COVID-19 Lockdown: Creating Live-streamed Worship in 3 Days

COVID-19 Lockdown: Creating Live-streamed Worship in 3 Days

March 16, 2020


I pastor a church under COVID-19 restrictions. This is how we worshipped online with only 3 days prep. 

Last week, I wrote “I pastor a church near a COVID-19 outbreak. Here’s what churches can do” after a meeting with the Public Health department of Seattle’s region. I detailed several ways how local churches can adapt their worship to slow or stop the spread of the virus, and it has been shared widely, even by public health administrators and denominational leaders! Wow! 

While such recommendations work for a majority of churches, they are not sufficient when a COVID-19 flareup leads to stronger recommendations for public gatherings. Such is what happened in my local church. 

The day after publishing that article, the county health departmentcity government, and our denominational authorities agreed: churches of more than 50 people in attendance should not gather until the COVID-19 flare up is contained and resolved. That means 14 days of containment, so we are not recommend to worship in person for 3 weeks. 

I know! Crazy times, but that’s the proper answer when public health authorities ask for church’s help in containing a fast-moving virus like this. Indeed, in South Korea, the biggest outbreak came from a single woman at a megachurch. We don’t want to be “that church” in Seattle, and are happy to be a good community partner at this time.

…Lockdowns lead to Live-streaming

Even out of concern for physical health, churches want to care for the spiritual health and connectedness of our congregations. Our church opted to provide online worship, a livestream of a worship service with volunteers and staff to our folks who were at home. We used Youtube, but Facebook Live or Vimeo Live are also great options. 

It was staggering how many considerations and adaptions needed to happen to turn in-person Christian worship into an online experience. The comments and flood of emails we got from grateful church members made the effort worth it, and you can learn from our mistakes and efforts. 

The following is how we adapted, created, and published livestreamed worship in only 3 days. While we are a church with some resources already, adaptations of this can be done rapidly for churches willing to invest a little money (or have donors willing to make it happen) and volunteers able to jump in quickly. 

Livestream General Considerations

The staff and volunteers at my local church should be commended for rapid deployment of a streaming solution that had great video, audio, and projection. Here’s how we did it (and most of the credit goes to them, not me).

  • Video: In lieu of buying a video camera without time to do proper analysis, we opted to use an iPhone and Macbook setup which provides great video and mobility. Often someone on staff or a volunteer has one a church can use. 
  • Audio: Almost every church has a built-in sound system already, so hopefully that sound system has an output, even for headphones or other monitors. What that means is that churches can use their current audio setup, and run a cable out to the same device that is capturing the video. In our case, we had to purchase a 50 foot cable to run from the sound booth in the back of the sanctuary to the front, but your setup may be easier. 
  • Projection: We didn’t know or have an idea of how to do multiple streams or connect a powerpoint projection to a livestream. Our “hack” was to wheel in a flat screen TV into the worship space (see the photo above) which we then used for projection like usual. You may not have a mobile solution like we did, so you’ll need to be creative as to how to project lyrics, or simply post the bulletin in the comments of the livestream. 

Tech setup 

Here’s the tech we had or bought quickly to make the solution work. Hopefully all things you can get within 24-48 hours, depending on your location.

  • Camera & Livestreaming device: iPhone & Macbook (they work together well, but other solutions might work too. Check with the apps) 
  • Apps: Open Broadcasting Software (OBS for Mac) and the iOS app OBS Camera ($16) 
  • Audio hardware: Mixer and cable from soundboard to mixer (usually 1/4 inch cable, think like a guitar cable). The cheapest mixer recommended is the Focusrite Scarlett, $160 (Amazon link
  • Video hardware: Tripod and iPhone clip (many on Amazon, this one is $8
  • Projection: Flatscreen TV, computer cable, and laptop for slide projection using Google Slides (free online with Google Apps for churches) 

These are tricky. If you don’t get this right, your stream can be blocked or unpublished (while it is streaming!), and a local church can be sued for violations of copyright. 

Here’s the misunderstanding: Even if a hymn is in a denominational resource like a hymnal, the hymn is only authorized for a church’s local singing, not for live streaming. Here’s what we did as a congregation that usually sings out of hymnals.

  1. Check the copyright holder for the hymn you want to use. On the page of a hymn in your hymnal, check the copyright holder, or check the “Copyright and permissions” index in the front or back. If none, check with your denominational publisher. If it is public domain, you are good to go. But if there is a copyright notice, it will say who owns it and you have to track it down. You can also check for copyright holders. 
  2. Get a license for that copyrighted material. For example, say a hymn is copyrighted by GIA publications, you would need a license for it. Many of them are bundled with one of the top three licenses: CCLICCS, or OneLicense, which all are varied costs and can add up quickly. 
  3. Stick to the licensed version. Some hymns have different tunes, and some special music use different arrangements that should be honored. If you are unsure, ask your denominational experts or the publisher directly. 
  4. Report the usage to the copyright holder (or bundled service). You have to follow whatever stipulations any given license or any given permission statement requires, which can mean a slide at the end with acknowledgements or reporting back to a bundler what hymns you used that Sunday. 

The key thing is ANYTHING copyrighted MUST be covered by either a license covering that content OR by pre-obtained written permission by ALL copyright holders. And you have to document EVERY SINGLE COPYRIGHTED THING you livestream.

All the above means, you HAVE to plan ahead and obtain permissions, copyright, and plan well in advance so you can get what you need to stream legally. This is the biggest barrier to rapid deployment, but we turned ours around in 3 days after some adaptation and substitutions, and you can too.

Unforeseen Copyright: Liturgy

Liturgy: It seems strange, but liturgy is copyrighted. Someone wrote it for your hymnal or online, and that means that someone (or the copyright holder) should be acknowledged or compensated for their work if it is streamed online. Again, a hymnal resource for local churches is fine for local use, but once you broadcast, it gets iffy.

The best answer is to write your own liturgy. Liturgy is the work of the people, and writing your own liturgy reflects your context and experience. Do this!

But for many denominations, liturgy is deep and ancient and should connect us with those who went before. That’s why we use the liturgies in hymnals and denominational resources: to connect us to one another using similar materials across time and space. But here’s the thing: even denominational resources may be copyrighted—check with your denominational authorities with this question. Fun note: the entire Book of Common Prayer from 1979 is free to use. Good work, team! 

For United Methodists, the UMC rituals and liturgies are copyrighted. And here’s the “Ask The UMC” response to these questions:

You will need to obtain written permission from United Methodist Publishing House to stream such materials legally. Remember, too, that UMPH can ONLY give permissions for things it owns. You would need to contact individual copyright holders for all other items in both resources. Contact UM Publishing for questions: [email protected]

Finally, if you contract with worship liturgy providers, check with them on livestreaming. We subscribe to enfleshed (and you should too!) for our calls to worship and other liturgy needs, so if you likewise get copyrighted content from liturgical sources, you need to check with the publisher if they are okay with their content being streamed beyond the local church.

Streaming Final Notes

Remember Streaming is not to be saved or viewable later. Streaming only covers live broadcast, not archived videos. So you’ll need to delete or unpublish the livestream as soon as it is done. Congregants will complain, but remind them that Livestream is a substitute for in-person worship, so they should carve out the same time slot as the gathered group. 

  • Update: Per the helpful comments from David, it appears that all three big copyright players all allow videos to be saved. However, you must maintain an active copyright license, and if you cancel the license, you have to remove the videos because you are no longer covered.

You can see how the legal ramifications might be prohibitive to your local church streaming its entire service. This is why many churches only stream the pastor’s sermon: you would assume she isn’t copying the sermon from somewhere else! But without the rest of the worship experience, it doesn’t feel like worship. A tricky conundrum that is worth the effort for the spiritual support it provides.

Closing: A Crisis and an Opportunity

As they say in leadership circles, never waste a crisis. A containment crisis like this is a great time for churches to get up-to-date on a few things:

  1. Offering livestreaming every week or once a month can reach out to the community in new ways. Doing the extra work each week or once a month can have long-term connection benefits to your congregants or to new people. 
  2. Offer online giving to allow people to give securely and can set up monthly gifts so that the church has a revenue stream for missions and ministry even without physical gatherings. And this works going forward too when the ban is lifted! 
  3. Connecting with each other. Our congregational care team jumped in and called everyone in the vulnerable people groups, catching up with folks who hadn’t been called in a while and who valued the connection. Anyone of any age can call, so this is a great way to get seniors and homebound members in on the mission.