Church Streaming 2.0

Even though we knew it was probably going to happen, when the lock down order came in from the governor, we didn’t really get a lot of time to adjust. The kids were in school one week, and at home the next. Church was meeting in person on one Sunday, and exclusively online the next. A series of probably-Providential events had happened before this, none of which were deliberately timed by me, but all of which turned out to be helpful in getting our little country church online in time.

At the start of 2020, we didn’t even have Internet in our church building — we would upload sermon audio using a 4G hot spot. That audio was recorded on a 2008 iMac that I found on Goodwill Auctions for $140, and I had just replaced the 2006 Windows Vista eMachine that was in the pastor’s office with a 2009 iMac that I got for $80. With this “new” hardware installed, we decided it was time to petition the church leadership for a stable Internet connection. No one was opposed philosophically — they’d just never had a need before. At the February board meeting, they agreed to my proposal, and later in the month, I camped out at the church for a day and a half to wait for, then help, the Internet installer figure out how to connect our 160+ year old church building to the digital world.

The lock down order came only a couple weeks later. The Internet was unreliable, because the rural infrastructure near our location had issues, the more-than-a-decade-old iMacs were far too under-powered for their new task, and a decent webcam was suddenly very hard to find either online or in near-by brick-and-mortar stores… but in a little over a week, we managed to cobble together a streaming system, do some basic training for the pastor’s family, and hold our church’s first online service. All while hoping this would be a very temporary situation. It was not.

At some point in the summer, it became obvious that the system was too fragile for reliable live streaming, and it became more pragmatic to have a pre-recorded service in-the-bag. This created a more fault-tolerant, less stressful experience, but it didn’t change the chewing-gum-and-bailing-twine nature of the system: it all just barely worked, because none of the pieces were ever intended for the tasks that had been thrust upon them. While it became safe enough for most church members to attend an out-door service this summer, others who are at higher risk to the virus, could not attend — and with colder weather looming and no vaccine in sight, it became apparent that online church was going to be a reality for at least a little while longer. The pastor asked for some options for a more permanent system.

I priced out three bundles — good, better and best; cheap, not-as-cheap, and spendy. The elders settled on a combination of pieces that straddled the mid-range. I got to switch from trolling Goodwill, to a picking out a choice refurb from Backmarket (a great place to get used high-end hardware). The new Mac Pro is commonly called the “trash can” for its cylindrical design — Apple later admitted the look left them “designed into a corner” then basically abandoned the high end market for most of 7 years. Its from 2013, but was way over-powered for the time, and still outperforms most of the stuff you’d find at Best Buy today.

We switched from the commercial Windows software, vMix, to an open source package that runs native in macOS called OBS — a favorite of video game streamers and YouTube stars. It starts up in a fraction of the time, and handles virtually limitless inputs with ease. Switching to an HDMI camera with optical zoom, instead of the cheap USB webcam, allowed us to position the rig at the back of the sanctuary — instead of consuming the front half of the room — which made it significantly easier to connect to the sound board, and have an independent audio mix, which will improve both the in-house and online experience, once we tune it.

Ben helped me set everything up, and we even rigged up an iPad based remote control, so if needed, one person can run both the in-house video screen and the online stream.

This week, we’ll do some training on the new system, and probably work out a few kinks, then I’ll report back to the hospital for a follow-up surgery for a blood-clot related issue I’ve been dealing with all summer. Next Sunday, I hope to be worshiping from bed at home while recovering from this thing once-and-for-all!

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