The concept of community has changed in light of the age of the Internet. While Unity Minneapolis is a physical place for people to gather, we can reach beyond our sanctuary walls so our presence can be felt anywhere in the world. Technology is a powerful tool, and we at Unity Minneapolis, Minn., are using it in line with our vision to celebrate a world transformed by love, peace and compassion.
There are the obvious benefits to Unity Minneapolis’ livestreaming service; we can literally be in thousands of places at one time. When people can’t be physically seated in our pews on Sunday morning, we can go to them—all they have to do is connect to our livestream on our website (or Facebook Live, which we just started doing this past February).
Snowbirds, vacationers, those who are working, and people in nursing facilities or sick at home can always connect to Unity and participate. No one has to “miss church” on Sundays. As part of our livestreaming, we have a dedicated ASL (American Sign Language) camera, allowing us to communicate with people who are not able to physically hear us, too. We are an inclusive community, so we must accommodate everyone as best we can.
Of course, there are challenges when it comes to technology. With a dedicated on-site technology staff, we are prepared to solve any technical problem quickly. We’ve been fortunate to find people who can share their expertise so we can spread Unity’s message. The biggest learning curve has been in the way I and the other ministers have to adapt our consciousness on the platform. When our congregation is not in sight, we have to find unique ways to connect to them.
The livestreamers are Unity Minneapolis’ largest congregation, and I want to make sure they know they, too, are part of our community. We acknowledge their presence as we welcome our guests and invite them to make a gift during the offering. With our livestreaming audience in mind, the camera team is always giving us feedback on the best places in which to stand.
Virtual Presence and Participation
Unity Minneapolis is a spiritual home to those who are looking for a deeper relationship with Spirit, and many make lifelong friends here. Two things we have to ask ourselves are: How do you make a streaming audience feel like part of the community? How can we encourage them to take ownership of the community? With those questions in mind, we have realized that we need to have more of a virtual presence beyond our livestream. Our website must be a welcoming, friendly place; it has to be easy to navigate with information that is engaging and encourages participation in our classes and workshops.
At our Sunday morning services, we welcome new guests with a rose and a welcome packet and are developing a virtual welcome packet for those who are watching our livestream for the first or second time. We also provide a bulletin online each Sunday for our livestreamers, and as well as the words to our Core Values, Mission & Vision, Offering Blessing and Prayer for Protection.
Still, we are always looking for innovative ways to make our virtual guests feel welcome. As we move further into the digital age, we have to think about how we’re engaging our digital community. I realize that, as senior minister, I don’t necessarily have to know the answer, but I surround myself with people who do. I am blessed to have a board of trustees that supports technology as one of our key strategies.
Since we started livestreaming in February 2013, we have never stopped making it better. We started with one camera and now have three cameras, as well as a dedicated team of staff and volunteers. Our quality has improved, including platform lighting and sound, and our viewership has grown (rather than attendance, we now refer to our reach). We had nearly 9,000 viewers in 2013. In 2016 we had over 16,000 viewers, which equates to more than 300 viewers per week—larger than any of our 8:15, 9:45 or 11:30 a.m. services.
We hear feedback from our livestreamers, encouraging us that they are engaged: “Wasn’t able to make it to church this morning. I watched online for the first time live. Thank you, thank you for making livestreaming available. I have watched past feeds after the fact and enjoyed those, but there is something so meaningful watching and knowing my fellow congregants are present with me in spirit. Love and blessings to all who made this service so special for me.”
On top of the testimonies we receive, we also see their engagement in their giving. And even though dollar-wise it does not come close to matching the sanctuary giving, or the consistent giving program, it continues to grow. Our percentage income from our online giving page increased 639.11% from 2013 to 2016, and the increase between 2015 and 2016 was 121.2%.
So, is livestreaming necessary? Yes, very much so. Not only does it help us fulfill our mission to be a vibrant, inclusive and prosperous community, but it also means we’re growing with the times. The way we experience the world is different today, and “community” doesn’t have to be in person anymore. Livestreaming allows us to inspire people, wherever they are on their spiritual journey, and wherever they are in the world.