range of effective ways to deliver live video with inherent strengths and drawbacks.
- Level 1 is shooting live video via mobile phone. The strength here is in its portability and cost. It’s essentially free (you could add the cost of a $20 phone mount to improve quality), and it provides a great informal experience that actually lends itself to the live video platforms. Live video frequently provides a unique “behind-the-scenes” experience for followers that can be lost as production quality escalates.
- Level 2 is shooting video via a dedicated live camera. The dominant player in this space is the Mevo camera. For somewhere in the $500–$1000 range, the Mevo provides a great solution for live video. I would strongly recommend taking some time to familiarize yourself with the camera and some of the finicky behavior you’ll encounter from time-to-time before you do your first live video (e.g., Facebook Live allows you to go live with privacy settings so only you will see the video). Production quality on the Mevo is significantly higher than via the mobile phone, retains some of the informality of the platform, and provides a cheap fixed-point live video solution for multiple live videos.
- Level 3 involves HD video capture that is processed and streamed live via multiple cameras. Level 3 is often a solution that’s only accessible for churches with 7-figure budgets or substantial media teams. Production quality is extremely high, but it’s also important to note the principle of Ockham’s razor: the more cameras, audio equipment, computers, streaming software, etc. that get involved, the more likely it is that something will go disastrously wrong. An organization should only attempt level 3 live production when an experienced team is at the helm who has practiced and built up to this point. Even then, assume that something may still go sideways and sabotage your polished live video production.
What equipment should we use?
We’ve already talked about live video equipment earlier. But if you’re not focused on live video and want some bigger-picture and high-quality solutions for your church video, here are a few considerations.
- Know your crew. Your audio/video team is going to have preferences. They’ll have software they prefer working with and camera brands they use throughout the week. Pull them into the decision and try to get their input. At the same time, be careful of strong opinions that don’t get good online reviews or that seem to be out of sync with what other professionals in that space are recommending. You don’t want to invest thousands of dollars to make one of your volunteers happy, only to find out that it’s a terrible solution for everyone else.
- Know your budget and your intended use-cases. You can build a great starter kit for your Sunday morning church video needs for under $1k. That would include a DSLR camera like the Canon EOS Rebel SL2 (1080p) or SL3 (4K), a solid lens, a high-quality SD card, and a tripod. If you want to record teaching/training videos or do high-quality announcement videos, you’ll need to add some important items such as a reference monitor that will give you a better idea of the picture you’re capturing, an audio receiver that will feed audio from the speaker directly into the camera (theoretically, a higher quality option is to do audio capture on a separate system and merge the audio and video files later, but this works just fine), a lighting kit, acoustic panels (you may need around 30 of these 12 sq. ft. packs to fully cover the walls of a small office, but it’s worth it), and a backdrop. So you’re looking at probably around $1k to have a solid starter studio setup. Whatever route you go, you’ll also need to figure-in costs for video production software such as Final Cut or Premiere Pro (which comes with the Adobe CC suite, if you have team members already using Photoshop, etc.).
- Know where you’re going. In other words, before you get too deep into purchasing and rolling out new equipment, you should take some time to project 5 or 10 years into the future. Begin discussions with your pastoral and/or staff teams and seeking the Spirit’s guidance on these issues. What would be the ideal presence and posture you want your ministry to have online? What kind of video content do you want to distribute? What level of quality do you want to deliver? Who do you want to reach? Based on your answers to these and other questions, begin crafting an approach to visual media that will attain those objectives. Many churches struggle because they either (1) purchase too much nice gear but fail to have a good strategy for how it will be used to produce content over the long haul, or (2) purchase cheap gear and have lofty ideals about the quality and amount of content they’d like to produce over time. Instead, try to match your budget over the next 5 to 10 years with the kind of content you’d like to produce.
What about “post-production”?
Post-production is that phase between the video capture and the video’s distribution. Several things need to happen during this time if you want to distribute high-quality video.
- Add your bumpers. Go ahead and shell out some money to have custom bumper videos created. This should include a short animation of your church’s logo and/or tagline on the front end as an intro. And it should also include a set of two outro/end screen bumpers for the back end of the video. One of these outros should be a standard video end bumper that fairly quickly hits your logo and fades out. Another should be up to 20 seconds long that include a call to subscribe with open areas or designated slots for recommended videos and playlists (here’s one possible template). The end result will be that you’ll export one video for social media/Vimeo that has the short outro bumper, and you’ll export a second video for YouTube with the longer outro bumper. I would recommend watching videos from other churches and ministries to get an idea of what their bumpers look like.
- Add lower thirds. These are elements that include the speaker name, titles, Scripture references, etc. High-quality lower thirds significantly enhance the look and feel of the video.
- Make a compelling thumbnail. Currently, YouTube uses a 1280×720 pixel thumbnail. If you use Canva/Photoshop to make images to this specification, you can use it with Facebook and Twitter as well. Some basic principles for thumbnails are:
- Make it pop by using bright and contrasting colors.
- Include text, but keep it minimum.
- Add visual interest with unique still frames or custom photography.
- [BONUS] Request captions. Captions are the secret sauce for video distribution, and good captions are essential. We’ll talk about the why and how of captions in the distribution section, but for now it’s important to know that you should immediately request transcripts once the video has been produced. There are two routes you can go here. One option is to request upper-tier AI Transcription (like Temi). You may need a staff member to look through Temi’s transcript to polish up the 10% that’s missed. Standard Human Transcription (like SpeechPad) is the other option. You won’t need to clean up these transcripts much (maybe inaccurate about 1–2% of the time), but they’re also more expensive (about $1.50/min for human transcription vs. $0.10/min for AI transcription). Human transcriptions can take up to a week (or rushed if necessary), so the earlier these can happen, the better.
- [BONUS] Burn captions. If you get solid transcripts, you can burn-in captions on your social media videos. Studies show that more and more social media viewers particularly prefer video with captions/text. Burning the captions into the videos ensures that the text is always available, even when someone’s social media settings don’t pull up the auto/uploaded captions.
What kind of content should we create?
Most churches have only one kind of content in mind when it comes to video: the Sunday sermon. It’s the one thing you can bank on every week. But your church should spend some time thinking about other ways to use the investment in cameras and equipment. Here are some possibilities:
- Mid-week update videos. This requires either a simple setup or simple live video from a pastor giving updates and prayer requests as an additional touch-point during the week.
- Video announcement reel. Most churches put someone on the spot to announce the upcoming events on a Sunday morning. By pre-recording these announcements, you can save time and make them look cleaner and take less time.
- Baptism or other testimonies. Shooting baptism testimonies helps convey stories more clearly and provides a resource for the person being baptized to share with their friends online or keep as a reminder.
- Special teaching series. Often churches can create training content that is on-par with or better than the off-the-shelf options via Lifeway or Right Now Media. For example, with the investment of a day in a studio, a pastor can record 12 segments at 20 minutes each that can be distributed weekly and used in small group discussions.
- Non-English teaching video. I mention this because sound English teaching content is incredibly common on YouTube and around the web. But if you have someone in your church who teaches in Spanish or Korean or Mandarin, these teaching videos could be of great value to the global church. Get creative on how you might be able to use the work your local church is doing to influence the nations online.
- Q&A videos. These shorter videos (5–15 min) can be used to answer tough questions, pressing issues, or cultural phenomenon in an easily digestible manner. For some time, the ideal length for these videos was believed to be in the 1–3 minute range; however, most research indicates that well-done videos can easily push into the 5–15 minute range without a major drop-off in viewership.
Do you have questions on church video production that I missed? Or did I overlook a great solution? Please drop a note in the comments! Feel free to comment with your camera equipment (along with purchase links) for those who are looking for alternative setups.
Updates: I’ve been answering some questions since I wrote an article on livestreaming for TGC. Here are some answers to some technical questions I’ve received:
- We’d like to have multiple people leading a livestream event from different locations. How should we do this? Given that Google killed off Hangouts streaming and Facebook killed off “Live With,” I would do one of the following three options:(1) Free with OBS: Download OBS, download and set up Skype. Enable NDI in OBS. Enable NDI in Skype. Pull the Skype call into OBS. Hook up OBS broadcast with your YouTube account. Invite contributors to your Skype call. Go live. The risk is that setting up NDI is pretty tricky and it’s going to take some extensive time and trial runs to get this right.
(2) Paid with ECamm Live. Pay for ECamm subscription ($12/mo). Download ECamm and Skype. Pull-in Skype call and invite others. Hook up with your YouTube account and go live. Far less technical challenges than the OBS route.
(3) Paid with Zoom. Since you are already using Zoom and potentially already have a paid account ($15/mo), you need to add the “webinar” feature for $40/mo. From there you can set up your contributors, hook up your YouTube account, and go live as you would with a normal Zoom call.
If you have $55/mo, I would definitely consider the Zoom route for stability and for familiarity. If you’re okay with paying a little, but $55/mo is too much, go with ECamm. If you have a pretty techy crew, I would look into OBS.
- Do I need to use OBS or other streaming software if I’m just going to use the webcam on my Mac? No, not if you are only broadcasting to a single distribution type (Facebook or YouTube, not both) via a single device with built-in camera. You can go directly to YouTube, set up a channel, wait 24 hours, and go live. Facebook doesn’t have a waiting period like YouTube, so if you’re in a hurry, Facebook Live is a good choice. You can also go live on Facebook using the webcam on your computer.
- What if internet signal, power, etc. are a problem for livestreaming, but we still want to preserve some sort “live feel” for a service, even though it will be entirely remote for a season? One idea is to pre-record the sermon and announcements, release that recording on Facebook and YouTube at a scheduled time. The inactive YouTube link can be sent to your congregation in advance, allowing them to begin watching on Sunday morning. Encourage them to meet together in homes if possible. Then, in the afternoon or evening, pastors can initiate a Facebook Live, YouTube Live, or Zoom call for congregants to ask questions about the message, share prayer requests, etc.
- What is the best solution for a livestream that includes Powerpoint or Keynote slides? (1) Download OBS to your PC/Mac (free). (2) Set up the main scene by pulling in a camera (ideally one that’s physically attached to the PC/Mac and is high quality). This is the speaker-focused view. (3) Set up a secondary scene that includes a view of the Powerpoint via Window/Display capture. This can be a full-screen view that cuts away from the speaker, or it can be a portion of the screen that overlays the camera feed of the speaker. Either the speaker or (better) a tech team member can run the slides. (4) The speaker or (better) a tech team member can cut between the two scenes as needed throughout the message. (5) Schedule your live event on YT/FB and copy the “stream key.” (6) Paste the stream key into OBS, select “start streaming” to sync OBS with YT/FB, and then select “go live” on YT/FB. (7) At the end of the stream, click “stop streaming” in OBS and “end live” in YT/FB.
- We’re thinking about doing a “drive-in” service, where we would project the teaching on a large screen. What’s the best solution for audio? The easiest arrangement would be some sort of outdoor amplification. The more creative solution would be a cheap, low-power FM (LPFM) transmitter (like this one). You would need a LPFM license from the FCC.