Webcasting in Church


An Orthodox priest texting in Paris. (chocolateandcroissants blog)

Suppose we got our own church.

Suppose we based our webcasts in a real church building, with an altar and stained glass, a place made holy by the prayers already said there.

When I was in Indianapolis a few months ago Bishop Cate Waynick showed me some unused space in the diocesan office suite and invited me to set up a miniature video studio. I was delighted with her suggestion, but couldn’t think of any practical way to make it happen; I live 100 miles away.

She got the idea because we were discussing what dailyoffice.org webcasts are like – including how to improve them. (We’re changing webcast service providers soon, from GoToMeeting to AdobeConnect, as part of this.) Here is what I visualize as ideal.

Gather a live congregation in an existing church AND all of our scattered members across the continent, with cameras in each location and a screen in the church; together we say and sing the Office.

Would that enhance the daily worship experience? Would more people want to try it because we were there?

It would be unlike streaming video, where you watch a live congregation somewhere else but do not interact with them. With livecasting, you can see them and they can see you. We are together but apart. No one is a passive consumer, unless they want to be.

In fact, multiple live congregations could be linked: Live from Houston, Boise, Rochester and St. Swithin’s-in-the-Swamp! (Otherwise known as my hometown.)

People like to feel part of something larger than themselves; you may have noticed that.

I’m a little shocked by how little effort and money it takes (see below); the technology does the work.

Imagine this: I get permission from a church in my hometown (I have one in mind) to convene a small group at their altar Monday through Friday. They allow me to set up a couple of cameras, one for the lectern and one for the congregation in the front pew, as well as a 30-inch screen so they can see the printed liturgy and everyone else. We use the church’s existing WiFi or buy them a router.

Fifteen minutes before the service we log on to the webcast, which we pay for; this is the same as our current practice. One by one people show up from their locations, and we can all see each other on our screens; other people can call in but not see. I serve as technical director but not worship leader; that’s Clint in Texas, Katrina in California or Scotty in Oregon. At the top of the hour I hit the Record button. Clint begins the service with a quick welcome, summary of the technology and what to expect, then he reads the Opening Sentence. Wherever we are, we can see the Order for Morning Prayer and artwork from our website, so nobody needs books.

He calls on Alison in Seattle to sing the Invitatory, then Steve in Las Cruces and Yvonne in New York to read the psalm responsively. Next he calls on Debbie in Boise to read the First Lesson and Martha in my hometown to read or sing the canticle, and so on through the service. (Martha’s a church pianist; she might want to play while the rest of us sing.)

Besides scrolling, I work the “control room” – switching camera feeds from one place to the next. We start with a shot of the altar, then I switch to Clint for the intro. As he assigns each portion of the service, I select that person’s camera shot, so it’s larger on all screens than any of the other shots, which are condensed into a “filmstrip” array of live thumbnail pictures across the top. Everyone is always on camera but only the speaker is enlarged. We can see that we are “together,” though we come from different places. Yet our focus remains on worship; what changes is who leads that portion of it.

This is an obsolete but still useful view of what AdobeConnect looks like. All 25 cameras (not just 6 as we currently have) fit on one screen along with content areas (for us, the liturgy), chatbox and control panel. The new version of the service allows me to highlight Clint as he's speaking and turn everyone else into a strip of thumbnails, which saves broadband and keeps the service affordable.

This is an obsolete but still useful view of what AdobeConnect looks like. All 25 cameras (not just 6 as we currently have) fit on one screen along with content areas (for us, the liturgy), chatbox and control panel. The new version of the service allows me to highlight Clint as he’s speaking and turn everyone else into a strip of thumbnails, which saves broadband and keeps the service affordable.

Our current webcasters have developed a procedure for offering spontaneous intercessions and thanksgivings at a designated point in the service, in an orderly way. (Unlike the Prayers of the People in church, where it’s fine if two people speak softly at once, we’re all mic’ed up, so we have to take turns to avoid talking over each other.) After the final blessing we watch a video together; usually a hymn but sometimes an educational piece. We can’t watch video together on GTM, it comes out garbled, but we can watch together on Adobe’s superior technology.

Gwen says the final blessing, Clint says goodbye, I end the recording – but we still have the audio and webcam feeds afterward, and we can gab and have coffee hour from the comfort of home, office, airport or Starbucks. Does this not sound like a cool thing?

What would it take to run it? We already have the main component in webcast technology. The host church would need two cameras, a screen and WiFi. Off-location members only need a device, a headset and an internet connection.

2 GoPro cameras @$200 = $400; for the latest Go-Pro models, double that.
HP 30-inch monitor = $230
Backup batteries & mounts = $70
Total = $700 – $1100

I think, without +Cate or my knowing exactly what we were talking about, we were saying, “It’s too cheap not to.”

And “We don’t know what we’re doing, but we should find out what this technology is capable of.” With Clint’s help (he’s an IT man from way back), I’m always looking for ways to upgrade.

Here are the two main benefits I see. One is the classic spiritual boon of saying the Office itself; used every day, It’s How To Get Closer To God™.

(William Burks/Episcopal Memes)

(William Burks/Episcopal Memes)

Anything we can do that makes it easier to say the Office, especially creating a congregation without any effort, where none existed before, spreads the grace that daily prayer offers. It can be said individually, and thousands do, but praying it together is a lot better. Our current webcasters have grown close in a short time, though we’ve never met.

Second, sophisticated webcasting sends a message to Millennials and youth that the Church will meet them where they are, which is online.

Let the video we watch together on any given Thursday be one campers made last week at Waycross – or the one Trinity, Kirksville (Mo.) made on Social Media Sunday, or that ScholarPriests posted two weeks ago.

I think it’s vital for the future of the Episcopal Church that we get good at techno-evangelism. That especially means empowering youth with tools in their hands.

Of course, there are many ways these ideas could come up short.

• The biggest limitation on our webcasts isn’t technological, it’s timing one service across four time zones. I am still amazed that people on the West Coast get up at 5:30 a.m. to listen to Clint and me chatter, when TEC is mostly an East Coast church. If we had the personnel I’d hold four services per morning, but we don’t have the personnel. (Any volunteers?)

• Maybe the church where I live won’t agree. Maybe I have to move to Lafayette or Indy to take advantage of the opportunity.

• Maybe I’m not the right person to do this. But I don’t see anyone else stepping up, certainly not our competitors.

• I’m an ambitious person and often get grandiose. Then again, 2.6 million hits and 4000 followers are good numbers, so I realize I can’t evaluate myself accurately.

• Maybe Kathy Copas, the diocesan communicator/evangelist, is right, that the smartest use of that office space in Indy is building a Creativity Center for use by the whole diocese for video and other projects – though she quickly added, “People don’t like to come to this office.” To which I wonder, “Why should they have to?”

The one thing I’m sure of is that I can pry $1000 out of Episcopalians. +Cate has offered to give twice, and I’d like to take her up on it.

So I ask you for two things besides your prayers; feedback about this outline of a plan, and your comments on what it would take for a church to host a daily, web-based service in a side chapel.

It’s guaranteed to raise a panic among some Episcopalians, who are not used to and do not want screens and electronics in their churches. I wouldn’t want them on Sundays in the main church either, and never when the Eucharist is celebrated – we should be looking at the altar, the bread and wine, not some TV screen.

But could this work in a side chapel, or some other space not generally in use during the week? GoPro cameras are tiny, palm-sized and easy to put away. A monitor needs to be portable enough to go in a closet when not in use.

Today's HiDef cameras are too little to be "disruptive in church."

Today’s HiDef cameras are too little to be disruptive in church.

Do you think this is workable, or could be made to work? Would it enhance the webcast experience? Would a more formal setting bring an unanticipated drawback? (Probably; those entering the sacred space of an Episcopal chapel would keep silent beforehand, out of long-ingrained habit, while people who gather online love to chat. But in the local church I’m thinking of, they’re Disciples and Presbyterians, and have no such habit of silence.)

• Here’s a deal-breaker: would the church expect us to rent the space? We can’t afford it.

Or could this be the coolest way to say Morning Prayer since Tom Cranmer first dipped his ostrich feather in an inkwell?


This is the bottom line. If I were a parish priest, I would offer Morning Prayer in the chapel Monday through Friday, gather a little congregation over time, then put it online in a webcast. That’s how we’d expect such a thing to go – as an outgrowth of something normal and expected that we were already doing.

But I’m not a priest, so I’ve come at this from the opposite direction, and now I’m thinking of trying to end up in the same place, a real web chapel.

God didn’t call me to be a priest; he did call me to put the Office online. Maybe I’ve become so greedy for clicks I’m completely unrealistic. But I told the bishop, “We know the basics of how to do this already. Now the issue is doing it right.”++