The great thing about technology is that while prices start high, they tend to go down quickly. It used to be that churches would balk at the price of tech equipment and yet not hesitate to buy an organ. Now, the barrier to entry is so low that church plants almost always launch with equipment that established ministries could only dream of a few years ago. Thankfully, these price decreases make live streaming attainable even on a small budget.

In 2000, a live stream between two campuses required dedicated internet connections, specialized equipment, and a week of set-up. Today, you could accomplish a better quality live stream for less (including the equipment) than the cost of the labor of the staff doing the work in 2000.

Additionally, you don’t need a special connection to the internet. For most churches, what they can get from the cable company or DSL is adequate for at least SD live streaming. Increasingly, connections with 10mbps or more up are becoming readily available, even in more remote locations. As such, 1080p streaming is available to a lot more churches than ever before.

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 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 a switcher and several cameras, or even a prerecorded source.

Cameras and Switchers for Live Streaming

There are few, if any, situations that wouldn’t require video cameras in a church environment. Cameras come in various forms from security and webcams to broadcast quality, cinema, and special-use cameras.  Because of cost, often churches try to get away with something on the lower end of the spectrum. If you frequent church tech groups online, you’ll hear things 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 cameras can do what you need them to do in a church environment.

Cameras

Webcams are designed to be wide so that people can sit fairly close to their computers during Zoom meetings 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), the frame rate is too slow (less than 24 isn’t enough), or the resolution is too limited (320p for example).

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 not only 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’s perspective, it may not be. Balance these needs to do the best you can given your individual circumstances.

Switchers

If you want to switch between cameras, you’ll need some mechanism to do so. Thankfully, video switchers have gotten increasingly affordable, with the BlackMagic ATEM Mini selling for $295 and software solutions (which would require a computer and capture card) like OBS being free.

As a result, high-end multi-camera live streaming is NOT out of the realm of possibility for even smaller churches.

Innovative Solutions for Small Churches

While these are 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, a service like Zoom, Loom, or even Tiktok or Instagram would be appropriate. Remember the problems with digital zoom verses optical zoom? These services would have the same problem from a phone or tablet.

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.

Perhaps you can’t get the budget for cameras and a switcher, but you can gather iOS devices. If so, consider Switcher Studio (for more information, take a look at this review). While it switches and records, Switcher studio also live-streams.

One limitation that you might want to consider 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.

Whether you’re using something like Switcher Studio or entry-level switchers for live-streaming, you can always slowly upgrade. Later, you could add a second and third camera.

Live Streaming 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 into a computer and have software 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 OBS, WireCast, MimoLive, or vMix as your encoding software.

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. 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, so no OS update is will make them stop working; no one is going to accidentally load malware, etc. on them either.

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, remember that a proprietary version only works with one live-streaming host. 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 fairly 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 (which they don’t typically advertise) 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/4k on the horizon.

If you can’t, under any circumstance, get a good enough internet connection, consider doing a simulated live stream instead. You can either upload and playback a previous week’s service, record in advance (like a practice session), or upload after an earlier service, later in the day.

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 live-streaming may seem like the perfect solution. However, many churches run into issues with their live streams due to YouTube’s copyright policies, 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.

While it’s only anecdotal, it seems like Facebook likes to follow their motto of “move fast and break things” on the weekends, when it comes to their live-streaming service.

Sadly, it seems true that “you get what you pay for” when it comes to live-streaming hosting.

Two of the more technical (but potentially cheaper, if you use them correctly) 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 and has experience with them. They’re much more complex solutions than a typical live-streaming host.

The extra you pay for a dedicated live streaming host (like ChurchStreaming.tvResiStreamMonkey, etc.) pays for itself with ease of use, additional features, and, most importantly, 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 completely with what you should have bought, have you really saved money? Try and start with a foundation that you can build on, not a barely capable system that will need to be replaced.

Live streaming is growing faster than ever before. Your church can join the revolution, spurred on by events like the COVID-19 pandemic, but you should take the time and do the best you can, not merely “good enough.”

Here are articles we’ve published in the past on this topic:

SwitcherStudio Multi-Camera Live Streaming Platform [Review]

12 Live Streaming Providers to Consider

10 Ministry Alternatives to Live Streaming

Fix Your Live Stream Audio Fast