Mother Is the Necessity of Invention – The CChurch Pilot Program

Phillip Lepak (Lake Havasu City, Arizona, USA)

Archived discussion

About the presenter

Pastor Phillip Lepak serves Our Saviour Evangelical Lutheran Church in Lake Havasu City, Arizona, and is a Trustee of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod. He has served congregations in Florida, Illinois and Indiana and as an instructor and interim department head of physics and assistant professor of religion at Bethany Lutheran College in Mankato, Minnesota.

Genesis of the Project

The COVID-19 pandemic and the measures enacted to slow its spread changed our world. For many, sitting in Starbucks sipping a latte chatting with friends is no longer an option; for others, especially those who live in care facilities, all social contact has been curtailed. For weeks on end, care facilities have kept their doors locked, their premises off limits to all but employees. The change happened very suddenly. Unprepared for these circumstances, families were and remain cut off from their loved ones, except by means of telephone and sometimes Skype or Zoom. Pastors have likewise been cut off from their charges in care facilities.

Some residents of care facilities are relatively tech savvy, but most are not. Apart from face-to-face visits, many relied on their television sets for a connection to the outside world. Now most cannot meet with anyone from the outside world face to face, and if any do manage it, they usually face two weeks of isolation within the care facility.

In a sense, "mother is the necessity of invention" in the case of the CChurch project. Imagine being able to bring the divine service to those who are isolated in care facilities and who can't use a computer. Imagine being able to bring good Law and Gospel preaching to those who are hard of hearing ─ due to the expense, they can't use the equipment with a computer but they can watch TV because they have equipment attached to it that allows them to hear. Imagine you could do this without having to spend much time making it happen.

Such were the thoughts that led to the idea of a simple, inexpensive device to connect the television screen space of an isolated resident in a care facility to a web page under the control of the local congregation. In order to use whatever assistance devices the resident might already have in place, the device connects to nearly any television set either directly or through inexpensive signal converters. A Wi-Fi network is required for the device, and almost without exception, care facilities have a Wi-Fi network for their charges. Once a device is set up for a recipient, the congregation can share its streaming broadcast, recorded sermons, podcasts, and other services with the resident by simply changing the content of the connected web page. If a congregation produces a live video stream, it can be displayed on the connected web page and is thus available for viewing on their room TVs by the care facility residents. If the congregation records YouTube videos, those can likewise be made viewable via the connected web page. In fact, any content that can be displayed in a single screen (no scrolling) using standard codecs on a web page can be used.

The Grant

In late July 2020, I developed a prototype program using an Asus Chromebit and my congregation's website. In early August, I brought the idea of a pilot program to the Marvin M. Schwan Charitable Foundation. The Foundation moved quickly, approving a generous grant to develop the administrative and technological infrastructure with a pilot program. Currently this pilot program is working with 12 congregations in the Evangelical Lutheran Synod, the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod ─ the denominational beneficiaries of the Schwan Foundation.

Project Challenges

The difficulties are generally not in the electronics. There are currently many options with similar programming requirements and many more options for developing dedicated hardware. Rather, the difficulties arise in the marshalling and administration of the information required to set up a unit for a particular recipient.

The Pilot Program

For the pilot program, I secured 35 Asus Chromebits. First I gather all the information I need to pre-program the unit: about the television set and circumstances of a recipient, the network infrastructure in the care facility, the contact information for the care facility's IT staff, etc. Then I preprogram a unit for the recipient's circumstances and send it to the care facility with careful instructions on how to install the unit on the recipient's television set. The device connects automatically to the local network and then fetches the content from the preprogrammed URL of the web page the church has dedicated for this purpose.

Essentially, CChurch's electronic component is the same technology used in digital signage, menus on screens at fast food restaurants, and similar applications. Anything that will display within the confines of a TV screen can be placed on the church's dedicated web page. The page can be made to show a Vimeo or YouTube full screen video, a Dacast live stream, static HTML, a podcast player...really, any content that does not require any sort of interactivity on the part of the viewer.

The most difficult part so far has been communicating to the recipient residents the method by which they switch their televisions away from normal TV channels to the video source that the device provides. TV remote controls vary widely. Many care facilities take care to replace all of their residents' remotes with standardized universal remotes, others do not. The IT staff in some facilities helps to teach residents the process; in others, they are simply too busy to be able to lend a hand. Addressing these variables is a focus of study in the pilot program.

The Future

Google has designated the Chromebit device obsolete and will soon no longer support the device. This will occur shortly after the pilot program has been completed at the end of October. Currently I am investigating other devices and building a hardware prototype dedicated to the task using the inexpensive Raspberry Pi 4 single board computer. The goal is to find or build a suitable, affordable computing device that can provide the same services as the Chromebit. The advantage of the custom-built device is that it can be remotely reprogrammed and include an infrared device to act as a TV remote, so that the TV source can be switched programmatically. Another of the pilot program's goals is to determine a sustainable price point for the units and services. Once the pilot program has been completed, I intend to begin ramping up production, making the new devices available for purchase, offering training, etc.

Operational Process Details of the Pilot Program

  1. Each participating congregation chooses a person to coordinate communication with the recipient care facilities' residents, the care facilities IT staffs, and the congregation's web master.
  2. The coordinator supplies the care facilities with forms to be filled out providing all the information required to preprogram the device for each recipient's circumstances.
  3. The coordinator arranges with the congregation's web master to have a private page created on the congregation's website and consults with the pastor on what sort of content he might wish to have installed on that page for the resident to view. For example, the pastor may wish to have the live stream on Sunday morning, announcement texts after the service, and Peace Devotions on the weekdays.
  4. The device is preprogrammed to connect to the dedicated page on the congregation's website, then it is tested on a network simulating that of the care facility.
  5. Instructions are crafted for the care facility IT staff that show how to install the device on the resident's current TV set, including the process for adding signal converters to match the device output to the TV set's inputs.
  6. The device is shipped directly to the care facility for installation by the care facility IT staff.
  7. The device becomes a video source on the TV. The care facility IT staff prepares the resident's remote. Often care facilities have a standardized universal remote that can be programmed to make switching to the other source a little easier. Otherwise, the staff works with residents to teach them how to switch back and forth between the TV channel line up and the video source corresponding to the device.
  8. The coordinator checks in regularly with the resident and care facility to make sure that the device is functioning properly.
  9. The care center IT staff notifies the coordinator whenever it needs to make changes to its network; the device is then reprogrammed accordingly. Likewise, should the URL of the connected web page need to be changed, reprogramming is necessary.

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Philip Wels 2020-10-20 1:53:33pm
This is a really neat idea!

It's interesting to me where the challenges lie in something like this. As you say, the challenge isn't so much the technology, but the people to manage it. (And the people to utilize it.) In theory, one person could have a full time job managing content for a handful of churches. In a way, it's a little like running at TV station. (Or several.) And if the right number of churches could pitch in to help support someone to do that work, it could be a pretty effective ministry... provided the second challenge is met.

Having all this in place is only useful if the people on the user-end are able to turn it on and use it properly. And this 100% needs to be proactive. For something like this, if people don't know how to turn it on, they might assume it stopped working. They wouldn't necessarily think/know to call and ask for help. They're more likely to tell you months later that they don't think it's working properly.

Do you see this mostly being supported by the churches offering the service or the end users subscribing? Is this something that could eventually be used by shut ins, or even "normal" congregational members? And if the back-end infrastructure is in place, would this be something that could be turned into a Roku or AppleTV app, so users wouldn't need a separate device?

I am very much interested in this project. Is there a place or way for people to follow progress or possibly get involved if interested?

Thanks again for sharing!
Phillip Lepak (CChurch) 2020-10-20 4:05:53pm
Hi, Philip!

So far, the most difficult part of the project is figuring out how to get the pastor(s), congregational coordinator, and care facility IT staff communicating and sending the needed configuration information to me.

The device is intended to connect a parishioner directly to his/her congregation through the TV set. Many people use broadcasts like Time of Grace already, but are missing the direct connection to their congregations. Also the spectrum of technology used by congregations is staggeringly wide, but just about every congregation has the capacity to maintain a web page now. Instead of shooting for a pure video solution, the web page allows any non-interactive media to be used, so if a congregation has not climbed the video learning curve yet, they can post audio, simple slideshows, pictures, etc., i.e., up to whatever their level of ability currently is.

The prototype devices are always on. Changing to the appropriate source will always bring up the web page. In the future, some sort of polling function could be incorporated to put the device into standby on the basis of a command on the web page.

Typically those in care facilities use the TV sets that they are comfortable with, and those sets often are augmented with hearing assistance devices, big button remotes, etc. Most are unable and unwilling to adopt something like a streaming platform, e.g., Roku, even when it is incorporated into the TV. The onscreen guides from cable providers are often too intricate to navigate, especially given the small font size. Even changing the video source has proved to be a serious impediment. Version 2.0 of the device will incorporate an IR transmitter and some programming to switch the source for the user. That said, it might be possible to create another device just to switch to a Roku channel and then back to "normal."

It's likely that the cost of the device will ultimately be borne by the end user, since the device is purpose built as an assistance device and will probably qualify for one government program or another. Congregations could also buy a pool of devices and move them around.The website costs are borne by the congregation. The internet connection costs are rolled into the care facility costs already. This system really has no subscription costs.

I'm glad to hear that you are interested in this project. When time permits, I'll put together a progress/involvement web page. I'll be in Mankato in early November. Perhaps we can connect then. Until then, my BLC email still works.
Paul Grubbs (Martin Luther College) 2020-11-03 3:15:25pm
Pastor Lepak,

My mother has worked in a care facility for several years and makes a concentrated effort to help accommodate clergy visits and other connections with her patients’ places of worship, so I was especially interested in your CChurch pilot program and will definitely share your conference presentation with her. This is an important effort to serve parishioners that can so easily go overlooked.

After reading your article, I had one question that will probably underline my ignorance about the technology you describe in your piece. Some of the conversation regarding your presentation focused on the critical challenge of being certain that the people on the user-end are accessing the provided resources. At this point, can the congregational coordinator measure the source location and duration of visits to the congregation’s pre-arranged private page? In other words, can the coordinator use a checklist each week to determine whether, for instance, a specific client or facility visited the page and the duration of that visit? If that option exists, I could imagine that it might help the coordinator proactively intervene when some element of the process at the care facility breaks down, but I wasn’t sure if that information was available as part of the process you described.

Thank you for the time and energy you’re devoting to helping members remain connected with their home place of worship and for sharing that option with other congregations! God’s blessings for your efforts to develop a replacement for your Chromebit device and expand your program in the future.
Phillip Lepak 2020-11-09 12:04:21am

The device is pretty one-way - from congregation to the end user. Since the device uses a television set for output and has no user input, it's not currently possible to gauge user engagement. The device acts much like a radio tuned into a radio station. The next generation of the device does the work of manipulating the TV to change to the appropriate video source. I'm not sure whether there would be any way to incorporate your idea without adding something invasive. If you have any thoughts, let me know.
Jeff Lemke (Bethany Lutheran College and MLC) 2020-11-03 10:38:01pm
Thanks for sharing your work on this, Pastor Lepak. It's very timely that this device is available and so accessible for congregations and care facilities.