Sunday, June 8, 2003

Modern technology spreads old message

At church, it's lights, computer, sermon

By Andrea Uhde
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] At Mount Carmel Christian Church, this PowerPoint presentation is projected on two large screens that hang from the ceiling at services last Sunday.
(Brandi Stafford photos)
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The overhead lights go dim.

A scene from What About Bob? flashes on screens suspended above the stage.

The clip ends. Lights go up. Microphones go live.

It's time for the sermon.

This is church in 2003.

Gail Rizzo, the director of worship, technology and drama at Mount Carmel Christian Church, punches the buttons to control the lights, microphone and projectors in the sanctuary. "We wanted to enhance the message," she said. "We wanted to make sure we were using every tool we could."

Peer into the sanctuary in Mount Carmel Christian Church and other churches and you see:

• Enormous screens projecting guest speakers being beamed in on satellite.

• Elaborate speaker systems booming Nine Inch Nails rock songs to introduce the sermon topic.

• Theatrical lighting systems spotlighting actors performing Bible stories.

[IMAGE] Two large screens hang from the ceiling displaying part of a PowerPoint presentation as the executive pastor, Arlan Howard, gives his sermon at Mount Carmel Christian Church.
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"The productions the churches are putting on could rival Hollywood without a problem," said Shelagh Rogers, the publisher of Technologies for Worship magazine.

Within the last decade, and primarily in the last few years, churches locally and nationally have been fusing elaborate electronic systems with faith, dabbling in pop culture and using it to attract larger and younger congregations.

Churches are spending from $20,000 for a basic projector and speaker system to $1 million for an all-out theatrical lighting system, huge sound boards and an assortment of wireless microphones and video cameras.

Eastside Christian Church in Milford is relocating to an old movie theater in the town, which it'll be outfitting with $240,000 worth of electronics, including a "video cafe" with plasma TV screens, a digital sound system and several $10,000 cameras.

The church wants to attract the non-churched, even "if that takes us using rock and roll and it takes us using video presentations and technology," said Bryce Davis, a pastor at the church.

From the small churches to the mega churches, pastors are looking to electronics to enhance their messages, Rogers said.

Last month, Rogers' magazine sponsored the Inspiration Conference and Exposition in Cincinnati. Businesses and experts held seminars to teach religious leaders about technology. The fair, held annually in various U.S. cities, attracted 1,600 people from seven countries, Rogers said.

It's important for churches to be progressive, said Bob Reccord, the president of the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, which is responsible for starting nearly 2,000 new Southern Baptist churches each year in the United States and Canada.

"If there are leaders out there who are staying unaware of what technology can do in a local congregation, they'll be the losers," said Reccord. And, he adds, pastors are missing out on the joy of seeing their messages enhanced.

A new type of service

For most churches, long gone are the days of the basic pulpit-and-pew setup. People of all ages are relishing the enhancements of electronics.

"As a culture as a whole, we're really more accustomed to it," said Jim Stauffer, a pastor at Sharonville United Methodist Church. "It's not quite a novelty like it used to be."

Technology shouldn't compromise the message, Stauffer said. "Hopefully, good technology almost disappears. People might not realize it, but hopefully they hear more and see more and remember more."

The technology has caused a religious reawakening for Gene Barton, 58, of Eastgate. Barton, who attends Mount Carmel Christian Church, grew up going to a strict church with an organ and hymnbooks. Hearing the saxophone, keyboard and guitars blare through speakers and seeing the words to the hymns on a screen was a change.

"I realize worship is something from here," Barton said, patting his chest.

At Eastside's sanctuary, the face of the pastor is magnified on a large screen. In the lobby, a TV displays live coverage of activities in the sanctuary. Movie clips and professionally designed graphics coincide with the sermons. The equipment, which was purchased to tide them over until they relocate, cost about $50,000, said Davis.

"It's a departure from the typical church where there's an organ in the front," said Linda Powers, 50, of Eastgate, who attends the church.

The technology explosion has spawned a new category of church employees: media and staging technicians.

Mount Carmel Christian Church started Rizzo's position in 1999, and Crossroads Christian Church in Maineville has hired a director of media and a stage director since 1996.

It's not about entertainment, church leaders stress.

"Our goal is to stay away from entertainment for the sake of entertainment," said Rizzo. "We won't do something just because it's funny or cute - it's got to tie into the theme or the image."


It is, though, credited with attracting larger congregations.

On Easter this year, 1,587 people came to services at Eastside Christian Church. Before the church turned to technology, the congregation averaged 150, Davis said.

Eastside progressed slowly, with some contemporary services and some traditional services. In three years, attendance in the traditional services fell to 35, while 1,000 people flocked to the more progressive service, Davis said. Eventually, the church ended the traditional services.

"We walked in and we were doing something completely different. We've seen a response to that," Davis said.

Mount Washington Church of Christ was gaining members at a rate of 33 percent for several years, partly because the church started using high-tech equipment, said David Ray, a pastor at the church. Now, with about 800 to 900 members, the church has exhausted what space it has, he said.

"Churches that want to grow do everything they can to open up their doors to people who are not part of the church," and technology is a way of doing that, said Ray.

"It's less intimidating for people," said Arline Liegel, 40, of Anderson Township, a choir member at Mount Carmel Christian Church. "The way they bring in current examples really helps you connect with the Bible."

Young adults are especially attracted to the media, said Kurt Wells, the minister of music and worship at Faith Fellowship Church in Green Township.

"We have to explore those areas or we'll continue to lose the youth culture," Wells said.

That's one reason why Mount Carmel Christian Church's sanctuary has ceilings armored with speakers and spotlights and a spread of technological heaven: a 56-channel sound board, a desktop computer with PowerPoint, two computer monitors and a long light control board - a total investment, along with lights and projectors, of about $50,000.

The PowerPoint program, which combines slides, graphics and videos on computer to make a presentation and other electronics helped reel in Kelley Webster, 26, of Batavia. "I love it. It makes it easer to follow along," she said. "It's not so old-age."

There are some who aren't pulled in by the technological schemes, though.

"There are people who want good organ music and good hymns, and when they decide to go to church, they're not looking for televisions," said Stauffer, whose church has two traditional services and one contemporary service.

The business boom

The trend is pumping money into local electronics businesses.

Churches are "extremely important. They are probably 25 percent of our business," said James Huber, the director of marketing for Nor-Com Inc., an audio and visual integrator in Hebron.

Nor-Com is working on installations in about 40 churches; 10 years ago, they had only about 10 churches in their clientele, Huber said. "They've become a big part of our business."

Nor-Com installs Intellivox, a unique speaker system made in Holland that eliminates reverberation. The system can have a price tag around $50,000 - Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption in Covington spent about $70,000 on Intellivox, Huber said.

At Smithall Electronics Inc. in Over-the-Rhine, workers are specially trained for the boom in church business. "One of the biggest effects is we've had to get the know-how to put this stuff in," said Angela Brown, project manager at the store. "We've had to learn video, we've had to learn lighting."

The businesses are keeping a sharp eye on the industry. Many are sending special mailings to churches, looking to tap the market.

"We've been watching the worship industry for awhile now," said Carlton Guc, who does video, light and sound system installation for Stage Research in Cleveland. Guc, along with representatives from many local businesses, attended the Inspiration Conference and Exposition last month.

More to come

The spending may have only just begun - many church leaders are adding to their technology wish lists.

They want to be cutting edge.

"We're always on the lookout for any type of technology that can enhance what we do in worship," said Danny Collins, church administrator at Florence Baptist Church.

"I only know that as technology continues to evolve and there're better ways for communicating with people, we'll explore those," said Brian Wells, the director of spiritual development at Crossroads Christian Church.

"If it ends up being smoke signals or poetry - whatever."


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