Streaming worship

First Unitarian Church of Portland, Oregon, live streams one of its weekly worship services.

Unitarian Universalist congregations invest in online broadcasts to extend their reach.

Image: First Unitarian Church of Portland, Oregon, live streams one of its weekly worship services. (© Jim Garrison)

© Jim Garrison


Sunday is the only day that Vic­toria Wheeler and her husband Kevin can sleep in. The rest of the week, they’re up by 4:30 to exercise and write before their workdays begin. But as longtime members of First Unitarian Church of Portland, Oregon, the Wheelers don’t want to miss Sunday services.

Now they can catch extra zzzz’s and still join the early service at church—via computer. “Sometimes we prop ourselves up in bed with our coffee and watch,” said Wheeler, who lives in Milwaukie, a half-hour drive from downtown Portland. “We call it the p.j. church.”

Since September 2014, First Unitarian has live streamed its 9:15 a.m. service over the Internet, reaching not just members like the Wheelers but scores of viewers as far away as Chile.

“It’s very much like being there,” said Wheeler. “You can see and hear the ministers really well, and you can hear the music really well.” When the collection plate is passed during the service, the couple clicks a link on screen to make a contribution. They continue to attend in person at least half the time, but said it’s wonderful to have the online option.

First Unitarian is one of a handful of UU congregations that now broadcast their worship services on the Internet, extending Unitarian Universalism’s reach far beyond the walls of the local church.

Live streaming is an option for any congregation that wants a broader reach. Although it requires some computer expertise and financial resources, it’s cheaper than one might think. Equipment costs can be as low as $400 for a one-stop solution, a camera that live streams directly, said Jason Chapman, facilities manager at First Unitarian. Other costs include a live streaming service provider and a license for any copyrighted music used in the service [see page 34].

For several years, a group of Unitarian Univer­salists in Rome, Italy, has joined Christmas Eve services taking place more than 5,000 miles away at All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “This year, our congregation said ‘Merry Christ­mas!’ to them during the service, and they thanked us on Facebook,” said the Rev. Marlin Lavanhar, senior minister.

Since it began live streaming in 2010, All Souls has gained participants around the world. A small group gathers in a Mississippi coffeehouse to watch the service and even takes up a collection it sends to the church. Others watch from England, Australia, Japan, and Finland. “We have a ridiculous number in Belgium,” said Lavanhar, with a chuckle.

First Unitarian in Portland had been broadcasting audio of its services before it began offering video, too. The church invested in video streaming after the 1,027-member congregation agreed that it wanted to include more people in worship without building a larger sanctuary.

First Unitarian’s broadcast is streamed to 40 to 60 unique computers or other devices, such as iPads, each week, with an unknown number of people watching from each device. Whoever is watching from Chile hasn’t made themselves known to the church, but the Rev. William G. Sinkford, First Unitarian’s senior minister, is delighted that they tune in regularly. On Christmas Eve, there were people watching from 135 places around the world. “I’m hopeful this is just the beginning of how we use technology to expand the reach of our ministry,” said Sinkford.

Members of First Unitarian also are excited about this virtual alternative. “We’ve heard from a number of folks who’ve been sick or had health issues, who are in a hospital room or recovering at home, who can tune in when they couldn’t make it to church,” Sinkford said. “We’ve heard from our folks who’ve been traveling, including one person in Southern California who said, ‘I got out my iPad and gathered the family around, and we went to church.’”

All Souls in Tulsa—at 1,957 members the largest local congregation in the Unitarian Universalist Association—has more than doubled its reach through live streaming and its video archive on YouTube. While 700 to 800 people attend church each week in person, “two to three times more people are accessing a sermon of our church online than experienced it in the church,” said Lavanhar.

All Souls began live streaming after exploring television broadcasting at the request of a homebound congregant. With a $100,000 gift from her, the congregation purchased sophisticated cameras and editing equipment, but leaders decided that live streaming was a better option since anyone with Internet access can join in.

“It’s definitely the right move to be exploring how to use modern forms of communication to get our message out,” said Lavanhar.

And getting the message out they are! An adult Sunday school class at a Methodist church about 90 minutes from Tulsa watches YouTube videos of All Souls’s sermons, and has talked about forming a new UU congregation. At least eight churches without ministers are using Lavanhar’s sermons in their own services. All Souls is in conversations with them about the appropriate level of financial support the churches should provide in exchange for using his sermons, Lavanhar said.

The 468-member UU Church of Bloom­ington, Indiana, has been live streaming both its Sunday services for two years. “People love it,” said Carol Marks, church administrator, especially during bad weather. “We serve a three- to four-county area. People who live 20 miles away were not interested in leaving home to get down here when there was six or seven inches of snow, so they really appreciated live streaming.”

Its two services attract people watching from 50 to 60 locations each week. “There’s a whole little tiny congregation of folks who only relate to us in that way,” said Marks. “In my mind, it feels like a virtual, satellite congregation. There are maybe 10 to 12 people who found us online, and several are extremely faithful. They contribute each week and say thank you for live streaming.” She does not know, though, if anyone who found the church online has then taken the step to attend in person.

The Church of the Larger Fellowship (CLF) only holds one in-person worship service a year, at the UUA’s General Assembly. But the 3,639-member “church without walls” broadcasts worship services for its global community twice each week online.

Unlike the live streams from Bloomington, Port­land, and Tulsa, CLF’s worship services are assembled from a mix of live and prerecorded videos. A live chat feature allows participants to share their thoughts with each other throughout the service.

CLF’s services are on Sundays at 8:00 p.m. ET and Mondays at 2:00 p.m. ET. “We didn’t want to do it at the same time as brick-and-mortar churches,” said the Rev. Meg Riley, senior minister, because many viewers also attend a local church. The Monday afternoon service is broadcast when it’s evening in Europe, “because we wanted to include our European brothers and sisters.”

CLF focuses on creating a real sense of community, Riley said. Viewers are invited to light a real or virtual chalice, for example. Brief sermons are meant to foster a sense of community, too. “A lot of people today are looking for companionship in a leader rather than someone telling them what to do, so we’re modeling companionship, vulnerability,” said Riley. “We look at the camera directly, we don’t use notes, and often it’s a personal story.” No one segment is longer than a few minutes, in contrast to typical church services. “People online don’t really listen to 20-minute sermons,” said Riley.

The live chat feature adds something special. “People really pour their hearts out. They say things you never hear at a brick-and-mortar service,” she said. “I think because people can use any name they want, they share more deeply, really sharing their joys and sorrow. People give each other cyberhugs. It’s amazing how comforting it can be.”

First Unitarian in Portland has three cameras, a computer, and a switcher, which cost about $6,000, according to Chapman. One camera, the largest, is permanently mounted in the balcony; the other two, quite small, are taken down after the service, a process that takes about 20 minutes. The church also pays $1,000 a year to license music, and $50 a month for the service that handles the live streaming. Its system requires two operators.

The Bloomington church spent under $4,000 on equipment, including three cameras, said Marks. After that, ongoing costs aren’t high: $99 a month for the live streaming service provider, and a few hundred dollars a year for a service that keeps them in compliance with U.S. copyright law for the music they use in services.

All Souls has paid staff and volunteers who operate its live streaming equipment, including three cameras, an audio mixing board, and a video production suite. After the services, the church puts the video recordings on YouTube and the audio recordings on iTunes.

From her home in Minnesota, CLF’s Riley oversees a team of seven fellows all over the world who create the services. CLF has no production studio, and relies on each team member’s own computer equipment to produce services. It uses a live streaming service that costs about $3,000 a year. It used to subscribe to a music copyright service, but now has an agreement with certain select musicians to use their music in exchange for giving them credit during the service.

Since the cameras at All Souls are small and unobtrusive—there are no camerapeople on booms, swinging about the congregation—negative reactions have been few, Lavanhar said. But a few people have said they do not want to be seen on the Internet.

“In the Bible Belt, it can be a little more risky to attend a UU church—in terms of how you might be seen by your employer or neighbors and things like that,” Lavanhar said. And for gay and lesbian couples who are not out, at least not in the world outside of the congregation, “they might in the past have come to church and been more physically affectionate, and all of a sudden, realize they are on TV, so that may make it feel less safe.”

Lavanhar said it’s important to make sure people feel safe during services. An announcement in the order of service lets people know the service is going out over the Internet and informs them of places in the sanctuary that are “dead spots” where they can sit and not be seen by the cameras.

Similarly, an issue arose about live streaming the congregation’s Coming of Age ceremony for teens. Some parents wanted relatives in other states to be able to share in the ceremony via the Internet; others didn’t want their kids seen online. The solution: two services, one live streamed, the other not. “We gave people a choice,” Lavanhar said.

At First Unitarian, the pulpit and choir are on camera, but the broadcast picks up only a few seats in the first row in the sanctuary. Through trial and error, the church has learned to improve technically. For example, the pulpit has a microphone, but there isn’t one that catches sound from the congregation. To help the online audience hear what the congregation is saying during the responsive reading, the minister at the pulpit speaks along with them. Sinkford added that the choir must remember that they are on camera and anyone can see them.

“This is just the start,” said Sinkford. “Our imagination for how to use this as good ministry is only just beginning. Where it will lead us is a very open question—but one we need to be willing to ask.”