Live from Tokyo: How We Started Live-Streaming Church Services in Two Days (and How You Can Too)

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Three weeks ago our Tokyo church (Grace City) moved services online. The decision was made on Friday morning, so I had about 2 days to make it happen, with zero livestreaming experience. I spent hours on forums and YouTube tutorials trying to get things figured out, and texting with others who were also scrambling. I didn’t find a video or article that clearly laid out a good bootstrap option, but with info from several sources I was able to cobble together a way to make it work. Fortunately I already had a hobby interest in video production, but still the livestreaming world was totally unfamiliar territory.

I want to tell our story of starting livestreaming with a $16 solution that is basically infinitely expandable. My hope is that, even while I’m still figuring it out, this may help others. COVID-19 seems to be suddenly throwing a lot of us into livestreaming for our church communities. If you’re trying to figure this out too, I want to assure you it’s not rocket science, but it does take some solid work and time to get things moving from zero.

For reference, Grace City is a church of maybe 150 people and meets in central Tokyo. We do not have our own building, but rent a space and setup/tear down every Sunday. The moving parts of our live services include powerpoint slides, a small worship band, and the pastor leading us through the service. Much of the work around Grace City services is done by volunteers from the congregation. We now meet in small groups around the city and livestream the service from one of the groups to the rest.

(Side note: some things will be slightly different, but the basic softwares and principles here should be the same for Mac or Windows people).

Streaming Platform: YouTube

First thing was to figure out how people would watch whatever we were putting out. I spent hours that first day downloading various streaming apps and platforms. The biggest concern for us was making the stream easy to access: we didn’t want people to need a special app to watch our stream. A secondary concern was budget, as our church is already grappling with the costs of existing and ministering in central Tokyo. Free would probably be best. Those two concerns led us to YouTube and Facebook Live. When we tested FB Live we found out that mobile devices can only watch in the FB app, so YouTube was more generally accessible. We created a gmail address and started our brand new YouTube channel.

Software: OBS

First I thought I’d try to just livestream from my phone, because phone cameras are getting so amazing now, and the best app I found for that was Streamlabs: Stream Live. It would connect to our YouTube account and enable us to livestream from the phone, for free. However, it does put a Streamlabs watermark on the video, and honestly, trying to run the whole thing from my phone got rather complicated — the menus are small, and I couldn’t tell what would happen to the stream when I needed to toggle various settings, and we just didn’t have time for a lot of real-world testing with 2 days to get it rolling. It makes sense for other applications, but not for our specific circumstances and goals in the moment.

Eventually I decided that streaming from my laptop using a free software called OBS best fit our needs and gave us a lot of expandability for the future. OBS has a ton of features way beyond what I know how to use, but was simple enough that I could get started. And there are just a ton of tutorial videos available on YouTube. The only “downside” was that instead of just using my phone, at minimum I would need a camera and a computer and wifi to stream.

Camera: iPhone

You would think — or at least I did — that it would be easy to connect any digital camera to a computer and use it as a webcam, but most camera’s don’t do that. They require a special box like this that converts the HDMI signal (or something magical). Those start at around $150 and go up infinitely from there, as far as I can tell.

I ended up finding a $16 app called OBS Camera. I plug my phone into the computer, start up OBS Camera on the phone and OBS on the laptop, and with a few clicks I can be streaming from there. We used this successfully for the first two weeks. Zooming in is a little weird, because you are just pinching on the camera screen, but other than that it worked just fine. If you want to use this solution, you need to also install NDI Tools on your computer.

Tripod:

I already had an interest in photography and video, so had a decent tripod with a phone mount.

Slides:

I mentioned we are meeting in a small group and livestreaming to other groups. We wanted the livestream service to be a slightly-altered version of our normal services prior to COVID-19. So we needed to have slides for people in the room to follow along with the songs, AND for those tuning in online. The first Sunday we did that by zooming in on a TV in the room during the songs. It wasn’t elegant, but it worked. It did make for a lot of hassle trying to adjust windows and lights to avoid bad reflections off the TV screen.

For week two I figured out how to use OBS to Display Capture a window with powerpoint open on my laptop display. That worked also, and was much better for viewers online, but it meant I had to run powerpoint for the livestream and manage OBS/camera at the same time. The more things running on my laptop the more worried I was it would run out of processing power (it’s a late 2012 Macbook pro). Also, someone else still had to run powerpoint in the room for the live gathering, so there was duplicate work happening, and that drives me crazy!

Upgrades:

A few things have changed as we go and I’m sure things will continue to evolve. So I’m glad we started out this way — it’s cheap and sustainable, and also infinitely expandable. A church member donated a nice camera, and two church members stepped in to buy two of these Blackmagic connectors that enable us to connect HDMI sources (like the camera) to the computer. We now have the powerpoint running on laptop #1 and livestreaming on laptop #2, and the slides are sourced directly from #1 into #2 via HDMI (so no more zooming in on the TV!).

Audio:

I’m sure somebody is reading this wondering why the heck I haven’t talked about audio earlier. To me, it really could be the hardest piece of the puzzle, and very unique solutions can happen depending on the vision for livestreaming and what audio gear you already have, if any.

On one hand, your camera has a microphone and captures audio. So without doing anything, you can get the basic job done. But the sound quality is usually not very good. On balance, if you already have a mixer, the simplest thing for the best audio quality is to run whatever mics you want/need into your mixer, do your mix, and then take your main outputs and run them to your camera. (You’ll probably need one of these cables, or something similar). Not all setups allow for this, and not all kinds of streaming may require it. If you’re just streaming a sermon and the pastor is pretty close to the camera, you may not need a mic or could do something simple like a Rode VideoMicro.

In our case, we wanted to have a small live band (keys, bass, cajon, vocals) in the living room, and then the pastor. It’s just a small apartment, so no need for live sound in the room. For the first two weeks I only used an SM57 on a boom stand. I didn’t have time figure out the right compression ratios to balance things out the first week, and I was figuring out how to even get the audio into OBS on the fly. This week, I’ve found that a compression ration of 7:1 or 8:1 is good for a single-mic setup. For this week I’m adding a clip-on lav mic for the pastor to cut down on room noise during the sermon. I’ve worked in audio production for a lot of my life, so I could add a lot of mics and things to improve audio quality (and eventually more complex things may happen), but I’m trying to be very conservative and sensitive to the situation at the moment. Mics clutter the screen space, increase set up time, and at some point we hit the law of diminishing returns, and what happens if I get COVD-19 (or hit by a bus) and someone else needs to run the show? So I encourage you to make gear decisions with those greater concerns in mind.

Community:

Local: I’ve been working with one other guy that meets in a different one of our small groups to create a backup system that he can run, and we had a meetup last night with about 6 of us at various churches here all trying to figure this out. That was very encouraging to me. The whole thing is asking and answering the question of, how can we best serve and encourage our community of believers?

Global: YouTube doesn’t allow livestreaming from mobile devices for accounts that have fewer than 1000 subscribers. In the haze of panic and caffeine-fueled research, I mentioned this to our team, and several folks in the Grace City community began reaching out to friends around the world. Within a week our channel went over 1k, so if push comes to shove and eventually everyone is quarantined in their own homes or something, that should be an option for us. It has been super encouraging to see a global community helping with that goal.

Going forward from here:

I’m sure I’ve found the most complicated way to do things. If you’re way ahead of me, I would love to hear some extra tips and ideas. Because I’m so new to this livestream world, I often just don’t know what is possible until I see it, and then I can usually figure out how to reverse engineer what I saw.

If you’re just starting out and you have questions, feel free to email.

Blessings, friends. The whole world is still in His hands.

Jonas is an artist and producer working with Community Arts Tokyo in Tokyo, Japan. He is married to the lovely Christina, and they have 3 kiddos.

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