Back in the day, attending church was a pretty simple thing.
It was about the weekly weekend visit to the church of one’s choice. The venue probably had a couple of hundred seats, perhaps a microphone for the pastor or minister or rabbi; maybe with a couple of medium-grade speakers. Maybe not.

Then the technology thing happened, and the future arrived.
Suddenly, worshippers wanted the same sound they grew to expect at a concert, at the theater or at the movies, during their worship service, too. And as the costs dropped, there wasn’t much reason not to take advantage of the trend.

Today, churches of all sizes have embraced the AVL (audio, visual and lights) approach, to the point that it’s a big segment of the market for equipment manufacturers and system installers; it’s grown so large that “most traditional video, audio, lighting equipment and musical instrument companies have church divisions,” said Derwent Williamson, technical arts director of Columbia’s 1,300-seat Bridgeway Community Church.

What it comes down to today is the desire for entertainment quality. “I think it’s a sin to have boring services,” Williamson said, “and churches often find themselves competing with [establishments in] the secular world that have elaborate systems.”

The Setup

Williamson has had a front-row seat for this evolution, because he was with Bridgeway when the not-mega-but-sizable church leased space at Howard Community College. Then, about 12 years ago, the church raised enough money to move to its current location, and the venue — and its AVL component — have grown exponentially since.

“In 2006, we installed the Avid VENUE D-Show Profile in our main rectory, and used it until late last year,” he said. “Then, last October, we upgraded our system [that generally retails for more than $80,000] with twin Avid VENUE S6L’s for the front-of-house operation and monitor positions. All told, that gives us128 channels that we can run from multiple positions around the stage, along with our JVC GY series cameras. That setup allows us to broadcast to thousands of people each week.”
On the monitor side, Williamson said the sound mixers can run 16 stereo mixes, “so we can have up to 16 performers with their own stereo mixes at once.”

That’s key because, as mentioned, one thing parishioners want in this day and age is to feel engaged.

“Our church is heavily into dramatic and other spoken-word productions, so actors are frequently part of our normal presentations,” Williamson said. “We can run up to 20 mics at once. And know that what is being heard in the church environment is, arguably, more important than what’s being seen. Poor audio can be a distraction to what the performer or pastor is trying to portray.”


At What Cost?

What is spent on systems between churches varies greatly, Williamson said. Smaller “box” churches, for instance, often opt for a system that can be set up and taken down easily, similar to what a venue might rent for a musical concert. They usually cost about $20,000.

But there are also plenty of cases where a permanent installation at a church the size of Bridgeway, or much larger, can cost way more as the size of the room increases. And churches usually opt for less expensive systems, for obvious reasons and because they’re easier for volunteers to use.

Another prominent local place of worship, Grace Community Church (GCC), in Fulton, has an 1,800-seat auditorium, four children’s spaces and a separate building onsite for its youth services. All are equipped with AVL systems and require “between 60 and 80 volunteers a month to [operate],” said Beth Eltzroth, GCC’s technical director.

GCC is in the process of changing its analog Midas audio console in the main auditorium to the digital Yamaha CL5. That also means running fiber throughout the building, though the church is using less expensive copper (a common option) where possible. It also means changing its video routers, and the church has chosen the AJA and Sierra Aspen options for most of its rooms.
At this point, about half of the install is complete. “When purchasing equipment, there are several things we have to think about,” said Eltzroth. “They include determining the right piece of equipment to do a given job, its price and if it’s volunteer friendly.
“One of our staff values is being resourceful,” she said. “We take that seriously. The money we spend is [from] our generous congregation, and we want to honor their giving. We purchase used equipment when possible and ask for 30-day trials.”

For instance, GCC employs the older Mackie audio consoles in its four children’s rooms. “They’re workhorses and easy to use. We purchased some of the consoles 15 years ago,” she said. “About every five years, we take them apart and clean them, and they keep on going.”

The lighting console in the auditorium is an ETC Gio. “In our youth building, we purchased a High End Road Hog lighting console that was B stock. We have a mixture of conventional and intelligent lighting fixtures,” Eltzroth said. “All of the moving lights were purchased used, for half price.”


The Right Fit

John Morris, owner of Armbruster AV, in Towson, subscribes to GCC’s approach. While the church market is lucrative, he stressed that it’s more important for churches to be practical, as opposed to buying flashy systems that don’t really address the need.
Costs per system varies, with the average “around $20,000, even for the small churches,” he said. “Audio systems should last 15 years, though the video setup only lasts about 10,” due to technological progress.

Morris said Armbruster’s “big schtick” is that the company wants its clients “to know what they’re getting and to test drive [the equipment], and to know how to use it. It’s not about selling products as much as teaching people who don’t do this professionally to understand how their equipment works, and what it can and what it cannot do.

“There’s a lot of equipment out there. Take a speaker: It may be good, but it may not fit in a certain space,” he said. “Flexibility is extremely important for when upgrades are made.”

Morris knows of what he speaks better than most people: About 90% of Armbruster’s business is in the church market. “We’ve been serving [it] since 1962, and by what I’m told and what I see, there are about 3,000 churches inside the Beltway alone.”
And what many of them have trouble doing today is standing out.
“So what they do, especially the small to medium-sized congregations, is build eye-catching signage, offer AVL systems that don’t necessarily have to be high-end — but they may seem that they are to parishioners — and stream services online.”
Morris agreed that today’s parishioner wants to be visually impacted by the church experience. “When people walk into a church and don’t get a crisp presentation, they’ll likely walk out. For even the most basic services to be successful, there needs to be an infrastructure in place to ensure that the message is delivered, especially in the case of younger parishioners,” he said. “They expect it.”

To illustrate what can happen when the technology issue is not addressed, Tres Cozad, technical director for Annapolis-based Bay Area Community Church (BACC), runs two venues from its base in Annapolis, plus a third in Easton. When he came on staff, his position was part-time and BACC’s facilities needed some work — according to its congregation, which wasn’t getting what it wanted.

The people having spoken illustrates the importance of technology in churches today. “It’s crucial to offer an engaging worship experience and presentation of a Biblical message, but it can be a distraction if there are problems or if it isn’t set up correctly,” Cozad said. “People expect a distraction-free environment when they go to church, as they would at a movie.”
So, BACC now uses a prosumer camera package to studio broadcast quality. Its auditorium now has a Nexo sound system, with a Yamaha CL5 mixing console, Panasonic broadcast cameras and switchers, and Shure wireless mics.


The Right Stuff

While the church AVL market is bigger than most people on the street may fathom, Morris added that the big, 2,000-seat churches that people hear about are only about 10% of the market. Megachurches, which he loosely defined as having more than 4,000 seats, are still the exception.

Still, the market is so big that companies come from various directions. For instance, Mitchell Shaivitz is a professional account manager with Guitar Center Professional, which has area stores in Glen Burnie and Towson, yet he and his crew actually “specialize in sound studio installations, not instruments so much,” he said.

Shaivitz said about 50% of his work is with churches in the mid-Atlantic. “In Maryland you can’t throw a baseball without hitting a church. And they’ll spend a little more to attract the younger generation.”

The cost of the average church system varies, he said, though giving a range of “$50,000–$80,000. It depends on the size of church. When I go to any customer and they say they don’t have the money yet,” he said, “I just tell them to wait until they do. Do it right the first time, and everyone’s happy.”

One way to attain that medium, Morris said, is to work with a company that specializes in religious systems. “Churches should consult with a professional early in their project to ensure they are going in the right direction,” he said.

And that, said Eltzroth, is a great way to satisfy a need.
“The purpose of the AVL equipment is to support and enhance the church services. It’s not about having the best or the newest,” she said. “It’s about having the right equipment to accomplish the goal.”