Since Covid closed down America’s in-person worship services in March 2020, most churches started streaming church services live on Facebook or other services. You can spend thousands of dollars on equipment and service fees, or you can spend far less. In fact, if you follow my recommendations, you can start streaming this week for far less than a thousand hundred dollars.
We’ll look at the cameras you can use cheaply. You can buy inexpensive software and use what you already likely have in your church’s sound booth to connect it all.
Streaming Church Services – The Camera
Most people start by thinking about a camera. The number one post on my site covers the 4 styles of the camera for streaming church services. Please read that post first for a comprehensive guide to choosing a camera. However, I recommend one kind for budget streaming.
Why not use your phone? Many smartphones come with a great camera. You can, but I don’t think it gives you the best option. If you can’t afford the cameras below, then use your phone. But you’ll need to buy a mic anyway, so spend a little more and get a great dedicated camera that you don’t have to worry about charging, getting intrusive notifications, and can’t zoom or pan while recording as easily.
Get a decent 1080p camcorder with a clean HDMI out signal (see image and caption above) that will run for at least as long as your worship service, plus about 20 minutes. That could mean you leave it plugged in, or the battery lasts at least that long. What does all of that mean, and which one should you buy? Let’s break it down…
1080p refers to the resolution. Some people recommend a 4K camera, but that’s too much for most churches, and it will cost too much. However, if you already have one, then use it. Just set it for 1080p. 1080p means the resolution of the camera is 1920 pixels horizontally and 1080 pixels vertically. The P stands for pixels.
Get a camcorder like everyone used to buy before cell phone cameras became so powerful. Make sure it has a 30x optical zoom. Ignore the digital zoom because it makes things look really blurry. Turn off the digital zoom. Only use optical zoom and make sure it does 30x, especially if the camera sits in the back of the auditorium. You want it in the back, so you don’t distract attendees.
Make sure the camera supports a clean HDMI signal (see above image and caption for description). If it doesn’t support a clean single, then you’ll see things like the battery indicator and the other onscreen display items you see on the small screen on the camcorder. How do you know if the camera supports a clean HDMI signal output? Look at the specs of the camera or ask the person selling it. You can also go to Amazon and ask about the camera.
The camera needs to run on battery at least 20 minutes longer than your worship service. That way, you can turn it on and test everything before the service. The best camcorders run on AC power plugged into an electric outlet instead of running them off battery power.
We don’t have room to go into more detail about camera specs. Adhering to the four things above will give you a great camera. Let me recommend a couple of cameras.
Canon VIXIA HF R800 Camcorder
The Canon VIXIA HF R800 will stream your church service, fulfilling the four requirements above. It supports 1080p and has a clean HDMI signal that would show the distracting icons on the built-in display to your viewers.
The camera supports 32x optical zoom for streaming church services live. Ignore the 57x digital zoom because when you zoom in that far, two things happen. Video quality degrades, and your camera operator will struggle to keep the image stable.
Finally, the camera operator can plug it in a while streaming church services live. The camera will run for about one hour and forty minutes on battery life.
Take a look at the Panasonic HC-V180K for a slightly less expensive camera ($229.99 at B&H Photo). It supports a clean 1080p HDMI signal with a nice 50x optical zoom. Again, ignore the 90x “intelligent zoom,” which is a misnomer because you’d be stupid to use it.
Consider looking for each of these cameras used. You can often find a camera that is in good condition for less than the retail value.
Streaming Church Services – Software
The cheapest place to stream also invites the largest audience. That’s Facebook.
I’ve tried dedicated streaming services like Dacast and going live to YouTube before settling on Facebook. Google now requires 1,000 subscribers on a channel before they can stream live to their service using the YouTube user interface. Churches can also subscribe to expensive services that put your live stream on your website, or there’s for anywhere from hundreds of dollars a year to thousands.
Facebook lets churches stream for free, and they don’t need a minimum number of subscribers or followers. Whether you like Facebook or like the way they’ve limited or allowed certain kinds of accounts and content, it’s the cheapest available. That’s what my church uses.
You can add some cool features like lower thirds, text written at the bottom of the video to show what’s on your stream. Use it to put the names of people leading worship or the title of the pastor’s sermon. To get that you’ll need some software.
Take a look at three options below:
OBS Studio – a free, powerful, open-source program that lets you stream live to Facebook and more. It’s complex, but with some time and effort to learn the program, OBS Studio gives users the most powerful solution for no cost to their church.
Ecamm Live – a great piece of software that makes streaming to Facebook easy, but it’s at least a $16/month subscription.
Restream – a program like Ecamm but offers a free version. I’ve not used it, but a lot of people prefer it.
Dacast – a more costly program like Ecamm and Restream. It’s more of a service, which offers streaming that you can embed on your church’s website.
Of the two above options, I’d recommend OBS Studio if you don’t want to use the Facebook page streaming interface. I only mentioned Ecamm Live because I use it at my church. We’re grandfathered into the pre-subscription model. You can’t get that now, but the software is easy to use. They charge either $16 or $32 per month to use it. They offer a 14-day trial.
Restream is another program that streams videos for you. It’s slightly more expensive than Ecamm at the high end. It starts at $16 per month for the subscription version with some of the bells and whistles. The higher tier sells for $41 per month.
OBS Studio is more powerful but more complicated and also free. Ecamm is the easiest tool for churches without someone who can figure out OBS, but it’s also expensive due to a monthly subscription. You could say the same for Restream and Dacast.
Other streaming software exists, but it’s usually more expensive. If your church already subscribes to software for worship presentation, it might also include streaming features. Proclaim from Faithlife has an option for streaming and Podcasting.
Streaming Church Services – Computer
We put this hardware item last because it’s honestly the least important. My church uses a 2014 Mac mini. I upgraded the internal hard drive with a 500GB SSD, and it runs fine. I paid $200 for the computer used and less than $75 for the SSD.
You can also get a recent model Windows computer. Desktops usually cost less than laptops. If you can run Windows 10, you can likely stream from it. Streaming doesn’t require a high-end computer. Some people bring their own laptops to church and use them.
If you can afford a brand new system, I’d recommend the new M1-based Mac mini, which costs $800 for a basic version. It’s not a “cheap” solution, but it will last a long time in most cases and can handle all that we’ve talked about for streaming. It’s still not incredibly expensive, like a $2000 multimedia PC or MacBook Pro.
Connecting the Camera, Computer, Software, and Sound
Our church sanctuary has a balcony with our soundboard, computer, and camera in the center front of it. We can easily connect our camera, computer, and soundboard because they’re within 6 feet of each other. If those three things sit further apart, it will potentially get harder to connect them. If you’re set up like we are, then you can follow the first example below.
We put our camera on a sturdy tripod and plug it into a power outlet so that we don’t have to worry about the battery running out. We use a mini-HDMI to full-sized HDMI cable coming out of the camera. It plugs into a box made by Blackmagicdesign ($160). It has an HDMI input on one side and a USB-C port on the other. Plug that into your computer.
The computer will “see” this input as a camera, and Facebook or other streaming software will let the operator choose it as the video source.
Connecting Soundboard to Computer
Don’t use the sound from the camera for streaming church services live. You probably have a professional sound system with mics meant for soloists and speaking. Use it instead. Connect the soundboard to the computer’s sound input using whatever kind of cable you have for sound output.
Our soundboard has a stereo output port with reliable white and red jacks, also called RCA jacks. On the other end of the cable, there’s a 3.5mm stereo connector. That goes into the computer using the kind of cable you see below.
You will need this adapter if you have a Mac with a 3.5mm sound jack input. The Mac expects a cable with 3 signals coming in from something like the white Apple earbuds. Your white Apple earbuds or other earbuds or headphones with a mic have three signals going into the computer. One handles the voice coming from the mic in the earbuds or headphones. The other two are the right and left coming from the computer into the headphones. It would help if you had an adapter to change the stereo signal from the soundboard into something the computer jack can handle. For a complete explanation of TRS and TRRS connectors, watch the video below.
Windows PC users may also need the above kind of cable. They might not. There are too many different kinds of Windows PCs to explain how each of them works.
If your church soundboard doesn’t have RCA outputs, you may need to use a quarter-inch to 3.5mm TRRS cable. The above video explained that thes “TS Cables” are quarter-inch connectors. But they work the same way. You can find them on Amazon for $10-$20 like this one. Some people will need an XLR cable that converts to 3.5mm TRRS. You can get either a male or female version.
A Better Sound Interface – USB
While the above cables will most likely work, a more expensive solution definitely will work. Get a good USB audio capture device. These devices connect to the computer using USB. Plug your audio cable from the soundboard into the device. It converts it to a digital version that the computer receives over USB.
An expensive high-end version comes from Zoom. The Podtrack P4 works great. I use it for my Wednesday night live streams at church. However, it costs $200 and has more than you need.
If you need a budget option that costs less that $50, take a look at a USB capture device like the Foxnova Game Capture Card. I have to admit, I’ve not used this one. However, it supports capturing both the HDMI and audio signal so you could potentially ditch the Blackmagjicdesign UltraStudio 3G we looked at above. Take a look at the video below to see an unboxing video.
To Sum It All Up
Let’s sum it all up. To start, grab one of the cameras above or see if someone owns a camcorder in your church. They may donate it. Make sure it supports 1080P, clean HDMI output has at least 30x optical zoom. That should cost between $220-$350.
Grab the Blackmagicdesign UltraStudio 3G or the Foxnova Game Capture Card for $50-$160, depending on which one you choose. I’d start with the Foxnova card. It’s cheaper. If it doesn’t work, return it to Amazon and get the Blackmagicdesign.
Connect the camera to the box with the right mini HDMI cable. Connect the soundboard with the right kind of cable. These should cost less than $50 depending on what you buy.
If you don’t already have a computer, try and find a used Mac mini ($200-$400) or get the latest M1 Mac mini ($700).
The software should be free unless you buy something like Ecamm Live.
All of the above hardware adds up to $550 to $1260. That’s far less than most churches probably paid for their equipment, cables, and software.
Dr. Kevin Purcell is pastor of High Peak Baptist Church, an author and writer at Church Tech Today (www.churchtechtoday.com). He used to write for a number of other Christian and secular technology and mobile tech sites. Now he's one of the hosts of the Theotek Podcast, which you can find by checking the menu above or over at www.facebook.com/theotekpodcast.