Web Conferences and Doing “Church” in the Midst of COVID-19

Church Attendance on the decline

Church attendance in the UK has been falling for many decades and back in around 2013 the number attending church of England churches on a typical Sunday fell below 1 million for the first time. In 2018 typical attendance to church of England services was around 703 thousand [1].

Church during COVID-19

You would think that during the COVID-19 pandemic, church attendance would drop, and last Sunday when many, if not all, churches were closed, that those listening to a church service would bottom out. This isn’t what happened however – many churches delivered their services using web conferencing facilities and probably more people listened to a church service last Sunday than for a long time.

Picture of Justin Welby - Credit Jacqui J. Sze

The highlight however was probably the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, delivering a service with prayers, hymns and a short sermon. Now – before you have too many visions of Justin  Welby singing appearing before your mind, the hymns were from St Martin-in-the-Fields and were sung by singers from that church. The service was carried by Facebook, 39 local BBC radio stations and BBC Radio 4 and is estimated to have been listened to by around 3 million people either when it was broadcast or later on social media. Far more than attended church across the whole Country for a long time.

Many other churches followed suit and broadcast a limited service on Facebook Live, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, or one of the other similar web conferencing services.

Church in Derby during COVID-19

The church I attend did much the same – we used Zoom to continue to meet together virtually when we could not meet physically. We had around 100 households join our virtual service and were encouraged by seeing each other and being able to continue with something resembling a normal Sunday morning service.

Church congregations normally meet several times during a week – a church might run mid-week meetings, breakfast events, kids’ clubs, lunchtime services, and so on. But at the moment the only events allowed to take place physically in the church are funerals and then with only a tiny number of attendees for very obvious reasons.

Some churches – including the church I attend in Derby – have gone virtual for now with some of their small group meetings. Why do this? Because small groups are the backbone of the local church. As a church becomes too big for everyone to easily know each other, people meeting together in smaller groups to encourage one another in their faith is absolutely essential. It prevents the church becoming a group of people who don’t really have anything in common and don’t know enough to care about each other. In the current situation when we are all worried, ensuring we continue to (virtually) meet together is even more essential than normal.

What are the features a church might want?

If you were looking for a Live Streaming / Web Conferencing solution to use for your Sunday service what features would you need?

  • Ability for multiple people to present – lets say you want one person to introduce everything, someone else to do the Bible reading, someone else to do the prayers, someone else to do a sermon. You need the tool to allow this to happen.

  • Ability for people to listen / watch on a variety of devices – attendees might use smart phones, PCs, Laptops, Apple devices or Microsoft Windows 10 devices, tablets etc… you want a solution that just works for all of it.

  • Browser based viewing – you don’t want a participant to need to be a technical Whiz-kid in order to watch – you just want the solution to work, using a solution that works natively (meaning without any add-ons or dedicated software required) in a browser is about as easy as it can get.

  • Ability for a single person to manage who is presenting, who is muted etc – you don’t want a solution where you cannot control who is speaking / on the screen when… in fact you probably want to nominate someone to do this who isn’t actually taking any other part in the service so they can concentrate on this.

  • Ability to schedule the meeting in advance – you want to be able to send out a link to the meeting in advance so people know how to join.

  • HD Video / HD Voice – you want to share the video and audio in high quality so the experience is a good one not one that makes participants feel like they have endured the service but that they have enjoyed it.

What are the options then?

If you are a church leader wondering how to move to virtual meetings in order to continue meeting together you have a number of options – I’ve listed some of them below.

Facebook Live

If you as a church already have a Facebook presence this is possibly a good option for you. I am having problems accessing Facebook at the moment (a story for another time) and its not abundantly clear from the publicly accessible pages how much using Facebook Live actually costs or how it works. I believe from what I can find that you can have multiple people presenting. But it won’t work particularly well for people who aren’t on facebook. Because of this its not my preferred option.

Zoom

Zoom is a dedicated video conferencing solution with telephone dial-in capability. This dial-in capability makes it attractive if as a church you have members who don’t have a computer or who you think might not be able to join properly online. It has free and paid for versions but for a church service we’d recommend you go for the “Pro” version if you are a church with less than 100 households for £11.99 per host per month, or the “Business” version if you are a church with more than 100 but less than 300 households for £15.99 per host per month [2].

Zoom defines a host essentially as someone who schedules or sets up a meeting so you probably only really need one account.

This is my favourite option if you just want something that works out of the box.

Microsoft Teams Live Events

If as a church you have Office 365 already then this may well be the best option for you as you won’t have to pay extra for this. You create a live event from within the Teams application and then define presenters, producers and audience. Office 365 Business Premium Non-Profit is £2.14 per user per month and a free trial is allowed with up to 25 users [2].

So for example if you had 5 staff members working at church this would cost you £10.70 per month [2].

The only downside to this I guess is that getting Office 365 up and working will almost definitely take longer than getting Zoom or another dedicated web conferencing solution up and running. But if you think you could use the other functionality available in Office 365 then this would be a good option.

This is my favourite option if you want to have the ability to properly manage the presenters, producers and participants and like the broader benefits of having Office 365.

WebEx Meetings

WebEx is another dedicated video conferencing solution with telephone dial-in capability. WebEx is owned by Cisco and is a fairly mature product. The cheapest paid for version of the product is $13.50 per host per month (£10.98 using today’s exchange rate) but bizarrely offers less capability in some areas (critically number of participants in a meeting) than the free version [2]

The free version however allows upto 100 participants in each meeting and for meetings to last as long as you like. It also has telephone call-in capability which is beneficial for those without internet access or who might struggle to join the meeting through a computer / tablet.

GoToMeeting

GoToMeeting is owned by LogMeIn who also own my favourite password manager – LastPass. It is yet another web conferencing solution with webinar capability. The minimum pricing tier is the “professional” package which starts at £11 per host per month and includes most of the capabilities you would require, except webinars, which you may or may not want, which are an additional £15 per month [2].

Youtube Live Streaming

I almost didn’t include Youtube in this list but the list doesn’t look complete without it. For most churches who haven’t previously posted video to Youtube however this is probably not a valid option – Youtube offers live streaming for free but has several requirements for your account including a minimum number of subscribers, the correct setup at home, and a verified account. Whilst its possible that a church would have these I don’t think it would be “normal”.

If you are a church wondering what to do…

Please contact us – we can certainly help you if you need assistance getting Office 365 Teams Live Meeting setup and would gladly setup a free trial for you. Or if you just want to discuss your options further.

References

[1] From the Church of England Research and Statistics report “Statistics for Mission 2018” found at https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2019-10/2018StatisticsForMission_0.pdf – checked on 27/03/2020.

[2] Pricing in this blog post is correct on date of publication – 27/03/2020.

Want to know more?

If you’re organisation is looking to get more from its technology but doesn’t know where to start, AMDH Services can help.