Somebody asked on twitter recently whether other churches will be keeping their live streams once lock down lifts and we can meet again as normal. I also saw a Gospel Coalition article asking the same question. It is understandably a question many of us are now asking.
We made the decision some time ago to keep ours. There are a number of reasons why. Not all of them are equal, some carry considerably more weight than others. Below, I will share the reasons why we have decided to keep ours. I will also outline some scenarios in which your church might find itself, or just general reasons, when you almost certainly shouldn’t keep live streaming.
So, in no particular order, we decided to keep our live stream after lock down lifts for the following reasons:
It allows infirm and ill members to maintain connection
Every church is aware of people who, through no fault of their own, cannot meet with God’s people as they would like. It may be people who are elderly and infirm, those with long term illnesses that make it almost impossible to come out or even those who have been temporarily laid low. One of the benefits of live streaming has been the ability to include such people in the life of the church in a way that we couldn’t before. Whilst we do believe in the importance of physical gathering, and we don’t want to pretend that watching from home is fulfilling the command to meet together regularly, those who are morally excused from that command because of circumstances beyond their control – and who rightly remain in membership of the church as a result as they are not in sin because of it – can feel more fully included and better connected to the body of which they remain a part.
It allows visitors to check us out before arriving
Prior to live streaming, we used to put all of our sermons up on our website. This was helpful for visitors because they could listen to the kind of message they were likely to hear before they came to church. That was helpful so far as it goes. But it was all the more helpful for them to be able to tune in to a full service and see – not just the kind of sermon they will hear – but the entirety of a church service. They can know before they arrive what is likely to happen when they arrive. And, if they want to be absolutely sure, they can check out several services and figure out the common themes that seem to happen every week. This breaks down barriers and lessens the anxiety of a visitor who arrives at church, knowing almost everything that is likely to happen.
It has led to more visitors
Similar to the previous point, we have noticed – even during the period of restrictions – we have received a number of visitors to the church. Some of this has almost certainly been because of finding our website and checking out our service online. Like it or not, there is a try-before-you-buy element going on. For many of us, we turn up to a church and make judgements about it when we first arrive. We may not necessarily know we want to settle somewhere the first time we go, but there are some places we are pretty sure we don’t want to be at long term off the back of that. Putting our service online allows people to make some of those judgements before they arrive. This, in turn, makes it more likely that those who do come will want to stick around.
Unbelievers have tuned in to services that they probably wouldn’t have come to in person
We know of a number of unbelievers who have tuned into services. Many of these folks probably wouldn’t have come down to the church in person. They seem to like the distance of checking out what is being said without the fear of having to talk to people about it afterwards. We have to recognise the different folks, different strokes phenomenon. For every person who wants a close friendship in which to discuss matters of faith, there is another who would rather check things out from a distance without that intimacy or what they perceive to be a risk to a friendship. I strongly suspect many have tuned in to our live stream on that ground and we are, therefore, wise to keep up that opportunity whilst it remains.
It has led to conversions
We have known of about a number of unbelievers who have tuned into services because they have been available online. But we have also heard of those who have converted because of what they heard online. We know of others who have previously been churched who were caused to return to a local church, having been away for a number of years. The cases we know about haven’t led to people coming to Bethel Church (which is absolutely fine) but have led people to the Lord and into other churches. This simply wouldn’t have happened were it not for the live stream and so it makes sense for us to keep using this means through which we pray the Lord would be pleased to save some.
We have invested in it
This is probably the least compelling of all the reasons, but at the end of the day, we have invested in it. We have bought sound and lighting equipment to make sure that it worked properly. We have setup extra screens so that things can be viewed properly. Whilst it is fair to say we haven’t spent megabucks, all in probably a few hundred pounds, do we really want to wind it all down having spent money on it? I think, if there were compelling reasons in our situation to do so, we would wind it down. But given there aren’t, and in the face of the good reasons above to continue, it doesn’t seem prudent to waste that investment.
So, there are some of the reasons we will be carrying on live streaming post-restrictions. But I do think there are some good reasons to stop live streaming. Again, in no particular order, here are some things to consider:
You don’t enact church discipline
This would be the key reason to stop. At Bethel Church, if people don’t come to meet with God’s people with frequency – and there is no legitimate reasons, such as ill health, why not – then that becomes a matter for church discipline. We don’t want a church full of people who never show up, who discourage the Lord’s people and don’t take their membership seriously.
But many churches don’t do that. Many are okay with people being away, all the time, for no particular reason. If that is your church, I would encourage you to ditch your live stream. You will have zero means to stop people staying home and tuning in online. If they know that staying away is not a disciplinary matter, you can’t be surprised if many choose to do what is easier because they’ve not been given any reason to think any differently.
If you have said online meeting is legitimately fulfilling the command to meet together
At Bethel Church, we have tried to be clear that live streaming during lock down has been a mitigation of the fact that we can’t meet. Online meeting is not meeting, but having a streamed service online is better than nothing at all. Nevertheless, we have tried to be clear that watching the live stream was not participating in a meeting.
But some have argued online meeting is, in fact, meeting. They argued they were fulfilling the command to meet together by watching online. I don’t agree with that, but if it is your view, that is your prerogative. However, if you took that line, I would encourage you to stop streaming. As above, if you have said online meeting is in point of fact perfectly validly meeting, then you cannot be surprised when those who cannot be bothered to physically gather use your own reasoning to stay home and stream instead. Why bother trogging out to church if sitting at home is exactly the same and just as good?
Sure, there will be those who come back because they are lonely or because they like some of the social elements of the church. But that speaks to why people are really coming and, in such cases, it would seem it is not because of Christ and his gospel but for peripheral things that they get out of it. We cannot be surprised if those who don’t feel the need for the peripherals – but who have been told that meeting online is fulfilling the command to gather – decide that they would rather fulfil the commands of God from home in the end using the very reasoning you have given them. If you have made the argument that online is the same as physically gathering, I’d suggest you switch off your live stream.
If none of the good reasons I mentioned earlier pertain and your setup is a faff
One of the criteria we insisted upon when beginning to live stream from church is simplicity of setup. We wanted to have a steady state where there was almost no setup involved save for pressing a single button or plugging in one lead. There is enough to worry about already on a Sunday morning without adding live stream setups to the burden unnecessarily. Our setup is, therefore, exceptionally simple (put a mobile phone on a tripod, plug in one lead to connect to the USB interface and press the button to stream via our streaming app).
But perhaps your setup is more faffy than that for one reason or another. Maybe yours requires a lot more setting up and organisation than ours. And, like most churches, you may not have a dedicated team of people to sort it out. Now, you might still decide the effort is worth it because some of the reasons we are keeping our live stream hold for you too. In the faff to benefit ratio, you still think it is worth doing.
But let’s just say the benefits that I outlined largely aren’t there for you. Hardly anybody can’t physically make it out, your stats show you that you aren’t getting outsiders tuning in and the faff of setting up really isn’t serving anybody. Under those circumstances, I would be inclined to turn it off. Why bother creating extra work for yourselves that doesn’t have much in the way of real benefit?