By Dan Daley, Special to AVIXA

“I went to Mass and a… rock concert broke out.”

ChurchThe way that music has changed in some American churches has been cause for joy for advocates of what’s known as the contemporary style of worship and consternation by traditionalists. But what’s certain is that the house-of-worship sector has had a significant effect on the technology and market culture of live sound, and vice versa. Churches such as Lakewood — spiritual/motivational speaker Joel Osteen’s 16,000-seat church that was the former arena home of the NBA Houston Rockets — and Saddleback Church — home base for best-selling author and pastor Rick Warren whose 3,500-seat sanctuary sees 20,000 attendees a week — have installed sound systems that rival those in the best music venues in the world. The JBL VTX line array system in Lakeview and QSC KW self-powered system in Saddleback are routinely found on major rock and pop music tours and in venues like performing arts centers.

Churches and other houses of worship are now integral parts of sales strategies for pro audio manufacturers, some of which have dedicated personnel on their sales staffs to this market. And in an industry whose profit margins on all but the most sophisticated new systems have been pressured by a plethora of lower-cost digital-based products and global competition, the growing need for this technology in the HOW market, as it’s referred to, is a welcome one. The Hartford Institute estimates there are roughly 350,000 religious congregations in the United States, and as of 2012 about 1,600 of them are considered mega-churches, with a weekly attendance of 2,000 people or more. That number is nearly 25-percent higher than the number recorded in 2005.

“[Churches] are right up there within our top target markets,” says Kyle Ritland, Director, Marketing Communications and Corporate Communications at sound system manufacturer Vue Audiotechnik.  

Trends With Benefits

While extremely large churches understandably require sound amplification to fill them, two trends have compelled salient changes in sound system design and their implementation in churches. First is the shift in the last two decades to contemporary worship styles in a much wider range of churches, including many mid-sized ones. Electric guitars, synthesizers and big drum kits have brought an arena-rock level of event production into churches, requiring the same kinds of line array systems used in secular rock shows.

As important but more nuanced is the heightened awareness around intelligibility — the ability for speech to be clearly understood in acoustically challenging spaces — which has historically been a euphemism used to describe many churches, especially those that use the traditional cathedral design, whose soaring naves provided inspiring natural reverb for Gregorian chants but often make spoken words all but unintelligible.

“Intelligibility has become the main issue for many if not most churches today,” observes John Loufik, senior applications engineer at speaker manufacturer Community Sound, where he estimates that HOW sales account for between a quarter and a third of the company’s sales of certain sound-system products. “We’ve geared several products to address this, and the church market has definitely driven a lot of that effort.”

Churches are competitive with each other, particularly contemporary ones, with smaller churches often taking their technology cues from the larger ones. That’s helped foster entirely new product categories such as compact line arrays and columnar array speakers, the former scaled to fit into small and mid-sized venues but offering the same full-range response and pattern-dispersion control needed for music, and the latter a perfect fit for the support columns of highly reverberant environments like cathedrals, blending in architecturally and esthetically as they also distribute more intelligible audio.

What’s also helping financially sensitive churches ramp up their audio is declining prices on many digital products, such as FOH and monitor mix consoles. “Most churches would not have been able to touch a digital console five years ago,” observes Gary Zandstra, HOW specialty at AV integrator Parkway Electric in Holland, MI. “Now, that’s what almost all of them install.”

Good Timing

These new, smaller-scaled and more affordable products arrive at the perfect time. The most recent trend in the HOW culture has been the arrival of the “satellite church” — instead of building ever-larger churches, some congregations have turned to growth by establishing multiple locations in a city or region. Some manufacturers and AV systems integrators see the satellite-church trend as a potential bonanza, one that could help them make up in volume what they have been losing to eroding margins. And satellite churches come with another benefit: As churches become more technically savvy but remain financially cautious, they have learned the value of buying the consistent technology platforms across all of their locations — the same brand and models of speakers, mixers, in-ear monitor systems and so on — because it makes maintaining and operating them simpler.

But satellite churches are also exacerbating a chronic problem for churches in general when it comes to AV technology — a lack of well-trained people to run it. Only a very small percentage of churches, and generally only the largest ones, have full-time paid technical staff; the vast majority of the AV used in services every Sunday are operated by volunteers, and their training and ability can range from competent to barely functional. With the number of worship locations mushrooming, the pool of technical talent isn’t keeping up.

“It was one thing to have a qualified team running the systems for one big room, but now that the services are in many different rooms every Sunday for the same church, there’s a huge need for more talent to run it, and it’s just not there,” worries Zandstra.

That’s only added a new chapter to the narrative, however. Manufacturers have responded by developing platforms that are easier for entry-level users to operate but at the same time are designed to be scalable enough so that experienced users aren’t constrained.

“The range of users is huge now,” says Matt Larson, national sales manager for console maker Digico. “We’ve made our systems as intuitive as possible but we’ve also built in layers that more experienced users can access, such as dynamics and sophisticated equalization, but which can be locked out for certain users. And the house-of-worship market very much influenced the development of this kind of software infrastructure.”

The next frontier for houses of worship may be in filling up the spaces left empty by big-box stores as they continue to fall victim to online shopping and other retail market forces, like this church going into a former supermarket. Zandstra notes that a recent project for him was a new church going into a space left vacant by a Farmer Jack’s mega-grocery. “These spaces sound totally different from traditional churches and from everywhere else, really,” he says, noting lower ceilings that make line arrays harder to hang.

The number of people who describe themselves as religious in the U.S. has been steadily declining. In the process of trying to win them back, many churches have been trimming the dogma and enhancing the experience of spirituality. Elaborate stage productions, full-range sound systems, huge video screens, moving light fixtures are all part of that. But sound has perhaps been the most fundamental aspect of that, because somewhere in the midst the entire AV spectacle, someone is trying to get a message across. These days, at least, the sound system is making sure they get heard.