Lifehouse Church serves remote worshippers via streaming
USA: In every congregation of worshippers, there are followers who can’t make services in a given week for one reason or another. Since the days of audio cassette tapes, various forms of physical media have been used to share services retroactively, but unless a house of worship was in a position to broadcast their services, real-time sharing wasn’t possible. As with much in society at large, that situation changed with the widespread availability of internet connectivity, along with enabling technologies. A case in point is Lifehouse Church, San Antonio, Texas, USA, which has a good percentage of military personnel and their families in its 300-member fellowship, the military members’ duties sometimes requiring travel. Additionally, the church has partnered with churches in Colombia in South America. Lifehouse Church has embraced technology for both real-time and on-demand streaming of services to serve its membership and extended international church family.
Lifehouse began on-demand streaming in May of 2015. ‘We did a few test runs before this, just for families in our church that were military that wanted to stay connected, but this is when we started really streaming and archiving our videos onto Vimeo,’ says Lifehouse tech director, Alex Well. ‘It took us a while to finally bite the bullet and put funds towards this project.’ Following its experiences with the Vimeo video file-sharing service, Lifehouse started experimenting with live streaming. ‘It started with a home video camera and a free interface that ran on the computer and a free Livestream account,’ recalls Mr Well. ‘Once we started getting feedback from families who couldn’t make it into church and some of our council members who travelled and watched the stream, they saw the importance in it. As well, we had churches we partnered with in Colombia for missions trips that followed us online and they saw how the distance didn’t stop us from being one large church family.’ With the importance and impact of live streaming proven, funds were targeted towards improving the audio and video experience for the remote viewers.
‘We stream our Sunday morning services as well as our Wednesday night youth group for students who have too much homework to make it in but want to stay connected,’ says Mr Well. ‘Our viewers for our stream are people who can’t make it into church due to weather, disability, deployment, have moved, and our churches we work with in Colombia.’ The average number of devices connected is from 15 to 30. ‘Some of these devices do have families behind them,’ says Mr Well, ‘so there very well could be closer to double and triple the number our view count records.’
After its use of Livestream for real-time video sharing, Lifehouse moved to the house of worship ‘digital discipleship’ solution from Mediafusion, a company specializing in online streaming and deployed worldwide by small congregations and by churches as large as the multi-campus Hillsong in Australia which uses Mediafusion services to stream internationally. Mr Well credits Mediafusion with a doubling of streaming quality and the addition of new capabilities. When loss of audio and video quality and connectivity issues arose with the encoder that Lifehouse was using to interface with the internet, the San Antonio-based Mediafusion loaned Lifehouse a Matrox Monarch HDX encoder, which offers 3G-SDI and HDMI inputs with frame-synchronization and two independent H.264 encoders that can be assigned to individual tasks like dual broadcasts or streaming at one bit-rate while recording at higher resolutions via an onboard SD card slot or using USB-connected or networked storage. MediaFusion, says Mr Well, was ‘even great enough to come help me set it all up and test out the quality and help monitor our first two weekends to make sure we were getting the best quality we could.’ The Monarch HDX, Mr Well adds, provided ‘much better quality in our stream due to the options allowed in broadcasting. We also could now save a hard-copy right from the encoder instead of downloading it later on, which, depending on our internet and steam at the time, could look terrible.’
The video signal flow at Lifehouse begins with a Canon FX1 camera fed into an Apple iMac computer running Renewed Vision’s Propresenter software. In the iMac, the camera feed is mixed with the Propresenter originated lower-third content and with the audio out from a Behringer x32 digital console. The production is then fed via HDMI into the Monarch HDX. After establishing a sustainable streaming bit rate and insuring audio levels are optimal for the Matrox Monarch HDX, ‘There really isn’t a lot of training needed to get started or after launching due to being able to save Presets,’ says Mr Well. Training and continued refinement of the broadcasts mostly involves the layering of Propresenter graphics, camera shot blocking and video/live feed switching.
On the Colombia end of the streams, Mr Well says the only challenge has been ‘with the reception they get while in town or when they are out in the Amazon in the smaller church plants. Unless they have a good download speed they get some choppy video and audio. It is real-time for them, though, because they like to interact and use the chat on our video player. Of course with streaming there is always a little delay from the time you send the source until they receive it.’
For the future, Lifehouse plans to build up their system with more cameras, a video switcher and a possible upgrade to the Matrox Monarch LCS encoder. The given in Lifehouse Church’s plans is that internet streaming will be permanent part of the HOW’s ministry.