System characteristics that are a priority for portable churches...
April 16, 2014, by David McLain
When thinking of a church, most people conjure images of a building with chairs or pews, carpet on the floor, maybe some stained glass. The loudspeakers hang in a cluster near the front and there’s a sound booth in the back. Down the hallway are the nursery and the church office.
While that describes the majority of churches, a growing number of churches are forming that don’t fit that description at all.
Churches that do not own a building are becoming more common, renting a building for Sunday mornings and maybe for Wednesday nights. Once strictly the domain of churches just getting started (called “church plants”), more established churches are choosing not to be burdened with the upkeep and expense of a large facility.
A Church With Vision
Bruce Sanders has been the pastor of Capital Vision Christian Church in Olympia, WA since he founded it several years ago. On Sundays at 9 am, he arrives at Olympia High School’s performing arts auditorium an hour and a half before the service is scheduled to begin.
Meanwhile, Jason Inman and his crew of three volunteers arrive around 8:30 am to load in sound equipment, band instruments and Sunday School supplies. They set out several sandwich-board signs on the streets nearby, announcing the service.
On Sunday mornings in Olympia, more than a dozen churches gather in various rented spaces, including schools, gymnasiums, cafeterias, classrooms, performance halls, community centers, hotel banquet rooms and even other churches. Where climate permits, some even hold their services outdoors in parks or natural amphitheaters.
But just because they meet in temporary space does not mean that these churches don’t value a high-quality sound system, with many offering contemporary services, often centered on a guitar-driven pop- or rock-flavored band.
After Jason and his team set up the system at Capital Vision, one of the crew, often a teenage volunteer, steps behind the mixer while Jason straps on a Taylor acoustic guitar and begins sound check.
Behind him are bass guitar, piano, two keyboards, several backup singers and a drum set. Off to the side, a portable screen is set up, and the computer operator checks the video projector that displays the song lyrics and sermon notes. Other than the school’s piano, all equipment is set up and torn down every weekend.
When 10:30 rolls around, Jason greets the crowd and invites them to stand up and sing with him. Then the band starts into their set, and the next 30 to 40 minutes are essentially a 90 dB contemporary Christian music concert.
Jason finishes the set with a prayer, perhaps with a little keyboard or guitar in the background. Then an emcee gets up and makes introductions and delivers announcements before Pastor Sanders gets up to teach.
A Contemporary Vibe
More like a seminar speaker than a traditional pulpit preacher, Sanders walks around the stage with a wireless lavalier microphone clipped to his open collar. He talks with the congregation, stopping every so often to tell a joke or refer to a current news headline.
The video projector shows an outline of his sermon, interspersed with photos and video clips to support the message. By noon, the congregation is drinking coffee and eating cookies in the foyer, talking about the sermon and other things, like the Seattle Seahawks.
I deal with dozens of churches like Capital Vision, and there are thousands more forming around the country. Several of my clients are just starting, with maybe 40 to 50 people in the congregation, while others have a few hundred members who meet twice a week. A small number are quite large; one portable church has several thousand people meeting in each of three services in a rented high school every Sunday morning, with a band and sound system that is second to none.
There isn’t really a standard sound system for a portable church, because there really isn’t a standard church. However, a sound system for a portable church is not the same as a sound system for a band. There are quite a few components in common, but the goals are markedly different.
System characteristics that are important to a portable church:
1) It must be simple to set up.
Front of house, including mixer is all in one rack. The amps are either in the same rack or a similar rack onstage. Racks have a single AC cord with power distribution in the rack and a single “on” switch. Subwoofers are usually too complex, so 15-inch-loaded 2-way loudspeakers are on stands left and right of stage.
Cables are color-coded or numbered. Mic cables, instrument cables and direct boxes are all in the same storage container. In a larger portable system, multi-pin connectors become important to reduce the number of mic cables used.
2) It must be simple to operate.
Most churches, especially portable churches, have volunteers running sound. A 40-channel console with 4-band EQ and 8 aux sends may be more than a volunteer can handle. Startups, in particular, get by with two or three monitor sends and a 3-band EQ. A 16- or 24-channel console is likely to be plenty.
3) It must be articulate.
Congregation members won’t care if you can get 120 dB in the back of the room. Rather, can they understand the words clearly and without straining in every seat in the house? Loud is great, but only if it’s clear and clean. It’s more important to have 95 dB with crystal clarity than a subwoofer that kicks them in the chest.
4) It must be flexible.
In a typical service, the system needs to handle a live band, background music, and several people speaking to a crowd that may vary in size from week to week. The venue may also change at some point. And in warmer months, the church might take the system to the park for a concert.
5) It must be expandable.
Portable churches are usually growing churches. When the congregation of 75 becomes a congregation of 200, it requires more from the sound system. An upgrade path is needed. Leave room in the amp rack for another amplifier to run more loudspeakers. Begin with a mixer that has at least five or six channels more than needed, so as the band membership grows, the system still works. This is a good time to apply the maxim “buy your second one first.”
6) It must be affordable, but not cheap.
Built from scratch, a good beginning system will probably cost several thousand dollars. Too often, portable churches begin with an inadequate system, and replace it with a second system a year or two later.
This is not a place for the latest, state-of-the-art accessories. Digital consoles might not fit the budget. Effect processors and many compressors are luxuries. Simple microphones, consoles, EQs, amplifiers and loudspeakers (or self-powered loudspeakers) are sufficient. Caution: do not get the wrong gear just because it’s “on sale.”
7) It must be reliable.
Saving a few dollars on an amplifier is not as important as choosing gear that is known to be reliable. Your brother-in-law may have donated an old no-name power amplifier from his basement (a syndrome known as “give your junk to Jesus”), but a new Crown or QSC amplifier for the main loudspeakers will prevent problems. Maybe that no-name amp can be sold to a struggling high school band with the money used to buy a good equalizer.
Keep in mind that volunteers will be loading and unloading this system every week, probably for several years. It had better be rugged enough not to need maintenance every month.
8) It must be supported.
Because most portable churches don’t have a full-time or even part-time technical staff, they need to have a resource person they can trust. This needs to be someone who knows their situation, knows their system, and has experience with what they’re doing. Most importantly, this person must be able to speak in layman’s terms to translate technical issues into common English.
David McLain is a church sound system consultant with CCI Solutions, and has been working with church sound systems since 1978 and with portable churches since 1988. He also runs the Church Sound Guy blog.