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Churches Go Digital: How Live Streaming Moves Away from Social Media

Connecting with the community beyond Sunday is an important part of churches' engagement strategy, so it seems.

Photo by Karl Fredrickson / Unsplash

What comes to mind first when you hear "live streaming"? Churches and worship services probably aren't at the top of the list of associations. The pandemic is over, but the tech breakthroughs different industries came up with are still there—the rare industry hasn’t adapted to the changes of those years. Court hearings in WhatsApp and most businesses going remote are just a few examples, and churches weren’t an exception, either.

In a world where digital transformation has become the norm, churches have embraced live streaming to connect with their congregations in unprecedented ways. Here's how.

91% of US churches live-stream worship services, survey finds.

In fact, churches have increasingly turned to live streaming to connect with their congregations, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Church live streaming initially started as a way to reach out to members who couldn't attend services in person due to illness, disability, or travel. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, accelerated the adoption of live streaming as a means to maintain community and connection during lockdowns.

Churches quickly adapted to the new norm, and the number of churches offering live streaming services skyrocketed. In November 2022, Pew Research Center conducted a survey which found that about one-third of US adults regularly attend religious services in person, while approximately 27% of them watch religious services on TV or online.

Several platforms offer live streaming services tailored to the specific needs of religious organisations. For instance, ChurchStreaming.TV provides a one-stop solution for organising, scheduling, and streaming worship services with templates and professional quality features. Another tool, StreamingChurch.TV, offers easy embedding and simulcasting to various platforms, making it a popular choice for broadcasting liturgical services in real-time.

Apart from these unconventional ways, churches stream their services on their own websites, as well as Facebook and YouTube. However, when it comes to streaming on social media, there are a few limitations—social media platforms monitor content and may shut down or mute live streams that contain copyrighted material (music, for instance) or may restrict, censor, or limit certain opinions or ideas that they consider unpopular or conflicting with their cultural beliefs.

To ensure that their live streams are accessible to all members of the congregation and cater to all of their audiences, churches add closed captioning to the live stream that make it more accessible to viewers with hearing impairments and provide ASL interpreters who can translate the service and song lyrics during worship. They also offer digital materials such as worship guides, song lyrics, and sermon notes to enhance the accessibility of the live stream.

Churches themselves are the ones that contribute to this digitalisation and foster this change. As such, the Church of England has provided a comprehensive guide to help religious organisations get started with live streaming their services or events, launched the A Church Near You website, and now lists a range of resources and weekly online services that are streamed each Sunday at 9 am. What's more, church live streaming even has its own trends!

Why, though?

Live streaming allows churches to reach individuals who are unable to attend services in person, namely the sick, injured, elderly, or those with mobility challenges. It also enables members to participate in services from anywhere in the world, helping to maintain a sense of community and connection. Around 30% of people who watch a live stream event will attend in person the following year, so it's also a way to expand congregation.

Pushpay, a payments and engagement solutions provider for mission-driven organisations, released findings from its 2024 State of Church Technology report, revealing that the majority of US churches not only believe technology is a critical component to helping them achieve their mission (95%), but that leveraging tech to connect with their community beyond Sunday is an important part of their engagement strategy (98%).

91% of churches today are livestreaming worship services and 62% say it will play a key role for their church in the coming years, which is a 42% increase from last year.

"We're seeing churches continuing to test, adapt, and evolve their use of technology to extend the Church experience, making ministry content and connection available 24/7," said Molly Matthews, Pushpay CEO. "That’s especially important for millennials and Gen Z, who are accustomed to on-demand digital experiences in their day-to-day interactions with other brands and organizations."

What's even more important, live streaming can help boost financial support for the church by letting remote viewers contribute financially through online donations, as well as advertisements, pay-per-view, and subscriptions. This is a steady stream of revenue even when members can't attend in person. Broadcasting via television can be expensive and complex, while starting with an online streaming service is much simpler and more affordable.

Some live streaming platforms even offer chat break-out groups, private chat messages, and automated follow-up emails, providing new ways for parishioners to engage and interact with the church community.

Do people actually watch churches stream live?

Yes. A bit earlier, we mentioned that according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in November 2022, roughly a quarter of US adults (27%) regularly watch religious services online or on TV, while a third regularly attend services in person, so it's evident that a significant number of people actually do watch online worship services, and 25% of those watching feel like they're "active participants," as per the same research, meaning that they do the things they'd normally do at services in person—like praying or responding aloud, singing or kneeling.

Additionally, approximately 60% of individuals who regularly watch religious services online or on television reported that they only stream or tune in to the services of one congregation, but around a third of respondents watch two or three congregations, and 6% watch the services of four or more congregations remotely.

AI, cryptocurrency & metaverse are no longer news to churches, either.

Live streaming isn't the only way how churches go digital post-pandemic. They're also exploring tools to enhance the experience for their members and streamline processes for ministry staff. Whether developing sermons, devotionals, or small group content, the report found that 33% of churches say artificial intelligence will be a strategically important tool in the next two or three years, and 11% are already using generative tools today to create text or images.

Pushpay reports that among churches employing generative AI, 64% utilise it primarily for crafting social media content. Interestingly, no other application, including generating devotionals, sermons, or ideas for pastoral care, surpassed a 25% usage rate. This trend may reflect the emphasis placed within the Church on genuine human interaction. While there's a willingness to rely on AI for producing brief social media updates, presumably sourced from biblical verses, devotionals, and sermon excerpts, leaders rarely use AI to shape the fundamental message and content pertaining to discipleship within their ministry.

Credit: Pushpay's State of Church Tech 2024 report

The report also found that the use of cryptocurrency donation platforms is on the rise, with 11% usage this year, up from 7% last year—a 57% increase comparatively.

Some other interesting findings say that 66% of churches have a mobile church app. Leveraging apps for volunteer scheduling increased 44% year over year, and for prayer requests increased by 8% since 2022; 46% of churches are now leaning into the use of analytics or data insights, and 4 out of 5 churches currently leverage a Church Management Software (ChMS).

"The rise of technology, particularly in the wake of 2020's global shutdowns, has forever altered the landscape of our churches and communities," said Clay Scroggins, a former pastor who also authored the foreword for the report. "Online churches, digital small groups, virtual staff meetings, and AI-enhanced sermons aren't temporary bandaids; they represent a new, permanent fixture in our faith practices."