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The New Tech Evangelists

There’s a holy side to Facebook Live

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

Lately, Tommy Alderman, a 53-year-old farmer in Mississippi, has been trying something new at Church of the Way Brookhaven. Every Sunday, he brings his MacBook, sits in the front pew, points his Logitech HD webcam at the altar, logs on to Facebook, and streams video of his pastor’s sermon on Facebook Live.

Alderman says he knows “just enough about technology to get in trouble,” which has led him to experiment with recording and streaming his church’s service over the past year. Before Facebook Live, he used a recording software named Bambuser to load the videos onto the church’s Facebook page. Once Facebook Live was available on mobile, he tried to film the service with his camera phone, but the preacher would move too quickly. Then, when it finally debuted on desktop, he managed to connect the tool to an open-source streaming software, allowing him to switch between shots of his pastor and a screen that displays the Bible verses he’s reading from. Still, the audiovisual quality wasn’t as good as Alderman wanted it to be. After the switch, he decided to work on polishing the experience: The music was so loud that it came through his laptop speakers distorted, more heavy metal concert than harmonic church service. (Alderman’s wife, Patti, helped confirm this by sneaking outside and watching the feed on her phone.) To fix this, Alderman plugged the audio directly into the laptop, but forgot to mute its external microphone, so you can hear him clicking along on the trackpad and muffling the input as he shifts in his seat.

Despite the technical difficulties, his fellow churchgoers have appreciated his efforts. Together, the two hour-long services he’s livestreamed have been viewed a total of 123 times — an impressive amount considering his church is made up of about 100 people. Members who sometimes have to work on Sundays have thanked him for his efforts. One parishoner, Brad, often offers his opinion on how to improve the sound.

“It’s a work in progress,” said Alderman, who that morning had used Facebook Live to discuss the passing of a beloved pig. “Obviously we would like the viewership to grow, and we think it probably will. The algorithm loves Live.”

What Alderman means is that since it was rolled out to all users in April, Facebook has doubled down on promoting Facebook Live, which allows anyone to live-broadcast themselves from their phone or laptop. The company has paid both celebrities and media companies to regularly contribute to the medium, tweaked its all-powerful algorithm to surface Live content at the top of everyone’s feeds, and even created a new, annoying notification that alerts you anytime someone you follow starts streaming. But when it comes to contributions from Facebook’s other 1.65 billion monthly active users, the medium is a mystery bag of genres. It has been used to (accidentally) broadcast the birth of a child as well as the terrible shooting of a family. It has made minor celebrities of tattoo artists and 650-pound pigs. And, of course, it figured prominently in the spasm of violence that swept across the country last week.

And if you click around Facebook’s map of livestreams, you will notice a theme: Among the bored teens and driver’s seat narratives, there are tons of religious services to watch. Houses of worship are hoping to capitalize on Facebook Live as a way of widening their communities and reaching a younger crowd.

Though the concept of livestreaming sermons is by no means novel — hundreds of religious institutions across the continent offer some form of online spiritual guidance — Facebook Live offers accessibility to houses of worship that once found the technology too cumbersome or expensive. In some cases, according to Jason Caston, founder of a church-centric digital consulting company called the iChurch Method, groups using YouTube to upload videos have run into copyright-infringement issues because of the music they play. Other times, streaming for long periods of time required expensive software. But with Facebook Live, he says, many churches are finally convinced that the process is convenient enough to experiment with.

“Facebook Live has given a lot of churches the ability to stream live without having to feel like there’s a huge investment into it,” Caston told me. “It lowered the barrier of entry. Now they’re like, ‘OK we got this Facebook Live experience; how do we make it better?’ And that’s when they would reach out to someone like me and my team.”

Caston first began doing digital work for churches in 2007, when he got a job as a “web guy” at a megachurch in Los Angeles. As he helped the organization expand its presence online, he began to realize that older church leaders were resistant to going digital in fear it would dilute their theology. As a result, religious institutions were woefully behind in building social media presences, making their websites easy to use, or even collecting donations online. Eventually Caston wrote a series of books on the topic and parlayed his advice into a consulting business that includes conferences on how to digitize churches, becoming the truest form of a tech evangelist.

Caston’s attempt to digitize church has been met with trepidation. Church leaders worry that services like livestreaming will act only as a replacement, encouraging members to stay home and remove themselves rather than interact with the community. In his efforts to explain the benefits of giving people online access to services, he has often found himself citing Bible passages.

“If we look at church examples, specifically, they talk about Moses, and the stone tablets, and him coming down the mountain, and old church Bible books that were written on scrolls,” he said. “I let them know, ‘Hey, nobody’s using stone tablets or scrolls anymore. Now we’re using, you know, iPad tablets and we have mobile devices. That’s the method. It’s still the same message, we’re just delivering it using a different method.’”

Still, even people like Pearry Teo, the creative director of an upcoming app that will offer a virtual-reality experience of the Bible, finds contradictions within the concept of livestreaming sermons. Rather than focus on something that could potentially replace a person’s church experience, he has consulted with many pastors to ensure his app functions only as a complement to the experience.

“The sermons that stream on Facebook Live, to me, are a contradiction,” he told me. “The church experience is a community experience. You take away that community experience when you’re streaming it. You’re not there with them.”

But for those pastors who are now warming up to the idea, Caston is already offering advice on how to take the sermon livestream to the next level. For instance, churches should consider bonus footage. For example, a pastor could film a behind-the-scenes moment with his smartphone before he steps in front of his congregation, or pay a visit to members of the choir.

Ultimately, he says the secret to digitizing religion is simple: Restraint is paramount.

“It shouldn’t be too intimate, like if somebody’s laid out at the altar, you don’t want to put the phone in their face in that particular moment,” he said. “More like watching the church go out and do stuff. If somebody has a phone and, you know, [turns on] Facebook Live and says, ‘Hey we’re live out here at the food bank feeding this community,’ that gives me a front-row seat, no matter where I’m at, to see real-time people being helped by this organization.”

An earlier version of this piece misidentified Tommy Alderman’s church. It is Church of the Way Brookhaven, not Broadview.