Comparing Zoom and Altar Live

Andrew Mahon

December 11, 2020

Where would we be without Zoom? Without a doubt, Zoom has made many things easier during an otherwise long and difficult season. Especially, perhaps, for churches.

As good as Zoom has been, it is obvious to any churchgoer that it was designed for business meetings, not worship. Once a Zoom church gathering goes beyond 30 or so attendees, the design issues start to become apparent. 

At Altar Live, we have worked alongside churches who have used Zoom to conduct their church services, and who have used it to complement their livestream broadcast on Facebook or YouTube. These collaborations have identified the gaps and rough edges of Zoom for church, and helped Altar Live produce something purpose-built for faith communities. 

Almost every church is trying to balance the quality of delivering a church service to everyone typical of a livestream, while also including the intimacy of face-to-face interaction. 

Here are the top issues we have heard, and how we have designed Altar to overcome them. Church leaders, tech teams and churchgoers alike will readily recognize some or all of these before-during-and-after behaviors of church online from personal experience. 

#1. Mute! 

Who knew that ‘mute’ and ‘unmute’ would become part of our daily vocabulary in 2020? 

 
Zoom

Poor mute hygiene

 
Altar Live

No need to mute

 No matter how many times you say it, and no matter how vigilant most of us are, someone always seems to have accidentally left their microphone turned on. (Are they doing it on purpose?!) They are unaware that their own voice and background noise is audible until someone speaks up or messages them.   In Altar Live, the church service is livestreamed, and there is no way for a single individual’s voice or background noise to interrupt the sound or video for everyone else.


#2. One-to-one prayer

Does your church have a designated person who is available for private prayer after the service? 

 
Zoom

Awkward

 
Altar Live

Organic

 Not everyone is prepared to announce in front of everyone that he or she would like to meet with that person. They need to find each other in chat, and then coordinate how to leave the Zoom meeting and start their own session. It’s an awkward start to an intimate connection.  In Altar Live, the designated prayer person simply grabs a table and makes him/herself available. Anyone seeking a prayer partner can join the table without prior coordination, and the two (or more) can meet together in private. 


#3. Passing of the peace

 
Zoom

Holy Chaos

 
Altar Live

Musical Chairs

 Some churches enjoy a time of “holy chaos” on Zoom when everyone unmutes and offers an audible sign of peace to everyone present, and maybe try to sneak in a greeting to a specific person. Some people use the text-based chat instead for a direct personal exchange (though sometimes the recipient does not see it right away).  In Altar Live, churchgoers are gathered together in a row, where they are visible and audible to each other. During the passing of the peace, they offer each other a direct face-to-face and spoken gesture. Attendees can also ‘get up’ and move to other rows in a ‘musical chairs’ fashion to greet and pass the peace with others in the gathering.


#4. Bringing newcomers

One of the unexpected blessings during Covid restrictions is the ease with which unchurched family, friends and neighbors are open to considering attending church. They might “enter” a church online, even though they would never have entered the church building itself.

 
Zoom

Daunting

 
Altar Live

Safe

 Even so, joining a throng of dozens of strangers in a videoconference can still be daunting.  In Altar Live, a churchgoer can invite a guest directly into a small group seated together in a row -- just the two of them, or including several others. The guest is not visible to the entire congregation, and can express themselves freely, ask questions, or just sit quietly with their host.


#5. Welcoming newcomers

And then there are the guests who found your church online on their own, and would like to check out your service.

 
Zoom

Hard to be anonymous

 
Altar Live

Anonymous visitors welcome

 That’s possible in Zoom, and there are mechanisms to safeguard the church gathering from bad actors. However, there is no easy way for the newcomer to semi-anonymously figure out who to talk with to ask questions, learn more about what goes on, and how to get more involved. Asking new guests to speak up before the entire congregation to announce “I’m new!” is not the warmest of welcomes.  In Altar Live, a guest can arrive and simply watch “from the back row” without announcing themselves. They remain anonymous until they choose to declare themselves or enter more fully into a Watch Party or a social table in the lobby.
People who have been assigned as Greeters can see the anonymous guests, can welcome them to the church, and let them know they are there in case the guest would like to be introduced to anyone, would like some help finding a row or a table, or just ask some basic questions. The guest can ignore or respond to the Greeter.
In addition, in Altar Live, your church assigns a table for welcoming newcomers, and instructs anyone who has wandered in and participated anonymously to connect with the Welcome team at that table.


#6. Mingling during coffee hour

Churches who livestream the service on Facebook or YouTube almost always include an invitation to “Come join us for fellowship on Zoom!” Yet, the drop off rate from “watching” church to gathering for fellowship is discouraging. The cognitive and social speed bump of switching modes from Facebook to Zoom just leads many people to the exit door, not to the online fellowship hall or church basement. 

Even for those who make the transition, the experience has shortcomings.

 
Zoom

Dominated by extraverts

 
Altar Live

A table to ourselves

 In a Zoom church, when the formal portion of the service is over, people remain in the meeting and have a cup of coffee together in an unstructured time of fellowship. It’s great! Of course, for most groups, that means there are a handful of gregarious people who speak up a lot, while there are others (the introverts among us will know this right away!) who would prefer to simply break off and have a chat with just one or two people, away from the throng.  In Altar Live, the process happens organically and seamlessly. All attendees are moved to a “social lobby” where they can see a set of tables with empty seats. Instead of eavesdropping on the talkative ones having a conversation in front of everybody, people pair off in two’s and three’s and four’s at a table, where they can talk face-to-face in a quiet, comfortable setting. At any time, a person can leave the table and join another one as they mingle.


#7. Early birds

Back in the ol’ days when we all gathered in person, some people showed up 10-20 minutes before the beginning of service (God love ‘em!). In the online world, these early birds still arrive ahead of time. 

 
Zoom

Waiting room purgatory

 
Altar Live

Waiting room lobby

 On Zoom, sometimes they arrive too early, and they are asked (required) to sit in a waiting room for the event to begin. The waiting room is an unadorned screen, a glimpse of purgatory, neither quite in nor out. They are in an inert state where a blank screen tells them someone will let them in, eventually.  In Altar Live, you set up the event space to be open well before the church service itself begins. Play music, and show slides with announcements, prayers, calendar events, updates.  While there, early birds can use text-chat to talk with the greeter and with other early arrivals. They can even join a row with someone, and meet face-to-face while they wait for the formal service to begin.


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