To Zoom or Not To Zoom

None of these solutions are perfect, but we aren’t in a perfect situation and we shouldn’t be trying to recreate a “normal” church service anyway.

This is the second post in my short series about online church gatherings. In this one, I’d like to back away from the difficult questions raised in my previous post to consider some of the advantages and disadvantages of different technological approaches.

Broadly speaking, there are two different ways of running an online church service; hosting the service as a live online conference using Zoom (or similar) or broadcasting the service using a streaming service such as YouTube or Facebook Live. Though it is possible to combine the two, by streaming an online conference but that is a complication that need not concern us in this post.

I’ve been using Zoom for work for a number of years now, and it is a fairly stable piece of software which doesn’t seem to require as much bandwidth as some other videoconferencing alternatives. The key to understanding Zoom is the word “conference”. It is designed to allow groups of people to interact, all contributing to the discussion. Although I have heard of Zoom conferences involving hundreds, even thousands of people, it is at its best when used by smaller groups where everyone can contribute. As such, it is ideal for church small groups and Bible studies. Zoom is essentially interactive.

In situations where interaction is not called for and where the input is controlled by someone “at the front”, a streaming service such as YouTube may be more appropriate. This can work for sermons or church music, but it certainly wouldn’t work for a group Bible study!

There are technological advantages and disadvantages to both approaches. Zoom makes it relatively simple for the service leader to invite other people to participate in the service; to read, pray or what-have-you. This all happens in “real-time” and allows for a degree of spontaneity, though it also means that there is some inevitable “hang on, while I unmute you” type interruptions to the flow.

Streaming can be done two ways; either live or using a pre-recorded video. Live streaming has the advantage of a degree of spontaneity, but it it makes it very difficult to provide any variety. It is technologically possible to cut from leading the service in their own home, to someone else across town who will pray, but it isn’t easy. Using pre-recorded video makes it possible to edit in contributions from other people and to produce a polished presentation which includes a variety of contributors and clever graphics. I anticipate a flood of service-outtake videos when this is all over!

None of these solutions are perfect, but we aren’t in a perfect situation and we shouldn’t be trying to recreate a “normal” church service anyway.

Alongside, the technical issues, there is also the question of which format is better for the person taking part in the “service” at home. To some extent, these are issues of personal preference, though I would argue that the more the “participants” are allowed and encouraged to actively participate, rather than be passive consumers, then the better the experience will be.

One way of encouraging participation that I have found helpful, is to encourage the use of the chat feature in Zoom or commenting on YouTube. I realise that some church leaders might baulk at this – you wouldn’t encourage people to pass notes around during a church service! However, this is not a church service and the aim is to engage people in the process, and active participation can help in this.

Personally, my preference is for a pre-recorded video, though like many Brits, I react negatively to something that is too slick and professional. I’m not particularly keen on Zoom for larger church gatherings, although I fully appreciate the technical advantages that I mentioned earlier. Personally, I find that the necessity of sharing a screen for song lyrics means that any advantages gained by seeing other people are lost. I also find the “they are there, but not really there” aspect Zoom services rather difficult. However, these are personal preferences and others will, no doubt, really enjoy the things that I struggle with.

Edit: on reading this blog post, a friend sent me a link to an excellent article on some of the issues regarding video conferencing. It is well worth a few minutes of your time.

Meanwhile, for children of the seventies; this is what Zoom meant to us (either that, or ice-lollies).