Creating a Hybrid Worship for people on Zoom and for those worshipping live in the sanctuary

When some of the restrictions on gathering in-place were eased in New York State, our church re-opened the sanctuary for worship. Only about a third of our congregation, however, wanted to return to the sanctuary while the rest, because of health issues, regular exposure to our college student population (more prone to Covid outbreaks), or their distance from Alfred preferred to continue Zooming. I wanted the congregation to continue to feel as if we are one body during worship, regardless of whether a person was participating in the sanctuary or through Zoom and so we worked to develop a combined worship that allowed all participants to see and hear one another. Most churches call this Hybrid worship, but we call it “Fusion Worship” to suggest that it is not just a little bit of this and a little bit of that but a new experience all together.

This blog post describes our method of providing a fully participatory fusion worship at a low cost. I am posting it for others who may be searching for ideas and advice, hoping that our experiences of what works and what doesn’t work will be helpful to others.

Our Goals:

  1. Enable those who are Zooming to hear and see all participants in worship including the minister, the Lay Reader, and instrumentalists (organ, piano, other occasional music.)
  2. Enable those in the sanctuary to see and hear people who are participating through Zoom so that people accessing worship through Zoom can be Lay Readers, share prayer concerns, etc.
  3. Record the service for later posting so that those unable to join at worship time can view the service later on Youtube or Facebook.
  4. Avoid expensive equipment or need for technical expertise (Note: We already had a projector and screen.)

Basic Set Up Requirements
While our final set-up involves two laptops and several webcams, we could have met the above goals with these minimal requirements:

  1. A laptop on the pulpit running zoom. (I use my own and bring it every week.)
  2. A video output from the laptop to a projector which mirrors the laptop to a screen in the sanctuary
  3. An audio output from the laptop headphone jack to the church sound system auxiliary jack
  4. A smart phone connected to the laptop via a long usb cable
  5. An app that allows you to use your smart phone as a webcam (for example, Camo for a Mac, iVCam for Windows)

Basic Procedure (requiring only one laptop and the minister as Zoom host)

  1. The minister begins Zoom worship from the laptop on the pulpit. (You may need to experiment with placement in order to get the laptop at a height where the minister can see the screen, use the keyboard, and still be visible to the congregation over the laptop. I just stuck hymnals under mine and covered them with a nice cloth!)
  2. The Zoom participants are projected onto the screen in the sanctuary mirroring whatever is on the laptop.
  3. The smart phone (acting as a webcam) is pointed at the sanctuary so people who are zooming can see those in the pews.
  4. All Zoomers are muted unless they need to speak. When it is time for them to speak, they are unmuted by the Zoom host. Because the laptop’s external headphone jack is connected to the church sound system, Zoomers will be heard through the sanctuary speakers when they are unmuted.
  5. The minister records the service to the pulpit laptop, pausing the recording during prayer concerns or anything else that shouldn’t be publicly posted, and then posts it to Youtube and/or Facebook following the service. (This allows us to preserve the privacy of our members which is not possible when streaming live to Youtube or Facebook.)

Our Actual Set Up (requires two laptops, at least one additional webcam or smart phone mounted on a tripod, and a co-host running the second laptop)

We very quickly began to get fancier as time went on so the following is our current set-up. These additions make the service even more intimate for Zoomers and enable us to have a second person share Zoom duties so I can leave the pulpit if necessary during worship.

Video

  1. We have two laptops running Zoom. In addition to the pulpit laptop, a member of our congregation (the “Zoom Co-Host”) sits in the front row of the sanctuary with a second laptop and logs into the Zoom worship from his/her personal Zoom account. I make that person co-host before the service starts so he/she can help with running Zoom.
  2. Rather than mirroring the pulpit laptop to the projector, we mirror the Zoom Co-Host’s laptop. This way during worship, he/she is responsible for switching from Gallery view to Speaker/Spotlight view as Zoomers speak so that I don’t have to pay attention to it. (Because the Zoomers are projected onto the screen in the sanctuary, the co-host sets it to Gallery when I am away from the pulpit and I want to be able to see everyone’s faces. When a Zoomer is talking as Lay Leader or sharing a prayer concern, the co-host switches to Spotlight so the speaker is full screen. We have also begun using Spotlight more often because not all of our Zoomers have figured out how to switch their own screens from Gallery to Speaker view but with Spotlight, they don’t have to worry about it.)
  3. We have three cameras:
    — I use a webcam mounted on my laptop (This isn’t necessary but I don’t like the quality of my laptop’s built-in camera.)
    — I have a second webcam on a tripod pointed at the organist and connected to my laptop. (I started out using my iPhone with a webcam app as a second webcam but switched just so that I can leave the webcam set up after the service is over.)
    — The Zoom co-host uses his/her iPhone as a webcam on a tripod

    The Zoom co-host swivels his/her tripod during the service and points it at in-person Lay Leaders, the congregation, the pianist, or the altar as needed.

    I use my webcam when I am speaking or switch to the webcam pointed at the organist when the organist is playing (using the drop-down menu under Video in Zoom.)

    Note: To turn an iPhone into a webcam, I use the app Camo which works with a Mac and my co-host uses iVCam with a Windows laptop. There are other apps as well.

Audio

  1. All unmiked sound in the sanctuary (organ, piano, congregational sharing) comes through the pulpit laptop webcam microphone. We set Zoom to “Original Sound” and it picks up the musicians well. Your results may vary.
  2. We have a second microphone on a mike stand connected to the Zoom Co-host’s laptop. This microphone can be moved around so we use it for anyone reading from the lectern, for instrumentalists doing special music, or any time I come out from behind the pulpit (e.g. communion.)
  3. The Zoom Co-host sets this standing microphone as their primary microphone in Zoom (audio settings) and normally keeps it muted. When we need to use that standing mike, I mute the pulpit mike and the Zoom co-host unmutes the standing mike. (If both are unmuted at the same time, we get a feedback echo.)
  4. Vocal music is pre-recorded (no singing allowed in the sanctuary) and is played through my Music Player on the pulpit laptop. The external headphone jack on the laptop is connected to the aux jack in the church sound system so when I play music on my laptop, it comes out the church speakers.

    Note: I added an audio kill switch box because I couldn’t always reliably turn off my eternal headphones on my laptop and if they were on when the co-host’s mike was on, we got an echo. I could never figure out why sometimes the option to mute the headphones would be grayed out on my laptop so I finally just bought a $23 kill switch that goes between the headphone jack and the external cables. This allows me to turn on and off my external headphone jack by pushing a button.
  5. To pre-record vocal Music ensembles, we first record an accompaniment track with a loud metronome track and a count-off. We send that to the musicians, and ask them to record their vocals beginning with counting along with the count-off. We gather the resulting tracks and sync them together (using the count-off) in Garageband. (The metronome track is deleted before rendering.)

What doesn’t work

  1. Videos! While videos work well for a pre-recorded presentation, I have not been able to get them to work well during live Zoom worship. There is a lag between the audio and the video for the Zoomers. I did add an ethernet cable to hook my laptop directly into the router instead of going over wi-fi and that improved it some but I’d rather not have one more cable to worry about. Our musicians actually prefer to record audio only because they don’t have to worry about what they look like when they record.
  2. Those fancy gallery views of singers doing a choral number. Those productions are done using more expensive software and take a considerable amount of time to put together. (We tried using the Acappella app but it proved too technically difficult for some of our technically challenged singers.). Even if we were able to put something like that together, we couldn’t show it during worship because of #1 above. All together, we decided to stick with audio pieces only.

March 8, 2021

Having now been living with this set-up since October, I can say that it has, for the most part, worked well. It does require the ability to multi-task while leading worship and if your minister isn’t as geeky as I am, I’d advise having the co-host have a pulpit webcam and a webcam on a tripod, and control both from their laptop. If they have enough ports, they could also control several mikes from their laptop.

Or, of course, there are more expensive switching systems, video cams, wireless mikes etc. that you could use but, as I said we are trying to keep things inexpensive.

We also started ending each service with a virtual coffee hour. I give all Zoomers the ability to unmute themselves and assign someone in the virtual coffee hour as co-host. That way, I can shut down my laptop without ending their meeting if they want to stay and talk longer than I do.

The main feedback we have from the congregation is how important it is for Zoomers and people in the sanctuary to be able to see and hear one another. All of the fancy video work in the world isn’t as important as being able to hear and see a homebound Zoomer share a prayer concern with us.