A Guide to System Design
t happens every time a church builds a new facility or renovates the sanctuary: the worship leader must navigate the technology ocean, often alone. Typically, it is the worship leader’s first foray into large-scale construction, and the demands quickly outstrip the experience base. Instantly, the worship leader must become an acoustics engineer, a videographer, a lighting designer, and a stage maven, but it is too late to learn once the hammers are swinging. So, the time to grasp the concepts necessary to design and implement a successful media system is now, before the building goes up. Thanks to experience gained through hundreds of church construction projects, the following template lays out the framework needed to implement media systems that improve communication, allow conversation, and edify the body.
Understand the Process
Though most firms use Microsoft’s Project software and hold progress meeting each week, construction remains a fluid endeavor. Weather can wreck havoc on excavation and foundation timing, steel prices may create material shortages, unforeseen safety rule changes can hamper progress, and change orders translate into delays measured in weeks, not days. In other words, a fixed move-in date cannot and should not be mandated. The push to “be in by Easter” edict usually creates a horrific work environment where corners are cut and projects are rushed for the sake of an arbitrary date. As an example, one recent project was mangled by the general contractor’s insistence on meeting the church’s move-in date, so he had the painters perform touch-up sprays before the stained trim was fully dry. The result was grainy trim which had to be sanded and re-stained causing a two-week delay on the full project.
First In, Last Out
Unfortunately, media installation is, by its nature, a FILO (First In / Last Out) trade where the infrastructure needed for successful AVL (Audio, Video and Lighting) implementation is determined before the first yard of concrete is poured. The AVL design must be completed prior to the onset of construction. If it is not, the project will be underserved. A simple relocation of a wall or alteration of the stage in AutoCAD software can become an expensive practice if held until it is physically in place. As uncomfortable as it is, the worship leader must insist the AVL design be finished before the work begins. Everything from power distribution to reinforced hang points must be laid out, space-reserved and cost-attributed or the AVL budget will be awash in red ink. On the backside, AVL is the last trade out of the building before it opens, so the pressure from lost time painting the wrong color and every other mishap will accumulate at the AVL contractor’s feet. As a worship leader, keep the committee informed as to the consequences of each delay and how that will finally manifest itself as chaos in the last few days before the doors open when the AVL team is trying to configure the systems since that work can only be done after everyone else has finished. Align yourself with a steady, experienced integrator who is accustomed to the boiler-plate structure of the process and refrain from sharing designs from one bidder with another as it is immoral and unethical to do so.
Media technology is a constant tradeoff among cost/benefit and performance/operation quadrants. A high performance video mixer will not be simple to operate while a low-cost LED light will not have the necessary throw to reach the stage from the second bar. Thus, the worship leader will be forced to prioritize the budget according to the highest return on investment (ROI) for each portion of the design. The key is to spend money where it makes a difference and save where it does not. For instance, the main speakers are difficult to install and have a life expectancy beyond 10 years, so money spent for the best available mains will amortize to about $10 per service over their lifespan. On the other hand, a high-end video projector will be obsolete in three years so a mid-grade equivalent can perform nearly as well for half the money and then be upgraded after five years to the latest technology. Esoteric cabling is not worth its expense but stable infrastructure with floor pockets, patch panels, and extra wire runs is a worthy investment. In essence, the things not seen are more important than the things seen.
Flashy displays and digital wonders are typically a waste of money. Glitz has little to do with Church media. It is all about seamless integration of the message into the delivery system. For valuation, the basic rule of thumb is to look at the item’s total installed cost versus the core price, and if the ratio is less than 1.5:1 and the product has a lifecycle of less than three years, it can be value engineered. However, value engineering, (reducing the equipment level to a preset cost factor) is a slippery slope. Be aware the committee is packed with bean counters yearning to cut the media budget, and it is your job to explain the value of the design and how the AVL system is the only part of the sanctuary directly related to changing people’s lives. After all, no one ever came to Christ because of a crystal chandelier or the deep pile of a carpet, but only through a clear understanding of the spoken and sung Word accurately delivered by a well-designed media system.
People Trump Gear
Right now, there are hundreds of churches brimming with expertly installed state-of-the-art media systems, yet the sermons are unintelligible, the music floundering in feedback, and the lighting wholly inappropriate for worship. The people behind the design and in front of the console are more valuable than the gear they select or operate. If the consultant or design firm is not intimately familiar with the method and style of worship employed by your congregation, the system will not match the need. If the operators are not trained in detail on the systems, they will not be able to realize its potential. If the system can only be functional with an “expert” at the helm, it is a bad design. Push for a system with flexible presets, logical routing, and simple topology.
The process of designing, implementing, and operating a media system for a new or renovated facility is enough to drive some worship leaders to quit as soon as the opening service ends. Months of pressure and family neglect combine to create a fight-or-flight scenario, and since most worship leaders are averse to confrontation, they leave. This is usually a mistake. Though the system may not be perfect, it will improve over time as operators become acclimated to it and the worship team learns how to perform in the environment. So, as tempting as it is to move on, stay put and let the flower of your planting bloom.
Technology is constantly changing, but the principles behind solid design do not. If the infrastructure and power are properly implemented, the best speakers in the right location are chosen, the system is fully integrated and works as a single entity, then the project will be a success. The worship leader who follows this template will be able to look back on the project with satisfaction in a job well done.
Some useful links to assist you in renovating or creating a new worship environment:
Overview of design (the industry’s largest trade show is also a great information source)
Profile of a consultant (one of the industry’s best is also a dedicated Christian)