HomeTechThe Rise of Live Streaming Church Services in Singapore

The Rise of Live Streaming Church Services in Singapore

1. Introduction

In the last decades, besides conventional broadcasting, internet streaming has also played an important role in promoting both long-distance church participation and many church activities. This new media offers the user not only the flexibility to access service contents whenever they find most convenient but also allows almost immediate feedback to churches, often in the form of donations. Over time, many have discussed this feature because it also enhances the possibility of certain actions being done for the wrong reasons, thus weakening the spiritual journey. However, to the best of our knowledge and besides work addressing the subject in educational environments, the characteristics of these long-distance participants, as well as which kind of religious capital may favor remote participation, are still unknown. To answer these questions, we use data on live stream service monitoring, over TV and the internet, churches – from the largest Protestant institution in Singapore – in a duration model set-up.

In many countries, the fast decline of participation in church activities has become a matter of concern among church leaders. This worry is that the disappearance of the Christian religion in the social life of many societies shows symptoms of a meaningful loss. These concerns have led many churches to adopt multiple strategies, including the use of media, to advertise church values, enhance their presence, or attempt social or evangelistic actions. In fact, a considerable amount of research has been conducted to evaluate the impact of TV broadcasting on church donations and participation. However, many of the existing studies – as a recent meta-analysis shows – did not account for their possibly endogenous joint determination. This means whether churches with more appealing services are those with already many donations and participants, independently from TV broadcasting or exposure.

1.1. Background and Significance

Similar to other areas of live streaming Singapore, the development of live streaming is important and directly affects completion, latency, and the quality of service. Video encoding and transcoding components play a large part in this process. As the COVID-19 situation continues to evolve, it is thus important to understand this unique new form of live streaming and how it can be further improved. One avenue pursued is the integration of XR or extended reality functions into such a live streaming environment. By adding such features into a live virtual religious service, it might lead to better user engagement and hence a better experiential outcome. Such an experience would decisively appeal more to the digitally discerning worshippers.

The spread of COVID-19 has led to many significant changes in how we live today, and perhaps one of the more significant changes is the move to non-face-to-face human congregation, particularly in the commercial and retail sectors. After the spread of the virus in crowded church services in April 2020 in South Korea and Singapore, it has become more apparent that such religious services are high-risk settings for super-spreading infectious viruses from asymptomatic carriers. In the wake of countries adopting anti-COVID-19 measures and placing restrictions on large religious service gatherings, live streaming church services have seen increased adoption. Singapore is no exception and soon, all churches were conducting online video live streaming services. Some churches decided to just conduct hymnal and bible reading segments on a background of church premises as static pictures, while others have gone a step further to instead use pre-recorded video for streaming. Each choice made helps create a unique user experience which appeals to certain segments of its respective audience.

2. Live Streaming Technology

Live streaming refers to broadcasting real-time, live video content over the internet from an individual or a company to an audience worldwide. Essentially, live streaming is a webcast of a particular event to viewers who are unable to attend the actual event. A webcast uses streaming media technology to take a single content source and distribute it to many simultaneous viewings. Live streaming requires engagement with the viewers to be practical and effectively accomplish its intended objective. Interactivity is a central element in live streaming as it allows for two-way communication between the content source and the live broadcast audience. Live streaming involves two-way communication. Viewers may watch a live streaming event on different platforms, such as a personal computer, a mobile device like a smartphone or a tablet, and some smart TV models that may have browsers or can be connected to game consoles or other similar technical devices. The primary condition is that the viewers have an internet connection.

2.1. Platforms and Tools

Most research on streaming media technologies, regardless of the type of setting or context, typically concerns principles and practices for the development of the respective system. Research that focuses on the use of such tools from an implementation or beneficiaries’ perspective is relatively less common. In this research, we inductively identified and reviewed 30 churches that used live streaming as part of their church service. From there, we selected 15 that had the longest history of using the technology and the most frequent live streaming schedule for further investigation. Through interviews, we found that these churches have adopted and customized available off-the-shelf video streaming services to suit their preferences or special needs. In addition, they also use chat and other social networking features as tools to make the live stream experience unique for their remote worshippers.

Singapore churches across different denominations have, in recent years, begun to adopt live streaming technology. This is not just to record sermons for archival and internal viewing, but also for the real-time broadcast of church services to remote audiences. Some churches have also used it as a tool to obtain direct feedback from their online audience during the service. While existing studies have predominantly focused on live streaming in the context of education and business, a knowledge gap remains with respect to the motivations and practices behind the use of live streaming in a religious context. To address this, this paper will examine the characteristics of platform use among Singapore churches and their motivations for providing live streaming services. In addition, it will discuss the perspectives of stakeholders who are involved in realizing the live streaming of church services.

3. Benefits and Challenges

Challenges The Loss of Fear of God. Christian belief is founded on the belief that God is omnipresent and watches over all of his creation. His second coming will be a matter of terror for those who have sinned, doing away with any excuse for ignorance, lack of knowledge, or the remoteness of God. With fear of God being the key to social order and political structure, if people don’t go to church, social order collapses. The Lord’s sobering presence in our lives is replaced with cheap grace, which is a dangerous and horrible delusion. The Problem Relating to Secularism. In recent years, a functional silo has appeared in society, which has been generated by living as though God does not exist. This siloing will reinforce the belief that church life is consumed along with material goods, leisure, entertainment, and spending time with family. Secularization changes the structure of power by returning power to culture, the community, and the family. Distorted religious leading services can obstruct rather than help the moral and religious advancement of Christians in the world. Unplanned Acts of Inhumanity. To be able to attend live-streamed worship services, the individual home must have computers, servers, and network access. Many families living below the poverty line will not have these resources, due to their financial circumstances. The danger in such scenarios is that the possibility of negative reactions by dominant groups or tinged with discrimination may arise, leading to tragic and outrageous acts of inhumanity, often cloaked in everyday cultural prejudices, which are matters of considerable concern.

Benefits Cultural Hybridity. The idea of attending Mass either inside a church building or live-streaming it within the confines of a domestic space changes the cultural meaning of what Mass is and how it can be experienced. Participation of the Sick, Elders and Children. Live-streaming religious services enables those who are physically unable to attend church events to maintain contact with the religious community. The sick, the elderly, the frail, and the infirm are able to participate in corporate worship from the confines of their home. Similarly, children are able to pray with their congregation while being alone at home. Multiple worship opportunities. The live streaming of religious services offers new opportunities for people to interact with, engage in, and learn from religious traditions. The “Sunday afraid to go to church syndrome”. The paralyzing fear associated with attending church, often driven by the shadow of family conflict and discord, can be mitigated. Combining in-person and online religious practice increases overall levels of religious activity. Connect with the Traveling Conference of Global Nomads. The ability of churches to provide worship services to congregational members who are “churching” during leisure, recreational, educational, and business travels will enable the church to make these important connections across geographical distances as members are intersecting and converging into common locations around the globe. They may feel a stronger sense of inclusion, fellowship, guidance, and spiritual support.

3.1. Advantages

In modern society, both employed and unemployed individuals frequently travel to various locations. Single parents can have difficulty managing young children in public settings for long durations. Seniors who are home-bound or hospitalized lead lifestyles in which it is inconvenient to attend church to enliven themselves with spiritual messages while strengthening their religious faith. Live streaming church services can meet such demands by providing high-quality content with an on-demand and time-shifted possibility, thus enriching the lives of individuals inhibited by these situations with a sense of hope and happiness.

A primary feature of the live streaming system is mobility, allowing users to view live streams at any time and from any location with an internet connection. Live streaming of events that are happening in the present can allow those who cannot attend in person to participate in such events. This feature is particularly useful for live streaming church services. Live streaming can accommodate virtually unlimited viewers and has no geographical limitations. Furthermore, live streaming can be monetized with a pay-per-view or subscription model, creating an extra source of income for the church.

3.2. Disadvantages

Live streaming of church services also has its disadvantages. As it only hinges on the auditory modality to convey the message from the screen to the viewers, it loses a dimension in terms of non-verbal cues in communication, which often supports message verification and understanding. It is the reason why video conferencing and meeting applications include video to support the virtual communication process. In the context of live streaming, as church services are typically a visual-sound experience, even if a believer has the best listening experience, it may make it harder for them to follow the activities when they are not able to attend church services in person (e.g., unable to see/hug/interact with fellow congregants, read handouts, view live physical demonstration of rituals, see the preacher). In addition, scholars remind us that the unmediated experience of rituals for an analogously-living community is the best way to enhance synchrony which appears to increase the power and significance of the ritual and deepen emotional connectedness.

4. Case Studies

CCC, which has an extensive membership across many geographies, has as one axis of diversity two sets of congregations overwhelmingly in the Chinese dialect groups and in English. HG is the Chinese church of choice for many young Christians. It operates a well-known social outreach program, particularly to the communally deprived. At the time of our case studies, HG ran a highly successful cell group in an institution of learning. SLC harbors a highly diverse membership, even at the level of individual families, who choose to worship in different congregations that conduct separate services. A magisterial personality is seen as largely responsible for the unambiguous sense of purpose and identity that characterizes the church. SJSM stretches across many divisions of diversity: language, race, and social background. The church has four congregations, two in the language of the original location, and the other two in Tamil and Bahasa Indonesia.

Four highly distinct live streaming church services were chosen as our case studies. All of these churches cater to sizable memberships that have ethnically and linguistically diverse members. The different dimensions of diversity were the basis for our choice of these cases. In the world of public religious activities, religion and language are distinct dimensions of diversity that are often closely intertwined. Moreover, ethnic and linguistic diversity among church members is reflective of Singapore’s diverse population. The four churches are: Cornerstone Community Church (CCC), Heart of God Church (HG), Singapore Life Church (SLC), and St John’s-St Margaret’s Church (SJSM).

4.1. Notable Churches in Singapore

(5) Faith Community Baptist Church (FCBC) is another large and digitally connected church in Singapore. It has 5,000 members who attend and 45 cell groups each week and the church is bright and modern and has 3 services and school teaching aimed at all levels of society throughout the day. In early 2009, FCBC discovered the potential of the internet as a tool to fulfill the Church’s ‘Beyond Compliance’ mission by addressing the darkest of human conditions. Today, every week the church broadcasts its service through live streaming and all-inclusive DVD talk in an earlier service and a more youth-oriented message during the 5.15 P.M. live service. The YouTube channel is used for the online broadcasting of messages. The church senior pastor Lawrence Khong asserts that FCBC is able to expand its sphere of influence through digital technology by reaching out to individuals and families who are relying on embassy-level training and a community level when they are unable to travel from home.

(4) Wesley Methodist Church is the oldest Methodist Church in Singapore and it has 1,700 members who are drawn from different evangelical traditions that also include members who are not Methodist affiliated. In order to meet the “increasing number of digital natives” the church is using “the internet to bring the messages of our worship services to individuals unable to leave their homes in Singapore, as well as our servicemen and women overseas.

(3) The People’s Church was established in 1985 and has an average weekly attendance of approximately 3000 and 9 services are conducted at its premises at Petir Road. In October 2012, the church commenced streaming its meetings live and the virtual door is open to anyone, anytime and anywhere.

(2) New Creation Church has the largest congregation in Singapore with current membership in excess of 20,000. The church holds its service at The Star Performing Arts Centre which is located in Vista Exchange Green and streams it live to the world. The church was founded by Pastor Joseph Prince who wrote and preached the message that God does not keep a record of the sins of Believers. He also used a reference to a sinner engaging in sex acts with a prostitute and the negative consequences that would flow from that behavior in the posting on Facebook to goad one Believer to engage in acts of discipline.

(1) City Harvest Church (CHC) is one of the more technologically and commercially advanced Christian churches in Singapore. It has a strength of 17,000 and uses the Suntec International Convention and Exhibition Centre for its meetings. In early 2012, the church started streaming its services live with the aim of reaching out to those who are not able to attend service.

Some of the more prominent churches in Singapore include: (1) City Harvest Church (2) New Creation Church (3) The People’s Church (4) Wesley Methodist Church (5) Faith Community Baptist Church

5. Future Trends

In addition, there is a possibility that live streaming-based religious services may also foster a multi-faith community, where individuals could explore inter-faith congregations online. On the other hand, online streaming can also help facilitate inter-faith dialogues. Similarly, the efficiency of live streaming technology can also provide justice to marginalized community groups, such as victims of disaster, as well as assist churchgoers who may be disabled or could not appear in person. However, churches must keep in mind that not everyone possesses the same technological skills and resources. Alternative communication methods may thus be required to integrate church members who prefer the traditional community participation methods. Whoever is leading this live streaming team should have an open communication platform where technology haters or individuals who don’t agree with live streaming services can voice their issues. A dialogue will ensure everyone is heard and the situation is regulated.

In view of the popularity and easy access to live streaming, it is anticipated that the trend is set to continue growing, with services becoming even more sophisticated due to advances in technology. For example, augmented reality for places of worship may be explored, where an app could utilize live streaming images to create a live 3D scenario for devotees or worshippers abroad. Social integration of local communities and overseas worshippers will also be enhanced. This will lead to higher participation rates during church activities, as devotees can still be involved even though they are geographically separated. Furthermore, platforms could be created to encourage overseas devotees to make money donations to support the church financially. Thirdly, if a comment box—in the form of prayers—could be created on the church’s website, overseas devotees or those who are not able to attend the mass or specific event may post their remote location prayers via the comment area before the integrating service ends. This form of communal participation could enhance the sermons and worshipping rituals.

5.1. Potential Developments

Possible technological improvements might be made on the service too, for example, an e-knowledge card similar to YellowDog exists in the form of Zoom Webinar Q&A feature. The technology encourages users to click and engage instead of just listening. Another future development is that while currently, congregants have only to “tune in” for the service online, congregants might in the future interact with the virtual church service through virtual reality. Think about worshiping in a virtual sanctuary with an array of artificial intelligence and digital ministers to lead the service, which includes an opening prayer by a virtual assistant and worship music by holographic projection.

The rise of live streaming church services suggests potential future trends. Some churches said that even after the pandemic is over, they would continue to have live-streaming services. This might mean maintaining multiple forms of service experience. Instead of replacing the traditional church service, the live stream church service could continue to exist alongside the traditional church service, ministering to the same congregation in different ways. The “clickers” who seem like passive spectators do not just want a virtual church service but the intentional freedom that the virtual service offers. The “flags” and “interlocutors” are enriched and comforted in this form of service. Not only are people looking to be intellectually fed, but they also want to be emotionally and spiritually fed. Ministries, such as discipling and counseling, could be integrated with the live-streaming experience.

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