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Church Media Roundtable

HOW installation veterans discuss key challenges and issues.

Church Media Roundtable

Jan 1, 2007 12:02 PM,
By Dan Daley

HOW installation veterans discuss key challenges and issues.

 Web-expanded version



A discussion with experts in worship installation reveals the ways in which many modern churches interact with technology, including the use of broadcast-quality video and big-budget audio systems.

The worship market has been fertile ground for media technology in the last decade. As church sizes increase, AV media tools are critical to reaching not only the back of the room, but beyond the walls. In this article, representatives from four AV installation companies with extensive experience addressing this market discuss key issues impacting AV design and installation in the houses of worship market.

The four industry professionals participating with Sound & Video Contractor in the discussion are Thomas “T” Brockenbrough, Jr., special projects manager at Custom Audio & Lighting in Abbeville, S.C.; Chip Allen, commercial sales and design consultant at ICB Audio & Video in Cincinnati; John Westra, owner of Audio Design Associates in Madison, Wis.; and Gary Zandstra, director of sales and marketing at Parkway Electric in Holland, Mich. See the expanded story at for their take on additional issues, including connectivity and the budgeting process.

What are the major trends in house of worship installations these days? What’s changed, why, and how?

Chip Allen: These days, churches are looking for new ways to communicate their message. Most have embraced visual aids to supplement the aural experience, be it PowerPoint to support the sermon or broadcast-quality video to reinforce the visual image of the pulpit or choir. A major reason for this is because of the constant [churn] in church membership and participation. Many are looking for the familiar methods of communication experienced in the workplace. Also, the style of the pastor or minister has gravitated more toward an information-based teaching style, instead of the more traditional style of preaching, which can lend itself more toward the performance side of things.

Tom Brockenbrough: On our most recent project, the church’s services feature contemporary Christian music in a state-of-the-art 2,500-seat auditorium. Because of this, the sound reinforcement system was designed around the music format. It features 18 dV-DOSC elements, six dV-Subs, four SB218s, and about 10 MTD series fills. The consoles are Digidesign Venues and the portable monitor system is completely in-ear. They use eight stereo ear mixes, two bass-shaker mixes, and no loudspeakers on stage. These are rock-and-roll systems first, and spoken-word systems secondly.

John Westra: The largest trend is the blurring of denominational lines with respect to music programs. As a result, even traditional churches, to accommodate contemporary music programs, are purchasing larger mixers, subwoofers, more monitors, and so on.

Gary Zandstra: What has changed has been the proliferation of multimedia and performance-based lighting systems. This has been coupled with an increased focus on integrating technology that goes into the design and planning of a worship space.

Has the publicity given to churches like Lakewood in Houston and others compelled smaller and mid-size churches to become more competitive by enhancing their media technology?

Allen: Yes and no. In our experiences, the influence of the megachurches has sparked a lot of the newer technology being used during services, but not so much in a competitive manner. A lot of times, it’s just the plain old, “Wow, that was an amazing service! How can I get that into my church?” What ends up happening is that some of the smaller and mid-size churches want to offer that sort of experience, but don’t realize the costs and/or the manpower needed to properly staff such an operation.

Brockenbrough: Absolutely! But that presumes all churches wish or aspire to be megachurches. There is a more valid justification within these organizations that these ministries need such technological tools to be effective in their mission. In the age of technology, those churches that have chosen to embrace these changes have found their congregations embracing them. This has only been proven by the megachurch trend.

Zandstra: Yes, megachurches like Lakewood, Willow Creek [in Chicago], Saddleback [in Lake Forest, Calif.], and others have clearly impacted the church community, not only in the technology, but also in programming. In reality, it’s the programming that drives the technology. In the late 1980s and early ’90s, when Willow Creek began interjecting [technology] into its worship services, things began to change. That change continues today, but it’s still driven by philosophy and programming. If Willow had decided to add the concert sound system and the contemporary music without the purpose of reaching “unchurched Harry,” I do not think we would have seen the sweeping changes in worship that we have witnessed over the last 25-plus years. Yes, the smaller and mid-size churches have been driven to enhance their technology, because they have adopted the programming style of the megachurch.

How can you best create sound systems that can handle both entertainment and speech intelligibility applications? Does this require implicit compromise?

Allen: It’s very important to get an understanding of the style of service or services that are occurring now and possibly in the future. Some churches do not require full-range sound based on tradition or the design of the structure or both. If a church doesn’t think it needs such things as subwoofers, it’s still a good idea to provide a way to incorporate them in the future. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen churches change their mind after the fact.

Brockenbrough: In the line array age, this is no longer such a challenging situation. The pattern control and dynamics of line arrays make them perfect for dual-purpose systems. The incredible signal processing capabilities and recall on digital consoles make changing gears seamless. We are currently running Countryman [Associates’] headsets downstage of the line source array for the pastor and speakers, and have not had a single problem getting signal on anyone.

Westra: We see no difference between music and speech. What is speech other than a song with minimal pitch deviation and no fixed tempo? A truly high-fidelity system does not care what the input signal is — it just delivers it accurately. In our experience, truly high-fidelity systems provide very high intelligibility, even in reverberant spaces, and to a degree [these] hearing assistance subsystems will fall out of use.

Zandstra: There has been much design debate of this subject. Do you do a left/right stereo system, a left/center/right multichannel system, or a mono system? I have been involved in the design and implementation of all three, and the answer is, it depends. It depends on programming needs and requirements, room size and shape, and competency of the system operators. In the last year, I have installed a $1 million mono system designed by Acoustic Dimensions for a performance-based megachurch and a $100,000 left/center/right system we designed inhouse for a mid-sized worship center. Both sound great. The 1,000-seat room feels big with the L/C/R system; the 4,800-seat mono system feels intimate. Both of them handle music,entertainment, and speech well. As always, there is some compromise. The compromise can be painful, but if designed properly, it can meet both entertainment and speech intelligibility goals without being noticeable.

What are the biggest challenges with acoustics in houses of worship?

Allen: First: speaker placement. Many churches are very particular about where and where not to place speakers. Typically, the best position acoustically doesn’t mesh with what they desire visually.

Second: position of FOH. I don’t expect typical church leaders to know, but you’d be surprised how many architects/designers do not understand the importance of not putting the mix position in the back of the church, much less in a room with a window.

Third: musician monitor levels vs. “not hearing the choir.” Every church with a full band will have this issue. Thankfully, most are now embracing the in-ear monitor solutions that are readily available these days.

Brockenbrough: It is very difficult to justify the mechanisms needed for low-[frequency] acoustic treatment. With the advent of these more efficient sound systems, there is an increasing need for low-end treatments. You can treat surfaces for higher frequencies, but you cannot vent low end if it has nowhere to go.

Westra: First: the excessive use of gypsum board, resulting in too much mid-frequency content in the reverberant field. This problem is driven by fire codes and budget limitations. Second: too simple geometry, due to current styles, and again, limited budgets, resulting in insufficient natural diffusion. Third: excessive HVAC-induced noise. Fourth: the use of exposed MBI ceilings.

Zandstra: How do you create a sense of community and performance at the same time, or how do you create a feeling of intimacy, connectedness, and privacy at the same time? Technically speaking, the question is how to create as many early reflections in the seating area as possible, while minimizing any late-arriving information that would be destructive. The truly great spaces of worship today are the ones that allow for a great sense of community or connectedness that comes from congregational singing and response, and at the same time, allow the spoken word/preaching to sound intimate and personal, as if you are the only one being talked to.

Have you found, as installers and integrators, that you’ve become more involved with the budget process at churches than at secular installs? How delicate is that, and how do you handle it?

Allen: Definitely! Most churches, unless they’ve hired an AV design firm, have no clue what the costs are to bring their wishes to reality. Most want itemized pricing these days, so that they can see exactly what each item costs. Sometimes, you have to provide a good/better/best type of quote. Who the final decision maker is determines how delicate the process can be. With some churches, the pastor reserves all rights for final decisions. In others, there is a committee which reviews and votes on what is purchased. We try to provide as much information as possible to the church so they can make an informed decision.

Brockenbrough: No, we only hope that at the end of the day, our clients’ goals and budgets can be met through our explanation of their choices. The politics of houses of worship are quite different from our traditional clients, so we try to be as receptive as possible to their needs first, then put that in the context of their budget. Our position is that there are no rights or wrongs in our services—only better or worse, and this is solely budget driven.

In audio, where is the technology emphasis being placed these days: speakers, speaker management, processing, etc.?

Allen: Definitely speaker management and processing. This is the guts and the brains of the entire system. More and more churches are looking for a twofold design, one that a layperson can operate during the week with simplified controls for choir rehearsals, bible studies, etc. — and that still provides full functionality for regular services, concerts, plays, and so on.

Brockenbrough: I bet if you did the math, these groups are updating consoles first, then speakers. Simply, it is a more visible investment, and it requires less change in infrastructure.

Westra: We often wonder if there is any true technology emphasis today, as opposed to creating trends just for the sake of having something new to sell. Furthermore, some technological advances are two-edged swords. Loudspeaker management systems can be a real benefit, but very few people, including contractors, have the ability to adjust them properly. If effects devices are included under the term “processing,” most users abuse them so badly that they would, in fact, be better off without them.

Zandstra: The powered speaker with built-in processing is gaining steam and focus from the manufacturers. There are advantages to coupling the power and processing all in one box, and this is a good trend. However, one must take into account all of the issues related to this. If the DSP or amplifier fails, you need to get to the speaker to fix it, and you obviously need to have power available at the speaker location.

In video for churches, where are the challenges: line of sight, aesthetic integration, etc.?

Allen: The challenges fall into two categories: new construction and existing buildings. Nowadays, churches that are building new facilities are incorporating video needs into the design. With older and/or existing buildings, you can run into issues with screen size and placement because of existing structures in the sanctuary. Also, most don’t take into consideration the placement of windows and the sun coming up in the east. Since most have service in the mornings, this can cause havoc with projectors and screens.

Brockenbrough: We spent a great deal of time deciding where the video screens would live, not because of line-of-sight, but because of the fact that the pastor did not want his congregation to seem to stare off in a different direction while he spoke. I think that it is critical to get an intimate feel for the type of service the church hopes to achieve with this technology. In a very short time, projection will be fully integrated in the lighting system, and will thus make way for a whole revolution of projection techniques. I would caution clients to take note of this when addressing video goals.

Westra: Integrating properly sized screens into the optimal positions and orientations, competition from poorly designed lighting systems, and excessive ambient light.

Zandstra: Contrast! How do you create a dark hole in the midst of ambient light? I am a big proponent of creating worship spaces that can be brightly lit or brought to complete darkness. … That said, unless the church can afford a stadium-style LED display, great thought and care needs to be given to the lighting design to support video projection.

In general, do churches want their media technology prominently displayed, or do they want to downplay it?

Brockenbrough: It depends on what part of the congregation the church is addressing. It is a sensitive situation to use these tools to effectively reach the youth of the congregation, who are impressed by it, but not overpower the elders, who are cautious of it. Bottom line: the youth of the church are the future and life of the church, so they must come first if the church wishes to prosper.

Westra: While many contemporary churches wish to flaunt their media investments, most clients want media integration done in a tasteful manner, and some want the media invisible—at least until they find out what it costs to hide it effectively.

Zandstra: Almost every church I talk to views technology as a way to support the programming and worship, not as the focus.

Where is the “connected” church at these days? How important is Internet connectivity becoming to houses of worship? How are they using it, and how do you integrate it into the rest of their media technology and into their culture?

Allen: You are seeing a trend where churches are “birthing” more churches. This has opened up opportunities for connectivity that one used to see only on a corporate level. Now, you have churches starting missions overseas and sharing information with churches and evangelical speakers all over the country. In this regard, we approach the needs for the church pretty similarly to the corporate environment. They are looking at videoconferencing, Internet streaming, and the sharing of information within the infrastructure of the church.

Brockenbrough: They are hinting at 3D projection of the pastor at satellite churches. This could be very interesting.

How is media technology changing churches, and how are churches changing the technology, the installation techniques, and the integrators themselves?

Allen: What is happening is a progression. On the church side of things, you are finding that the staff, whether volunteer or paid, is becoming more sophisticated with the understanding and operation of new AV system designs. There are many opportunities for individuals with that knowledge to work in the church field. On the other hand, the manufacturers are constantly coming up with solutions to simplify the operation of what used to be very complicated equipment. The digital mixer market, along with the latest and greatest in DSP mixer/processor boxes, have helped bring the audio consistency that pastors and congregations alike highly desire during worship services.

Brockenbrough: I think that media technology is saving the church in many ways. Finally, we are able to reach kids who have been playing videogames and have [surround] audio systems in their cars. If there is a [real] message, then it is hard to find anyone who has a significant problem with its delivery.

Zandstra: Most worshippers are looking for an experience that is authentic. In some sense as a culture, we have entertained ourselves to death, and people — the younger generation in particular — are looking for a “no-spin zone” where issues are dealt with in a relevant way. This may or may not include technology.


Thomas “T” Brockenbrough, Jr., is special projects manager at Custom Audio & Lighting, a family owned and operated industrial sound and lighting provider for the southeast and beyond, located in upstate South Carolina. The company is an L’Acoustics network partner, performing both live and installation services, and has more than 50 years of combined experience in the industry.

Chip Allen is a commercial sales and design consultant at ICB Audio & Video, a full-service design and installation company in Cincinnati specializing in AV systems design, installation, consultation and engineering for church, education, recording studios, corporate, entertainment, and retail markets.

John Westra is owner of Audio Design Specialists, located in Madison, Wis.—
a company that specializes in acoustical consultation, the development of new acoustical treatment products, and sound system design.

Gary Zandstra is director of sales and marketing at Parkway Electric, a Holland, Mich.-based provider of electrical, communication, and AV solutions for the past 60 years.

Dan Daleyis a veteran freelance journalist and author specializing in media and entertainment technology and business sectors. He lives in New York, Miami, and Nashville, Tenn., and can be reached at[email protected].

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