By Aaron Hanes and Sarah Holcomb

As Americans prepare to attend Christmas services in a few days, more churches are live streaming worship from their sanctuaries and using online pastors to tend the spiritual and tech needs of their flock.

Live stream technology existed for several years, but with the advent of popular new platforms like Facebook Live and Periscope, the technology continues to gain more momentum. Churches are taking advantage of live streaming to reach beyond the pews, whether to members who are unable to attend a service or to guests who stumble upon a church website.

The plugged-in pastor

The adoption of live streaming has even motivated some innovative churches, including Willow Creek in Chicago, Life Church and Wooddale Church in Minneapolis, to create roles for “online pastors.” According to Joel Lombardo, Online Pastor at Wooddale, his job involves anything from “maintaining our website and app” to “doing home visits for people for technical support.”

The role also emphasizes building interpersonal relationships through reaching out to live stream viewers, sometimes meeting them in-person. “A lot of it is just putting my face out there and my name out there and my email address if people want to chat,” Lombardo said.

Yet live streaming remains a relatively new frontier, and it looks different at each church.  “I’ve reached out to a couple people who also have the same title, but their context is so different depending on where they’re at,” Lombardo explained. “What I find that I’m doing is calling and talking to professors who do online classes and seeing how they foster community and engagement and conversation.”

Congregations in cyberspace

Wooddale Church, which has three campuses and approximately 5,000 in weekly attendance, started live streaming in an effort that started after a simple decision to use the church camera to record services over three years ago. Since then, it has become a significant avenue for viewership, with 60,000 unique servers — individual computers or devices — that log on each year. The number of viewers is likely much higher, given that many watch with family or friends, and some are even groups of 20 seniors watching at a local community center.

The live stream also has a loyal weekly following. About 1,200 watch consistently, Lombardo said, and about 300 guests tune in any given Sunday. Thirty percent of the viewers of live within 5 miles with about half of the local viewers being seniors who cannot physically attend.

Yet according to the numbers, the majority of live stream viewers are not actually local.Thirty percent live in the state, but outside of the five-mile radius, and still another 30 percent live in another state. Ten percent are international viewers.

At Christmas and Easter, these numbers arc even higher, reaching an estimated 3,000 viewers for the special services. While people tune in for a variety of reasons, many are members who leave for holidays. During wintertime, Lombardo said that “There are a huge number of people watching in Florida and in Arizona.”

Streaming small?

Live streaming is not a technology only used by large churches, though they typically have more resources, making them more equipped to utilize streaming. Several years ago, Wellspring Alliance Church in Wheaton, Illinois, which has a congregation of about 550, would live stream their services, general prayer meetings and Saturday morning prayer meetings so that if their members were out of town or living elsewhere they could still stay connected on the go traveling or at home remotely.

Because few attended — five to fifteen on average — the cost of resources outweighed benefits. It was “mostly a manpower issue,” explained Dr. Mitch Kim, the lead pastor of Wellspring. He felt the quality was not strong enough to merit the use of the live-streams and represent the church well. It stayed “niche” and “never ended up being huge.” However, Kim hinted that the church would consider resurrecting their live-streaming in the future.

Chris Steinke, worship pastor at Bloomingdale Church in Bloomingdale, IL, which has live streamed services occasionally for Christmas Eve or during a snowstorm, said that using the technology depends on a church’s size and finances.

There are a lot of technological upgrades that churches need to make in order to do a “quality” live stream.” He added that “There is also copyright licensing for CCLI communities for broadcasting online, and other expenses that do not make it a viable option for a lot of smaller churches.”

Names, not numbers

Each pastor expressed that the disembodied nature of watching a live stream rather than physically attending a church service introduces difficulties. “One of our biggest struggles is we have people who come and watch, and then they can just close their laptop,” Lombardo said. The two primary challenges are to “get people inside a church and a real community and to “make that personal connection and learn their name and hear their story.”

While some strategies, such as equipping people in far away locations to project and host a service themselves haven’t taken off, it’s all about learning, Lombardo explained. “Simply extending an invitation seems to be the most effective way to bridge that gap from a computer to a conversation and coffee.”

Digital drawbacks

“I think streaming will be helpful when people are moving away or traveling and they still want to feel connected, but I think one of the dangers is that there is something about the physicality and the embodiment of who we are and worship that is very critical,” Kim said. He doesn’t object to streaming — his church has tried it, after all — yet “there are some hesitations and I wouldn’t want it to be a replacement for the physical service.”

Pastors like Kim believe that technologies like live streaming should not displace the physical community of a church. “I don’t think that the virtual church is church. I think the virtual church idea would contribute to the consumerist idea and passive, almost voyeuristic mentality, that is too common and that is something that I would not encourage.”

He believes that streaming should be “supplemental” and “complementary” to the real life to the church. “If it ever becomes a replacement for the I would have a pretty strong objection to and hesitations about that.”

Steinke echoed this idea. “I am comfortable with live streaming the services, with the main target audience being new guests interested in coming to the services and it being kind of a “buffer” to actual attendance,” he said. However, it also presents “a possible stumbling block for members of the church to just make church more convenient for them, and just watch the services online, and not actually attend.”

The season for streaming?

Each church is planning to do Christmas this year quite differently. While Wellspring plans to keep it “very simple” and does not plan to live stream, Lombardo said that at Wooddale, Christmas services are treated as an opportunity to go “all out” with camera work and creativity. As churches cast nativity plays and arrange poinsettias, the Wooddale tech team is also busy optimizing their site to attract more visitors to the seasonal services.

Nevertheless, Lombardo — like Kim — sees live streaming as a technology that should not be treated as an end, but instead as a tool that fosters physical community. It’s a platform that exists to “introduce people to church.” “My ultimate goal is that I get to meet people,” he said. “Conversation goes so much farther than code.”

Photo credit: Sarah Holcomb, of Cathedral of the Good Shepherd live stream

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