13.09.16

The changing beat of worship

stage and AV system and Bridge Church in Johannesburg, South Africa
Bridge Church in Johannesburg, South Africa

Modern worship is making a lot of noise - both in audio and video. Charlotte Ashley investigates if some of the technology trends of the typical US ‘mega-church’ are filtering into EMEA.

If most people were asked what they associate with the church, the theme of tradition may come to mind. Yet in 2016 the exterior of a church or denomination of Christianity no longer dictates the technology installed. The primary concern for churches is always speech reinforcement, yet as free worship grows throughout EMEA, communicating through sound systems equipped for bands, large flatscreens and digital signage is on the rise - encouraged by a trickle-down effect from a booming church market in the US.

The modern service

As contemporary church movements find their home in non-traditional spaces like conference centres, warehouses and even converted cinemas, the needs of their congregations are also evolving. These churches are looking past the age-old formula of priest + microphone + pulpit to engage a younger, social-media savvy crowd with a diverse range of live music and streaming and broadcast services.

One such church is LINC church in Ballito, South Africa, which uses video ‘extensively’ to extend its message beyond its 1,000-person+ congregation via Blackmagic Design kit. “We realised that video was a great way to communicate our message out to the world, so we built a small, two-camera studio using an ATEM television studio switcher and taught ourselves how to produce live video,” says Simon Wilkes, media director at the church. In a campus-based establishment such as LINC church, content is not only distributed online and in the main auditorium, but in-house on various screens throughout the complex and is used to get preachers motivated before a service. According to Blackmagic, business is increasing; “We’re definitely seeing a greater level of interest in our systems in the house of worship space,” says Luke Mahler-Hausen, AV & live business development.

“We realised that video was a great way to communicate our message out to the world, so we built a small, two-camera studio using an ATEM television studio switcher and taught ourselves how to produce live video.” 

Jay Cresswell, permanent installation consultant UK, Electro-Voice & Dynacord, notes that the huge increase in video installations is coinciding with the growing popularity of distributed audio and line array systems. Whilst on the speech reinforcement side churches are favouring rechargeable microphones according to John Ellis, regional sales manager, installed sound at Shure Distribution. He adds that the stereotype of the choir and organ is fading out; “A lot of the churches that are thriving tend to be the more charismatic churches that have bands. So the requirement is for more channels on the mixing desk and for concert-level performance amplifiers and speakers, rather than just the speech columns.”

“The system in the church now has to be able to cope with good speech intelligibility, and also keyboards, guitars, and the whole band as well. I think that has filtered through from the US.” says Ellis.

Some would say these congregations are inspired by churches like Hillsong – a movement with many locations around the globe – where streaming and recording worship, live concerts and conferences is “a part of daily life” according to head of audio and infrastructure, Ricki Cook. “We’ve deployed a link system which allows us to stream real-time full HD video from any campus to any other campus with multi-channel audio so we can conference other sites in and have one big service.” He adds: “If it’s one of our larger sites everything’s live-scale, it’s broadcast-quality video and we try to do it in HD wherever we can as any venue could potentially be used for a record.”

production crew using Blackmagic Design kit during service at LINC Church in Ballito, South AfricaThe advent of social media has helped churches to see the benefit in investing in this type of technology. “It is a vital part of getting our message out with Facebook Live now being available, live streaming from YouTube and all our video content going through our church app,” says Wilkes.

CEO at Nanolumens, Richard Cope, expects this trend to continue within a “rapidly growing EMEA market.” “The preference of millennials for colourful, moving, digital programming will drive more digital change.  Millennials and their younger counterparts have grown up with smart phones in their pockets and digital as a part of their everyday life and they expect the same from their faith.”

Churches in countries with a strong Christian heritage are also modernising. “We have recently worked on big church in the south of Germany where services are streamed free online, and around a thousand people are watching every Sunday morning,” says Matthias Scheffe, managing director at integrator Ton & Technik Scheffe.

“We have recently worked on big church in the south of Germany where services are streamed free online, and around a thousand people are watching every Sunday morning.”

According to DM Music, distributor and integrator to the UK church market for the past 24 years, the local church scene is still largely dominated by ‘traditional’ churches (i.e. Anglican, Baptist and Methodist), but these churches can be far from old-fashioned in their attitude towards technology. “A lot of churches, particularly if it’s in an urban setting, are asking ‘how do we engage with our local community?’ So they are thinking about how technology could help them, things like digital signage, and how they can use that to communicate what’s going on inside,” says communications director, Iain Harvey-Smith.

Innovations which might be more commonly associated with a boardroom are also finding their way into churches, with Scheffe noting that the use of Crestron control systems is a ‘growing-trend’ and this can extend from turning on the lights or heating prior to a service to even scheduling when the bells chime out.

‘Mega-church’ market

Though work is available for maintaining and updating AV systems in older churches, a number of these churches are closing in countries like the UK, with Peter Brierley’s ‘UK Church Statistics 2: 2010-2020’ reporting that Roman Catholic and Church of England churches were closing in their hundreds between 2008-2013. With figures for Pentecostal churches, new churches and smaller denominations, which promote a lively worship style, growing in their hundreds and thousands in contrast, there is clearly a lot of potential work out there for specialist integrators in this sector.

worldwide mega church construction graphThese newer movements may be increasingly commonplace, but on what scale are these establishments? Ian Thomas, install sector specialist at Allen & Heath – who notes that roughly 40% of the company’s sales are within EMEA – believes the trend of the ‘mega-church’ (churches attended by over 2,000 people) will never be fully realised in Europe. “Mega-church construction has been in general decline for a number of years. The majority of projects are located in the USA and Canada and I cannot see any great uptake in these types of projects within Europe.”

With church membership figures steadily declining in Europe - with a European Social Survey (ESS) poll of 55,000 across 29 European countries indicating that a third of Christians attend services around once a month - the centre of Christianity appears to be shifting to sub-Saharan African, a region where Christians make up 55% of the total population, where worship is lively, loud and the technology is interactive.

graph showing christian population and gdp growth graph in africaHere church attendance is strong and looks to grow in the future. “75% of the new mega-church projects over the past 10 years (outside of North America) have been completed in Sub-Saharan Africa. Countries such as DR Congo and Ethiopia all have extremely high growth outlooks and coupled with the relatively established economies such as Nigeria and South Africa, could lead to the next wave of mega-church projects,” notes Thomas.

According to Victor Vermaak, sales consultant at South African integrator Prosound, they are experiencing that upward trend. “A mega-church in the US and a mega-church in Africa don’t differ that much. Live streaming, podcasts, digital signage, state of the art PA and lighting are the norm here, as in the US. The level of expertise, professionalism and available budget are where things are different.”

Decision-making

Nearly all churches are seeing the benefit in investing in systems for the long-term. Decision making continues to be affected by three main factors - flexibility, a simple interface for volunteer operators or pastors, and the right aesthetics. Dual systems which can both work at the flick of a switch but also be handled by experienced operators are most commonly requested by churches.

“The ability to install a system with minimum disruption to the building in terms of structural alteration and aesthetics can be paramount. Digital and networked systems are a key development in mitigating these issues as stage boxes can be packed away and out of sight when not in use,” says Thomas.

church service with proejction Evangelische Kirche Frechen near Cologne in Germany

Many have experienced the perils of putting price first according to Scheffe. “If you buy cheap you’ll buy twice and churches know it. 10-15 years ago it was not the case and they always wanted the cheaper option, but would find two to five years later they would be buying a new system.” Price is still taken into consideration however, as most funds are coming from the pockets of the congregation.

“The decision-making process is very different from a business-to-business process. It is almost a separate way of thinking,” says Harvey-Smith. He continues: “A lot of what we do is about assuring churches we’re a safe pair of hands.” As an industry based on word-of-mouth recommendations, building these connections can be vital.

Harvey-Smith says other factors are also driving the adaption of different types of technology. “Certainly in recent years we’ve seen a rise in churches looking to use their buildings not just on Sundays but throughout the week.” He highlights a recent installation in Guildford (UK) used as a church, cinema and meeting room space.

There is also an element of competition to stay relevant and contemporary in areas with more than one church in the vicinity. One integrator recalls getting a phone call from a church requesting some displays after seeing that they were recently installed at a nearby church.

Training opportunities

Although technical understanding is lacking in the sector according to most, Mahler-Hausen believes things are changing for the better. “What’s encouraging to see is that they’re now seeking out advice on systems before commencing those projects. That is an opportunity for integrators who know the market to step in and provide that support and guidance.”

Despite church volunteers being hungry for training according to most, it’s largely lacking across EMEA. Manufacturers and integrators alike are stepping in where possible to provide training for volunteer operators of church systems, but the main issue is making it happen; “It’s the biggest problem, not the price, not the people, it’s finding the time,” says Scheffe. Operators with technical expertise are a rarity amongst the majority of churches, with even a church of Hillsong’s scale having only a “handful” of experts with a general skillset (previously 15-16 with specialised skills) – often driven by young people that have grown up surrounded by technology. Harvey-Smith says churches will rely on them as the installer for support; “Churches want a company that can manage it for them and someone they trust rather than having someone in-house.”

The church staff with expertise are having to adapt to the responsibilities which come with the close integration between AV and IT. “The AV department has taken over management and operations of the critical IT infrastructure that production depended on, so that’s a whole new world, and a lot of people are still getting used to that,” says Cook.

“A vendor might have an amazing product, but if the company doesn’t understand what we’re about then we’ll shy away from them. But if the vendor really gets on board with what we do then we definitely lean towards them.”

According to Cook, a clear understanding of a large churches’ ethos is essential to getting on the list of specific vendors they use ‘over and over again’ globally. “A vendor might have an amazing product, but if the company doesn’t understand what we’re about then we’ll shy away from them. But if the vendor really gets on board with what we do then we definitely lean towards them.” Although the church very much adheres to the same model across its churches, Cook will always test to see if there is something better on the market.

Working in churches, an average lead time over a year and a half can be expected, and it can be longer. “We just finished the second phase beginning at this year at Wakefield Cathedral (UK). One of our project managers has been working on that for about 10 years,” says Harvey-Smith.

The future

The growing emphasis on communication and how high quality AV systems can help this will continue to grow according to those working in the market. What is next on the agenda for thriving contemporary churches? “Things are going to become more real-time and more interactive then they ever have,” says Cook. “Hosting online services where we can invite people online is the next step,” adds Wilkes.

“Requirements are changing slowly. Originally it was all audio, and now it’s 50/50 audio and visual,” says Harvey-Smith of the traditional church market. He adds: “It’s not like there’s any saturation of the market, in many ways it rejuvenates itself, given the fact that the projector they had installed 10 years ago, they can now get about 5 times the brightness for a similar price, or they can put in a flatscreen and it’s even cheaper.