Serving our housebound members for the long term

Now the government have announced that churches are able to meet in person again, many of us are looking forward to getting back to normal. But, of course, plenty of us found ‘normal’ quite difficult. Though most of us haven’t been able to meet – and struggled as a result – all of us have suddenly been given a taste of what it is like for our elderly, infirm and disabled folks who would love to meet with us but are simply prevented from doing so. Lock down, for these folks, has been (literally) a God-send. They have been included in their church families in ways they haven’t been able for a long time and they have experienced a newfound understanding and empathy from those who previously had no idea (and, often, little concern) for what things were like week by week for them.

What a shame, then, if we just went back to business as usual. We have a real opportunity to think about how we serve those who cannot meet with us regularly for the long-term. Now is the chance to ask how they feel they have been served well in lock down and consider if there are things we might be able to continue over the long run.

Immediately, we will start to think of problems. Will a livestream work in church as well as it has from a home setup? Won’t it be complicated to setup? Isn’t it just more things to think about on a Sunday morning? What about our home groups? These are all legitimate questions and bear thinking about. The Devil is often, as they say, in the detail.

But I have been asked to share what we are going to do going forward. I should say that I am something of a novice when it comes to all this. I am no expert. I have taken advice on the best setup for our church situation from a guy who runs a tech company and a qualified sound engineer. I have read around and looked into what seems practicable and workable for us. I appreciate not all of this would work for everybody and different setups may require something different. But here is what we are going to do to ensure that those who continue to be unable to meet with us in person will be included, so far as possible, in the life of the church.

Live streaming

Having taken advice and researched fairly thoroughly, we came to the conclusion that the best live stream setup for us would be using a high(ish) end smartphone for camera and running the sound through our existing sound system at church. We have also added a large screen TV next to the preacher – which will run the same PowerPoint as projected on our normal big screen – so that we only need a one camera setup. There are no issues of privacy re filming of the congregation who are not happy to be broadcast because the live stream will only show the preacher and the adjacent screen, whilst during times of singing it will pickup the sound of the congregation.

The advice we have received is that most smartphone cameras – particularly on reasonable and newer smartphones – typically outperform most of the camcorders you might purchase. For a camera that would outperform your phone, you would need to consider spending upwards of £1000 on the camera alone, alongside a range of other equipment. On top of all that, the setup becomes considerably harder and more complicated with a dedicated camera whereas much of this headache is taken away with a phone. The advice we were repeatedly given for our space was use your smartphone.

In terms of equipment, the only expensive element of this setup is the additional large screen. But second-hand large screen televisions are relatively cheap and perfectly adequate. The only requirements are size and at least one HDMI port (even new televisions meeting these two requirements can be bought for £200-300). We then mounted it on a presentation trolley. We purchased a few extra xlr cables and a handful of specific adapters – such as xlr to 3.5mm trrs with a stereo headphone input and a 2-way HDMI splitter – that were all relatively cheap. We have already been using the free Streamlabs OBS app on our phones for home streaming and this will continue to work for us in church.

Whilst all this setup has taken a bit of work, it is all at the front end. By the time we come to do this on a Sunday, all we have to do is clamp our phone to the pre-setup tripod, plug in the 3.5mm jack and click the record button on the streaming app. The setup on the morning takes less than one minute. It is hardly labour intensive and doesn’t add any extra complicated or difficult stuff to think about on a Sunday morning. To include folks who can’t otherwise meet in person, this seems well worth the investment. That it may help you to reach a whole group of people you wouldn’t otherwise have any contact with adds further value.

There are, of course, more complicated setups you can run with should you be inclined. But, for us, this combined the elements of usability, simple setup and relative cheapness.

Community Groups

Up to now, we have been running our community groups via Zoom. Each community group leader has been hosting their particular group online. Up to now, this has worked reasonably well. However, when we are eventually able to meet in homes again, this is probably not the ideal solution for a hybrid meeting of in-person and online attendees.

Depending on how big your home groups happen to be, and how many folks you have who are unlikely to be able to meet in person, the solution I think best is a Facebook Portal TV. Other versions of portal are available (mini, max, etc) but these rely on smaller screens whereas portal TV use your existing television screen, which is significantly helpful for group meetings.

There are a few particular benefits of using Portal TV. First, and perhaps most significantly, Portal uses a smart camera to keep everybody in the room in view. If people get up and move, the camera pans and zooms to keep them in short along with everybody else. If they leave the room, it automatically zooms in to focus on those remaining. This means you don’t have to all crowd round a tiny laptop or phone or set it up miles away to keep everyone in shot without being able to see anything. For a group, it is the easiest way to keep everybody in shot.

Second, Portal TV uses the biggest screen in your house; your TV. Not only will the smart camera keep everybody meeting in person in shot, all those on the call will be up on the screen. Your entire group won’t have to crowd round a tiny phone screen or laptop in order to see the people calling in to the meeting. You will all be in shot on the smart camera and they will be up on a big screen TV so everybody can see everyone else and can engage fully.

Third, Portal TV works with either Facebook Messenger or Whatsapp. Both are free apps that can be installed on a phone that many already use. Messenger can be used on the web browser of Facebook, meaning you don’t even need the app. If using messenger, you can add up to 7 people to the group call (WhatsApp a few less). As Facebook continue to add functionality, group numbers may increase. But this means you can have as many people in the room as you like and can add up to a further 7 households who can tune in to your home group meeting from outside.

In terms of including folks in Sunday services and home groups, these are two simple, relatively low cost means of making that happen. For home groups, portal is extremely easy to setup (literally a HDMI cable into your TV and a power plug into the wall). To use, it is even easier and extremely intuitive. The setup for live streaming is a little more involved (but not exceptionally so – I, with my limited technological know-how, could do it) but, once setup, is no harder than plugging your phone it and pressing record.

For the sake of our housebound brethren, these all seem small measures to take for their inclusion. Given that significant numbers of our people won’t be able to come back immediately anyway, we will have to think of a large section of our church for a time. But beyond that, these few accommodations will serve more of our people in the long-term and will allow them to be more fully included in the life of the church. For my money, that’s worth a bit of hassle setting up and a few hundred quid of outlay.