Video conferencing can be a great help for Bible studies, Lifegroups, and Bible school classes, especially now as we practice social isolation in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. The following free options are recommended for group leaders who want to arrange a virtual meeting. All of these tools can be used both on desktop/laptop computers (whether running Windows, Mac, Linux, or Chromebook) and mobile devices (Apple or Android). Specific steps on how to utilize each tool are beyond the scope of this introduction, as the steps vary widely based on what device you are using to access the service.
- Strengths: Stable platform, records meetings that can be watched for up to 30 days, can be used in a browser on PC, screen sharing
- Weaknesses: 50-person limit in video meetings
Skype is one of the oldest video-calling platforms, but has continuously improved their product. Microsoft recently upgraded the video chat limit to 50 users, so it is suitable for all but the largest groups. Video meetings can be recorded, and the recording stays online for up to 30 days; you can also download the recording and upload it elsewhere (like YouTube) for people who missed the meeting. Skype has introduced a new "Meet Now" feature that allows anyone to create a Skype meeting and no one--not even the host--needs a Skype account.
- Strengths: 100-person limit, screen sharing, session recording, easy to use
- Weaknesses: 40-minute limit on meetings, some security concerns
Zoom is a popular video-conferencing app, and for good reason. It is extremely easy to use and set up--even for complete novices. You only need on Zoom account (the host) in order to host up to 100 people. The downside to the free Zoom account is the 40-minute limit on meetings. NOTE: If anyone in the meeting logs in with a paid account, the meeting will be updated to unlimited time, regardless of whether the host has a paid account. Once the host schedules a meeting, a link to the meeting can be sent out and clients only need to click the link and download a small Zoom app to join. The popularity of Zoom has led to a recent rash of security problems with the app, including people hacking into meetings and sharing inappropriate images. If using Zoom, please read how to secure your Zoom meetings.
- Strengths: Long-standing, stable platform, Up to 100 members in a meeting, Record your meeting, Call-in phone number, Screen sharing
- Weaknesses: Will not run in some older browsers or on older systems, Call-in number is not toll-free & requires input of 9-digit code
Webex has been an industry-standard for video conferencing since the mid-90s. Cisco has upgraded the free Webex account to allow up to 100 participants, unlimited meeting length, and provide a (toll) phone number for people to call in to the meeting without using video chat. Webex is currently taking anywhere from a few hours to a few days to enable new free accounts, and once enabled you must activate the account within 24 hours--so pay attention to your email. Once activated, setting up a meeting is easy and you can send a link to all your participants. The invitation includes a number and 9-digit code for people who want to call in without using a video chat client. This can be useful especially for people with older computers because the Webex browser client won't run on older machines.
- Strengths: Easy to use, screen sharing
- Weaknesses: 10-person limit for video calls, requires Gmail account
For small groups (10 or fewer participants), Google Hangouts is a quick way to have a group video chat. The host needs a Google (GMail) account, but guests do not. Guests do need the Hangouts app on their phone, or go to the invite link the host sends them on their PC. Hangouts allows screen sharing, but it's more limited than Skype. The biggest problem with Hangouts is the 10-person limit for video chat. Hangouts Meeting is an upgraded version of Hangouts available to anyone who has a G-Suite (used to be Google Apps) account. If one person in your group has a G-Suite account and can host, Hangouts Meeting can accomodate up to 25 participants.
- Hangouts website
- Hangouts help
- COVID-19 Update: Users with G-Suite accounts have access to the full Hangouts Meeting product which allows up to 250 people in a meeting.
- Strengths: 300-person limit, cloud storage space, true Presentation view, recording of sessions
- Weaknesses: Clunky interface
Teams is Microsoft's entry into the remote workplace market. A business-oriented version of Teams is included in all Office365 plans, but, a free version of Teams is also available to anyone who wants to create an account. The free version includes video conferencing for up to your entire team (300 members), includes 10GB of cloud storage space to share files, and allows you to do a true presentation from a PowerPoint slideshow. You don't even need a copy of PowerPoint, as you can build the presentation using MS's web-based tools. You can send a meeting invite to anyone, but it they are not on your "team," you have to approve each person as they connect.
- Teams website
- Teams help
- COVID-19 Update: Microsoft has temporarily removed the 300-person limit for Teams and allows unlimited users in its Free plan.
Google Hangouts Meet is a professional version of Hangouts that allows up to 250 participants and phone call-ins; however, the host must have a G-Suite account (not free unless someone has a legacy Google Apps account). Facetime is allowing up to 32 people to participate in a call at once, but Facetime is Apple (Mac, iPhone, iPad) only. Facebook Messenger allows up to 50 people to video chat at once, but everyone needs to have a Facebook account. WhatsApp allows up to 16 people to be in a video chat at once, and everyone needs to have a WhatsApp account.