HOME SERVICE: What did Covid-19 do to Houses of Worship?

The houses of worship market has had to radically adapt to the coronavirus pandemic. Paul Milligan finds out the methods it has employed to keep followers connected and engaged.

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought many aspects of regular life to a complete halt. Restaurants, cinema, gyms and bars have been closed, and for many the weekly visit to church has also stopped. Faith is a vital element to many people’s lives, so an alternative way for them to worship had to be found, and that’s where AV technology comes in. Much like the education market, the houses of worship (HoW) market has organisations with deep pockets that will spend big money to get what they need, at the other end of the spectrum there are tiny local churches who rely solely on donations to buy even the most basic equipment.

Having to provide for both of those groups (and everyone in between) is a handful of specialist integrators tasked with holding the hands of enthusiastic church volunteers, in charge of broadcasting services. With lockdowns imposed globally in mid-March 2020, and churches forced to close overnight, Covid had a mixed effect on those supplying AV. On the one hand it provided a huge boost because all churches suddenly needed to install streaming technology, in order to keep in contact with their congregation. However, lockdown restrictions meant that existing upgrade plans were cancelled because the sites were be shut for months, with donations hit as a consequence.


The main impact of Covid was to greatly accelerate any vague plans HoW may have had to start streaming in the future. Martyn Skirrow, director of specialist integrator StageLogic estimates that 80% of the churches he’s dealt with since last March were new to streaming. Before Covid churches would only broadcast their services out of convenience says Jacob Sanders, operations director from the Verve church in Las Vegas, which has a regular church attendance of about 300 people every week. “Covid made it a necessity to go online, and that was a massive shift and a massive expediting of the processes that otherwise would have taken years for churches to migrate digitally.”

Ten years ago, only the richest churches had the (physical and financial) resources to stream online, but over the past decade streaming tech has dropped in price and increased in availability, and that’s brought in many medium-sized churches, leaving just the small ‘village’ churches without. However, even those have now had to embrace some form of streaming during Covid simply out of necessity. The change in some cases has been very dramatic says Matt Sales, business development manager from specialist HoW integrator SFL Group. “Some of the bigger churches had a camcorder so they could overflow their Christmas carol service into another room or on YouTube because that service was popular. They weren't doing it every week. Now suddenly there are three cameras, robotics, and they've employed a video editor two days a week to make Sunday services.”

It didn’t happen overnight for every church however, some preferred to wait-and-see explains Tim Jacques, managing director from integrator Novum AV. “What we’re finding in this latest lockdown period is because they can’t really see the end to Covid-19, they’ve now decided they’re going to act. They’re not sure what could happen in the future.” At the start of the first UK lockdown in mid-March last year, Jacques volunteered his expertise to churches who didn’t know where to start with live streaming, more than 60 took up the offer. Amongst his regular clients Jacques estimates that 95% of Novum’s current pipeline is either focused on streaming entirely or has streaming as a major element.

Much like webcams, which soared in popularity for those forced to work from home once Covid struck, PTZ cameras became the hot item for HoW clients. For churches wanting to stream services, PTZ cameras offered a way of creating a two or three camera setup that could be controlled remotely. PTZ cameras also solved the limitations regarding the numbers of skilled people each church has at its disposal and limitations of those allowed on-site. PTZs ticked every box. But that meant once lockdown struck every church wanted one and units were very quickly in short supply. For Sam Woodward, a volunteer at Christ Church in Ware (UK) which has approximately 500 worshippers every week, an order for PTZ cameras in April saw eventual delivery completed in July. Other products in demand and in short supply were switchers, encoders, capture cards and the more budget-conscious AV mixing desks and audio desks from the likes of Behringer. Because of the very active internet forums (more on that later) around HoW AV the same products were being asked for repeatedly by HoW clients; PTZOptics cameras, and Blackmagic Design streaming (its Web Presenter unit is sub-€500).

For others like Bobby Rettew, the communications chair from Boulevard Baptist Church in South Carolina (USA), which has 500 members, because they already had streaming in place Covid was a driver to update other kit, so the whole package would work as one. “We knew that our audio board couldn’t really support what we wanted to do (with streaming). We had an analogue audio board with 20-year-old wiring, so immediately we knew we had to make an upgrade and bought a Midas 32-input digital board.”

The AV in churches is run by volunteers, some work in the AV industry (like Sam Woodward), but most are simply technology enthusiasts. The volunteers talk to each other through active internet forums, recommending setups, which drives demand for certain products as mentioned already. This well-meaning chat can sometimes cause issues for integrators however says
Novum AV’s Jacques. “Smaller churches are being told by people at far bigger churches to go Blackmagic, but they’re not necessarily thinking that the people using it there don’t know how to change the refresh rates on their computer screen.”

Covid has only exacerbated this problem adds Tim Horton, sales installations manager, SFL Group; “We’re there to be the intermediary between the different stakeholders, the church leader, the treasurer, the volunteer techie, the musos, to try and find a united way of going forward, that’s best done face to face. It’s much harder to be a relational added value company as an installer when you can only really talk to one person on a video call.” When budgets are tight the infrastructure in HoW often suffers. When you add in a rural or remote location, it creates additional difficulty for live streaming. As Rettew from Boulevard Baptist Church points out, the difficulty is often two-fold; “It’s not only getting infrastructure to the church, but it's getting it inside these old churches.”

The majority of churches are under equipped from an infrastructure standpoint says Sanders from Verve Church, and Covid has only confirmed this. “Before Covid, churches just needed Wi-Fi networks to print the weekly bulletin. Covid forced them to need the bandwidth to stream a full broadcast to handle the production of weekend service.” It’s a huge step for many, and unfortunately this is where an AV integrator’s hands are tied says Sales from SFL Group. “We can suggest what they should or shouldn’t have, but we don’t have access to the broadband providers, or have those kinds of relationships.

We have no influence over that, so actually being able to do anything with the church is near impossible.” Many churches are still using composite cabling, and don’t understand that will need to be updated, which increases costs and often involves a drawn-out permission process from the diocese. Other churches have turned to 4G as a (costly and not 100% reliable) way to get around internet connectivity issues. NDI technology is on the rise amongst HoW, but again has issues, as Jacques explains.

“It’s great if you are just streaming, but we’ve tended to steer away from it because of latency issues, particularly the synchronisation with audio. If you get into a live environment, having an image a couple of seconds behind what’s occurring live is quite distracting, so we’ve tended to stick to things like SDI infrastructure and HDMI over fibre rather than going down
the NDI for networked AV technologies that are improving over time.” The prominence of free streaming platforms such as YouTube and Facebook Live has been a lifeline for the HoW sector during Covid.

Above: Houses of worship are using the Listen EVERYWHERE audio over Wi-Fi system to host drive-in worship services, BINGO games and movie nights.


Streaming for some HoW, both pre-Covid and during Covid, could be a vicar strapping an iPhone to a stand and pressing ‘go live’. It is often as basic as that. Viewing at home is done via phone apps or smart TV. YouTube and Facebook Live are the two dominant platforms (with Church Online sitting in third place) because it’s easy to stream, easy to watch, comes with a huge installed base of users and is free to stream. However, free doesn’t always equate to best, and everyone we spoke to reported audio and resolution (downscaling) issues with Facebook Live and YouTube.

4K hasn’t made much of an impact on the HoW market yet because of the infrastructure problems mentioned previously, but also because there is no clear discernible benefit yet. If your audience is watching via Facebook Live the thinking is often why spend what little budget you do have to broadcast in 4K when no one is watching in 4K? One steep learning curve for all parts of the HoW chain has been the difference in the audio and lighting requirements between a live service and a live stream. With no congregation present the services can run the risk of feeling too staged and lifeless. “One of the things that we noticed early on in the live stream was that when someone sings all you hear is the mic, so we had to create more of the ambience of the church. For the live stream we put in a couple of sanctuary mics and it pulls the natural sound in to make it feel full. We now have our music minister come up before the service to listen to the soloist in the live stream, and he will then listen to the soloists through the board for what it would sound like in the sanctuary, to try to make it match as much as possible,” says Rettew.

Lighting too has its challenges in live streams, as this example from SFL Group’s Horton illustrates; “When the sun comes in at 11am it streams in the same point onto the altar every week, it is incredibly ornate with gold leaf on it, and the sun reflects onto that and the cameras all want to auto-focus on that, you then can’t see the faces of the people at the front. We had to play with the lighting in that example to make sure that people are stood in the place where it’s best lit.”

As mentioned already, HoW rely on enthusiastic volunteers who have picked up audio and lighting skills along the way, but is live streaming a new skillset for most HoW end users? Definitely says Skirrow, “Our recommendation is to start off simple, don’t complicate it until you’ve got a handle on what you can do, because bear in mind it’s going out live, everybody’s watching it, everybody’s relying upon it,”. Again, knowledge of streaming has been passed around the different HoW internet forums, but the difference on this occasion is that this exchange isn’t for fun, it’s out of necessity says Sanders. “The last year has proven how knowledge of live streaming, equipment, operations, is a critical piece of church infrastructure moving forward. And churches that have that personnel and equipment in place are going to be leaps and bounds ahead of other churches still trying to figure out the online component.”

Luckily for the HoW market, help is at hand in the form of system integrators such as SFL Group, Novum AV and StageLogic in choosing the right kit, successfully completing the installation process and tips on perfecting weekly broadcasts. “Generally, we’re running some form of training session with the team, and ideally, most of the team,” says SFL Group’s Sales.

“On live streaming products we’ve given people the option for an evaluation. So they book a time slot, have an hour session and go through some of their previous live streams for broadcast tips of how to frame certain shots, looking at exposure etc, and we can kind of guide people through that. “

Covid has affected the entire planet and touched every part of our day-to-day lives, so maybe it’s not a huge surprise it has impacted on HoW so much, but it’s incredible to think of such a traditional sector, that, because of Covid, is now being dragged into the digital age quite as much as it is right now.

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