The New Future of Online Worship with Zoom and PTZ Cameras

We have recently witnessed some extremely creative innovations in the world of online worship. Forced to close doors and then limit occupancy during the COVID-19 pandemic, churches made giant leaps forward with live streaming. Some started from nothing and quickly found their way online. Others did whatever they could to improve the experience so that worshippers at home would be more engaged. Now, as in many parts of the country, people begin to return to church, congregations are considering their next steps.

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Online and In-Person

The most challenging aspect many churches face right now is how to continue to engage the online audience while again having people back inside the physical space. This is where churches will need to make decisions about the new future of online worship. In the past, some congregations did not have online participants to worry about. For others, those viewing online were an afterthought. Still, others had staff or volunteers dedicated to the live stream worship community but saw them as separate groups.

Now, and in the future, things will be different. Right now, many congregations still have more people online on Sunday morning than in the worship space. That may continue for a while. Even when things return to “normal,” it is likely that the church will still have larger at-home audiences than ever before.

So, as we look at the future of online worship, how will churches engage both the in-person and online gatherings and, can they create a space where both groups can truly share engaging worship together? That is what small, medium, and large churches are already working on, and they are using Zoom and PTZ cameras to make it happen.

Many churches without equipment, software, or expertise turned to Zoom’s video conferencing software early on. While Zoom was certainly not designed to facilitate online worship, its easy setup and use for both pastors and congregation members made it easy to get started even for people not exceptionally comfortable with technology.

A Small Church

This church started out with what they had. The first week the church’s doors were closed, the pastor signed up for Zoom and sent out invitation links to a Sunday meeting via email. He sat at his dining room table in front of his laptop and addressed the congregation. He offered prayer and a sermon and then shared joys and concerns from the members on the call.

Since this concept seemed to work, the pastor listened to some feedback and made some upgrades. He added a Blue Yeti USB microphone (Link to Amazon) to improve the quality of his voice and some earbuds to reduce feedback. He also upgraded his low-quality webcam to a PTZOptics webcam for a clear 1080p image. With both the microphone and the camera, all he had to do was plug them into his laptop’s USB ports and select them as his microphone and camera in Zoom.

As it became safe for some members of the congregation to worship in the sanctuary, the church decided to invest in upgrading the system. The biggest concern was that the people at home couldn’t see the people in the sanctuary, and the people in the sanctuary couldn’t see the people at home. The church purchased a PTZOptics USB 12X USB PTZ camera. This was as easy to set up as the webcam.

The pastor just plugged it into his laptop and chose it as his camera in Zoom. So that the pastor doesn’t have to worry about camera angles, a volunteer at home can use Zoom’s far end camera control feature. From her screen, she chooses to zoom in on the pastor or pan the camera toward the congregation and zoom out. Someone also wheeled in a large display on a cart from one of the Sunday school rooms and connected it to the pastor’s laptop via HDMI so that the congregation can see the online participants.

A Medium Church

This medium-sized church is already using a PTZ camera and Zoom for weekly worship with the pastor and a couple of staff members and volunteers in the sanctuary on Sunday morning. Using Zoom, the church also streams the service to Facebook live so participants can join from the invitation link or on the web. The gathering is large enough that all the participants are muted during the service but have a chance to participate in the discussion afterward. Facebook viewers are encouraged to join the Zoom meeting or send in questions via Facebook Messenger.

Now that people are slowly beginning to return to worship, the church is ready to improve both the in-person and online experiences. First of all, they added two 12X PTZOptics NDI cameras to complete a three-camera setup. One will be set up close to the front. It will capture both closeups of the stage and shots of the congregation. The long cable run to the control point in the back is no problem since the church is using the NDI protocol over the church network. They can handle audio, video, power, and remote camera control over one ethernet cable.

The team looked at several options for switching, including a hardware switcher, Wirecast, Ecamm Live, and OBS, but settled on vMix running on a PC laptop. The cameras’ pan, title, and zoom are controlled right inside the vMix software. The sound is added to the feed through a cable from the soundboard into a USB audio interface connected to the laptop.

The stream is sent from vMix to Facebook and YouTube. But this doesn’t mean they have given up on Zoom. They use the external output option in vMix to route all of the audio and video to Zoom. This is where we get a taste of the future of online worship.

Members of the congregation who aren’t ready to return to in-person worship can still participate by reading scripture, praying, or sharing testimonies via Zoom. The audio from Zoom is sent through the church soundboard to the speakers. The video is projected on the screens in the worship space.

Large Church

This large church already had a well-produced livestream with six PTZOptics NDI cameras before the pandemic hit. They added Zoom and used the Zoom Webinar platform to add a level of interactivity that continues as people are slowly returning to in-person worship. Zoom Webinar is similar to regular Zoom, but it is designed for larger groups in that participants cannot see or hear each other. The only video and audio is from the host and panelists. In this case, the video is of the worship service. However, one of the pastors is also present to engage the online congregation using the Q&A and polling features in the webinar.

This church has also installed smaller Zoom setups in their Sunday school classrooms using PTZOptics webcams and PTZOptics USB PTZ cameras. These are connected to laptops hooked to flatscreens in each room. Using standard Zoom meetings, in-person and online participants can share a smaller group experience to study and pray together. In the new future of online worship, it won’t matter how many people are in the classroom and how many are online. They can all be together in one place.

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