Live-streaming Church: The Opportunity

Every November, authors challenge themselves to write 1,667 words a day so that in one month they’ll have 50,000 words. Here’s chapter 1 of the book I’m writing, Live-Streaming Church:

Chapter one:
The Opportunity

In the 1985 movie Back to the Future, Christopher Lloyd’s character, Dr. Emmett Brown, is impressed by Marty McFly’s (played by Michael J. Fox) video camera, calling it a “portable television studio.”[1] How surprised he’d be by what we can do now.
I’m writing this on Sunday morning. My church has services on both Saturday and Sunday. I normally go to both, but this weekend, instead of serving all weekend, I edited the Saturday night service for our satellite campus and then wasn’t needed further.
So, this morning I woke up, made my coffee and omelette, and walked all the way to church…in my living room. I turned on the TV and used my Roku to watch church live. My wife and elder daughter are both at church, but my younger daughter Ellie and I are here.
She started her day, doing the dishes, but I got to call her in during the song before the message to show her the video playing as one of my friends, Becca, sang. We’d shot a ballerina named Caroline dancing to the song.
Ellie was enraptured. As we snuggled on the couch, she talked about how beautiful the dance was and how she hoped that she’d be good enough to do something similar one day. I didn’t have to worry about finding the magical 3 db range of volume where her little voice was loud enough for me to hear, but quiet enough that she didn’t disturb those around us. It was an opportunity that would have been impossible when her older sister was her age just 7 years ago.
Back then if one of us stayed home from church for some reason we missed everything going on there. Now, it’s not that way. Now, I can still “go to church,” but I can do so at home with my daughter by my side, asking questions in her excited 7 year-old way.
We’re just at the cusp of opportunities like this, too.
Now that the 9 am service is over, I’ve settled down to write. I put my earbuds in and started listening to the “Stryper Radio” station I created with iTunes streaming music. At the same time, she’s taken over the Roku remote and is watching WildKrats on the PBS Kids Roku channel.
To her, TV is TV. She actually prefers watching the streaming version because she can pause it when she needs to go potty or wants a snack. She never has to decide between two shows that are on at the same time. There’s no such thing.
Two nights ago I was watching a documentary on another Roku channel and the commercial for a new television came on. This is the first “smart tv” I’m even a little interested in. Why? It has Roku built in.
The only television more anticipated is the so-called true AppleTV. In the biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, Jobs said that he’d “licked it” in reference to the television experience. As of today, the AppleTV is still a set-top box, like the Roku, but it could be that we’ll some day see televisions with Roku, AppleTV, and other interfaces baked in.
Today, we’re still in the in-between time where the group of people who use set-top boxes in lieu of a cable subscription is still pretty small. As the technology continues to mature, more and more families will stream media as we’re doing right now with me streaming music and Ellie streaming cartoons.
Now, look forward with me just a few years hence. Is your church prepared for the time when video entertainment, education, etc. all come from the internet? Imagine a time when your children look forward to the latest episode of the children’s program from a large church in another part of the country or your teens watch shows that help them deal with the challenges of growing up in the 21st century, but that don’t come from MTV or a “big media” source.
Right now, traditional sources of video are still hanging on to their content clutching it tightly. Last fall, I watched Sleep Hollow on the Fox Roku channel. Despite its questionable theology and revisionist view of American history, I was curious to see where it would go.
A few weeks ago I turned on the Fox channel again. Now, I’m required to “register” to watch. They want to know what cable system I use to watch Fox. Here’s the thing. I don’t. I’ve got an antenna, but I’m what they call a “cord cutter.” I don’t pay for cable television. Still, in light of the fact that they rent spectrum from me, as an American citizen, you’d think that they’d allow me to watch, showing the commercials that I’d see on my local Fox affiliate, right? Wrong.
I’m not mad though. Why? I have tons of choices. Gone are the days of 4 channels on a black and white television. I can watch all manner of shows that are more tailored to my preferences. I can hop over to YouTube and watch tutorials, cat videos, or strange musical performances. I can go to TWIT and watch tech videos. I can even go to my church’s app and watch the service from a few weeks ago that I missed because I was out of town on vacation, but unable to watch live.
This is the opportunity that we, in the church, have. Fox is now equal to my church in terms of my ability to watch what both put out. To my daughters, video is video. I still know that my church spends almost nothing to put our services online while Fox spends millions. In terms of how I can watch the content, my church has a better experience. We don’t interrupt our content to show commercials. We don’t require you to register to prove that some cable system is paying.
Savvy churches know that the downsides of spreading their message as far as people will take it are few. Big media companies think that they’re losing by having people watch online only. They’re unaware of the fact that they’re losing the only advantage they have — attention.
This trend reflects what’s been going on for some time on radio. In the 1990s, I used to listen to talk radio for hours on end. I wasn’t alone either. It was the most popular trend in radio.
There were two types of shows that I liked in particular, political shows and technology shows. I really preferred the latter to the former, but there were so many more of the former that I spent most of my time listening to them.
Then, I discovered podcasting.
For me, it started with the fact that I could never afford the cable package that included TechTV, so when Leo Laporte started his podcast called TWIT, I quickly replaced some political talk with it. Soon, I discovered more and more tech shows that I liked and began producing one of my own. I looked for a couple of my favorite radio shows in podcast form, but found that both required a subscription. There wasn’t a way to pay with my attention by listening to commercials, so I quit listening.
Now, I only listen to podcasts in my car, on a run, as I work on things that don’t require my creative attention, etc.
Having noticed this same trend, I’ve embraced it in my work at I live-stream church tech training every day at 11 AM Eastern. I have my own Roku channel, approved on my 40th birthday, nearly a year ago, and all the shows are available to stream on-demand or via download.
Why don’t I make people pay for them? Why don’t I do what Fox and other do?
They have the attention of their audiences and feel that their content is good enough that people won’t leave them for other options. They’re wrong.
The time is now for the church to embrace the opportunity. We can take some of the attention that big media companies have long-monopolized. The window may not be open long before they realize their mistake, monetizing with commercials instead of commercials AND the honey pot of cable access fees.
I hope that most churches won’t miss it, but I fear that few will live-stream their services. What’s worse is that even fewer will put out other content like kid’s shows, and programs directed at the felt-needs of people outside the church.
We’ll talk about some ideas for going beyond the church service later, but I want you to start thinking those thoughts now. Start asking what your church can create that will draw people to consider that perhaps Christians aren’t people stuck in the past, but people who have legitimate answers to their questions.
Stop and think about it. If children started to watch Christian programming, they might start to consider that maybe, just maybe, they are valuable, not accidents of a chaotic universe. Imagine if teens saw shows with relationships where people didn’t hop in bed at the first opportunity, but where men were strong enough to hold back their desires because the women were worth waiting for. What if seniors could watch examples of others in their golden years, spending their time giving to others? Would they think that their best years were ahead, not behind them?
I’m not aware of any churches that are expanding their ministries in this way. Will your church embrace the challenge? Will you counter the culture with the love of Christ by invading their homes with alternatives to what’s on network and cable television? That’s the opportunity. Let’s embrace it and reach people who don’t even know they can have such and abundant life.
Don’t make excuses; I’ll show you how in the following pages. When greed gives way to pragmatism, the big media companies will have a chance to preserve their audiences. Now is the time. Come on; we can do this.

[1] Back to the Future (1985) – IMDb

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