The Amen Corner: Getting the Word Out
Posted May 31, 2006

Churches and houses of worship across all religions face the same issue: how to get the message out to the faithful. Houses of worship in all shapes and sizes face issues of recording and transmitting their message. Some spread the word (or Word) by tape, some by CD, some across radio and cable television. Yet those in the super-large, or "mega-church," category, face several other challenges that most houses of worship don't face. Let's look at a few of these.

Broadcast-level Video Capture. Video capture and display are becoming much more prevalent across mid-range and large houses of worship. The upper end of the market, though, is much more likely to include a dedicated multi-person production team, which typically consists of a director, technical director, three to seven camera operators, a sound technician, and a graphics operator.

Audience Display (a.k.a. Jumbotrons). While many houses of worship have moved to PowerPoint or basic graphics for use in singing or sermon enhancement, the mega-churches, by contrast, have installed large-screen display systems that rival those found in most sporting venues. In fact, a number of churches have also added three to four screens in their primary auditorium that look enough like a large scoreboard that they're often nicknamed Jumbotrons.

Some might denigrate the size of the displays as antithetical to the mission of a particular church. While the size can be initially distracting, the requirement for these large-audience displays is less about conspicuous consumption than it is about the fact that almost every mega-church has a portion of the weekly meeting that requires singular attention on a particular speaker. As these mega-churches are about the same size as a mid-sized college sports venue, these screens allow the audience to connect with the primary speaker in a way that smaller churches used to hold the lead on.

These systems don't just display video; many mega-churches have moved to complex graphics display capabilities, which means higher demands in terms of resolution in flexibilities than standard-definition video signals require. These systems include graphics switchers that seamlessly transition between 1600x1200 computer graphics, SDI, and analog signals. Discussions with several church media teams also reveal that HD-display capability is being budgeted for the next two years, following the rise in popularity of HDV and other high-definition acquisition formats, which houses of worship have begun to embrace to capture content for editing of skits and promotional materials.

Platform Display and Monitoring Capability. Along with large-screen displays, many houses of worship have had to upgrade platform monitoring to accompany the ever-expanding group size on the platform at any given time. Many mid-sized churches have moved beyond simple two- or three-speaker monitoring to in-ear audio monitoring for ministerial and praise team members. Some mega-churches, though, have added side-by-side screen monitoring, showing either what is being displayed on each of several large screens or what is currently on the primary screen plus what is queued up next. This trend is expected to continue, especially in churches where a dedicated production team is impractical or the minister wants more control over the pacing of the visuals; expect to see some houses of worship install multi-image touchscreen control systems directly on the platform in the near term.

In-house Broadcast. When I started into video production and AV integration, only large corporations could afford an in-house broadcast system. Known in those days as Business Television (BTV) and now known as digital signage, most systems consist of capture, transmission, and display subsystems that send the content to multiple buildings or rooms.

More recent systems also include storage for still images, backgrounds, and video files, and a few even include the ability to play back HTML and Flash files. This convergence of media, image, and web file types—aided by the quality of video compression such as H.264 or Flash 8—is also providing houses of worship with the ability to leverage content into numerous media avenues. Several churches I've talked to are beginning to explore integrated and simultaneous delivery of content to the large-screen displays in the auditorium, to the in-house digital signage system, and to the web in the form of streaming and interactivity.

Picking and Choosing. In summary, the trends that the mega-church market are following are not much different from traditional-broadcast and new-media trends. This should not be surprising, given the fact that many members of the production team are either employed in broadcast jobs or own their own event videography firms. As such, mega-churches are also more likely than mid-range houses of worship to include high-definition capture in upcoming budgets, where an incremental cost increase yields significant image-quality increase, which is important for large-screen display.

To the reseller or product manufacturers who might read this column, consider this piece of information carefully, too: unlike other fields where I've done competitive market analysis, where companies rely heavily on paid consultants to recommend products for use in high-end production and display systems, the culture of the mega-church market is fundamentally different, at least in terms of how purchasing decisions are considered and made. The upper end of the market is much more likely to rely on the recommendations of professionals who use a particular piece of equipment in their "day jobs" throughout the week. As such, these informal consultations carry much more weight in the fast-growing mega-church market.