A recent Gallup survey found that for the first time in eight decades, less than half of Americans belonged to a church in 2020. Paired with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, many churches have started to consider unorthodox and creative approaches to reach new audiences. One Missouri church’s ambitious approach? Virtual reality church services.
Church on the Rock is a multicultural, nondenominational church based in St. Peters, MO, just outside of St. Louis. With a rich 38-year history, Church on the Rock welcomed anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 members every week before the COVID-19 pandemic. But when COVID hit, the church went exclusively online for over three months.
While life has slowly returned to normal, the pandemic opened Church on the Rock’s eyes to the untapped potential of virtual reality church services. Always on the frontier of adopting tech, and with over 10 years of experience with traditional live streaming, the church decided to launch their first VR live stream in February 2021. They’ve since live streamed in VR each subsequent week using the Insta360 Titan camera, with their Easter service reaching over 17,000 views.
Tommy Prater, IT director at Church on the Rock, said of virtual reality’s potential in churches: “With virtual reality, we hope people are able to call Church on the Rock their home church, even if they’re not there physically.”
How virtual reality church services help churches reach new members
The idea for virtual reality church services first came to Church on the Rock from the NBA, who used VR during the pandemic to bring fans into the stands. “As a church, we're not just competing against other churches. We’re fighting for attention from television and the internet, especially for young people. The fun factor is one reason why we were attracted to virtual reality,” explained Prater.
Church on the Rock doesn’t intend for the virtual reality church services to replace face-to-face contact. But they do see it as an additional method and avenue to reach more people. “Our message never changes, but our methods to spread that message do change,” said Prater.
They’re also looking towards the future, for when virtual reality becomes more popular in a post-COVID world. “I don't think we're ever going to go back to where we were pre-COVID. It's changed things. As an organization, as a church, we want to be proactive instead of reactive and really look toward, how can we use this technology to reach more people?” said Prater.
How does it feel to attend a virtual church?
Church on the Rock says the ideal way to experience their virtual church services is through a VR headset. The streams are also available to watch on your phone or desktop computer, but VR headsets provide the most immersive experience.
“When you put the headset on, you literally feel like you’re sitting in the front row. The feedback I get is that it’s hard to explain it until you experience it. They feel like they’re actually there and their whole mindset changes. They're just wowed by the immersiveness of it,” said Prater.
Church on the Rock’s virtual church services have already reached people as far away as New Jersey and even Ireland. One of the remote visitors said of the experience, “I haven't physically been to church in that building in years. When I put the headset on, I literally felt like I was there.”
Another consideration for the church leadership was how to explain the VR camera to in-person church goers. In the beginning, Prater was worried how the audience would react and how they should position the camera. But soon it became just another part of the normal setup at the church.
“We even pitched it to the audience that they could sit near the camera and invite their family to go to church with them. You can’t talk to each other but you can still go to church together from a thousand miles away. One of the headset users even told me that she now looks for her mom in the stream every time,” said Prater.
Virtual reality church live streaming cameras and set up
To live stream in VR, Church on the Rock used the Insta360 Titan, an 11K VR live streaming camera. “The best part of the Insta360 Titan for us was the lenses and Micro Four Thirds sensors, which are significantly better for picking up details in low light environments. In our services, we’ve got lights and fog like you're at a concert. To us, quality matters, so we went with the Titan,” said Prater.
Aside from the camera, Church on the Rock actually decided to use a free streaming software, the Open Broadcaster Software (OBS). With OBS, they were able to add 2D images on top of the video and delay the Titan’s signal to match the overlaid 2D image. The 2D images provide a concert-like feel in the headset, with a five-minute pre-show on a big screen and smaller side screens to show lyrics during the service.
The VR live streaming workflow includes these main steps:
- Stream RTMP signal with Titan
- Combine 360° Titan footage with traditional 2D SDI broadcast footage and audio using Blackmagic capture card in OBS
- Convert to H.265/H.264 web stream and push to YouTube with Haivision encoder
As for audio, their audio engineers use a 19-mic solution which they mix into the production broadcast for a truly immersive experience.
When it comes to delivering the live stream, Church on the Rock also uses a free solution—YouTube. “YouTube makes streaming and viewing VR content easy. We didn't want to build an app or something custom for the headset that would have to support different devices. With YouTube, all you need to do is subscribe to our channel and you can watch it live or on demand with the press of a button,” said Prater.
Church on the Rock archives all of their streams on YouTube, and that’s actually where they’ve seen much of their success. “Our live numbers are still pretty small, but we expected that in the Midwest. VR is doing nothing but going up. We don't just look at it for what it's going to do today. We're looking at how we can be prepared and proactive for the future,” said Prater of their future plans. You can watch more of Church on the Rock’s virtual reality church services on their YouTube channel and learn more about the church on their website.
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