Outfitting a Building, Pt. 2

If you've just stumbled across this post directly, you should first go back and read Outfitting a Building. Don't worry, we'll wait. Alright, here we go.

Today, we'll talk about the right way to outfit a church. That was a joke. You can laugh now. It would be quite presumptuous to think that A) there is a single "right" way to go about outfitting a church with A/V gear and B) that I know what it is and will now tell you. However, after being around churches and their A/V systems for some 20 years, and being the somewhat OCD thinker that I am, and having recently attended WFX where my thoughts were validated over and over, I would like to share some principles that I think are helpful when it comes to choosing A/V equipment for a church. Unfortunately, this process is hard; harder than just asking the GC for a quote, harder than hiring a consultant, and harder than leafing through the latest Sweetwater catalog. Which is why so few churches do it. But here we go.

Step 1: Figure out who you are as a church.

You were expecting, "Decide between digital and analog for FOH?" Sorry to disappoint. Here's the deal: Your church is not NorthPoint. NorthPoint is not Saddleback. Saddleback is not Grainger. So often I find myself in conversations with pastors, tech guys or worship leaders who will say, "Dude, I just go back from [fill in the mega church here]. They have this awesome board at FOH, I think it's a [fill in an awesome FOH desk here]. I think we need to look into that for our new building." My first question is, "Why?" Very few churches really need a PM5D. In fact, for many churches, it would be gross overkill and a misallocation of ministry resources.

Back to the point. No two churches are the same. Your church needs to figure out who you are, who you are trying to reach and come up with the best way to do that. Depending on the answers to those questions (and a dozen more), you will start to get an idea of what the worship gathering should look like. You may find that going all Prestonwood (full rock band, orchestra, 8 vocalists and a 300+ choir) doesn't really help fulfill your mission. On the other hand, it might.

You also need to evaluate your technical staff. Are they paid or volunteer? What is there skill and commitment level? What can they learn, and who will teach them? Same goes for the musicians. You need to determine the most effective to reach the type of people the church is missionally called to reach. For some churches, a huge band, choir and orchestra work great. For others, a piano and worship leader work far, far better. It all depends on who you are as a church.

Note also that these are not value judgements on a given style of worship. There is a place in the kingdom for mega churches, and there is a place for coffee house churches. Just don't confuse the two.

Step 2: Determine what kind of facility you need to effectively reach your target market.

Sorry, we're still not to picking out equipment yet. Why not? Because we don't even know what kind of room we need to put it in yet. There are hundreds of questions that need to be considered here, and I won't pretend to give you an exhaustive list. But think about a few of these and more will follow.

What should the worship space look like; traditional, modern, post-modern? Would a fan-shaped seating area work better, or does stadium seating help us better accomplish our mission? Do we need a room that enables us to pull off services that look like a Trans Siberian Orchestra show? Or do we need to bring together a more intimate "hanging out in the living room together" vibe? Does a big, elevated stage with some separation between the stage and seats work, or perhaps a more "theater in the round" concept?

Keep in mind, though I'm using two extremes to illustrate the point, there are hundreds, if not thousands of shades of grey in between. The point is that no one size fits all. I've heard of churches who currently have 100 people, more or less, showing up on Sunday that want to build a 5,000 seat auditorium. Even if they could afford it, which they can't, do you have any idea how uncomfortable that would feel on opening Sunday?

The type of facility must match your mission. That may well be a huge auditorium. Or it may be a movie theater off the metro line. Or a coffee shop. Or another church you rent on Sunday nights. Just promise me you'll think it through, OK?

Step 3: Determine the type of equipment that works best in your space, with your volunteers and within your budget.

Finally, we get to choose some gear. But notice that we've really done the hardest work up front. When equipment selection flows from missional direction and facility appropriateness, you will find yourself upgrading far less often.

Consider one model; an urban missional church dedicated to reproducing itself in a series of smaller, neighborhood-targeted churches. It's really easy then to determine that spending $65K on a FOH desk is not an effective use of missional dollars. The church, especially if portable at the beginning may be far better served with a $10,000 RSS V-Mixing system. Or a $4,000 analog desk.

Or think about speakers for a second. Everyone wants line arrays right now (and every supplier wants to sell them). However, they really only work well (the operative word being well) in a fairly limited number of environments. And they're really expensive. So don't put them in your building just because Willow Creek has them. Go back to questions 1 and 2 and figure out what is the best use of ministry dollars. What helps further the mission of the church? A $200,000 line array that's total overkill or a $50,000 distributed mono cluster?

While it may appear that I'm picking on churches for spending too much, other churches will spend too little. Both are mistakes. If you believe the mission of your church will be best served by building a large auditorium and going for a Willow/NorthPoint style of worship, then don't cheap out on the gear. Because if you do, you will replace it not once, but twice. This frustrates the daylights out of me because churches do it over and over, and it's so predictable. Seriously, do it once, and do it right. You will save tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands, of dollars.

Now, I've been using sound systems here for most of my examples, but the exact same principles apply to lighting, video and presentation. Do you need to have 18x32 HD IMAG screens in a worship center that seats 300? Probably not. But in a 5,000 seat auditorium, you had better think about it. And know that it's going to be expensive.

If your worship team consists of 4-5 players and a vocalist or two on a small stage, you probably don't need to budget for 15 moving lights. In fact, depending on the mood you're trying to create, a few simple fixtures with gels might be just what you need. Think it through.

We're working through this process right now at Upper Room. As we work to figure out who we are and who we're missionally called to reach, I'm beginning to make decisions on the kind of gear I'm interested in. For example, as much as I love the M7-CL 48 we currently get to mix on, we simply don't need that big of a desk in our new iteration. And while it would be cool to go all wireless in-ears for our band, I'm thinking Aviom because we'll get through sound check faster. Faster will be important in a portable church environment. I'd love to have access to a bunch of moving fixtures (mainly because they're cool), but since we'll likely be loading in, setting up and tearing down every week, those are out. In fact, I'm strongly considering going all LED because of their low power draw. Sure, they're not as bright, but our worship style works best in low lighting anyway. We like to set a darker, more "candlelit" vibe. So I don't need to throw 50,000 lux on the stage.

As much as possible, I'm making selections based on our mission, and the facility we will use to implement that mission. And I'm not bothered that NorthPoint uses a DigiDesign Venue in their facilities. That would be total overkill for us. On the other hand, I'm pretty sure a 24 channel analog board wouldn't cut it for them.

Clearly this is not the be-all-end-all discussion on the matter. In fact, I hope this does nothing more than start a bunch of discussions. We can't choose our equipment in a vacuum. We can't choose it because it's what some other church uses. We can't choose it because it's what the GC put in the last church he built. It needs to work for each individual church and their mission. Figure that stuff out first, and the church and the Kingdom will be better of.