For Some Churches, Tech Upgrade Plans On Track, Rising

by | Building Health, Case Studies, Design-Build, Production

Entering 2020, no matter how extensive a church’s budgetary planning was, nothing could have prepared any house of worship for the truly unexpected once March arrived, in the form of COVID-19.

Each calendar year, churches across the country work to devise detailed budgets, ranging from small to large. Taking such steps provide a roadmap of upcoming tech upgrade plans for their worship space, or elsewhere on their campus(es).

With COVID-19’s swift impact, it left many churches nationwide to adjust on the fly in a matter of days. The most common of a church’s major shifts was having to close for in-person services for two-plus months. With such significant changes, a church’s original upgrade plans often end up on the proverbial scrap heap, at least for a year.

In discussions with church tech staff members from Georgia to California, though, a consistent message offered a more encouraging perspective. While some churches did detail slight delays to planned upgrades, none cited having to mothball any this year.

Photo courtesy of MICHAEL SCOTT
A view of the work behind the scenes during a broadcast of a worship service at Henderson Hills Baptist Church in Edmond, Oklahoma, which recently moved to begin streaming services after in-person services were postponed following measures implemented in response to COVID-19.

More surprising, was a number of the churches that pointed to planning an additional upgrade or upgrades in 2020. Two weeks ago, we looked at how churches worked to stay connected to their congregation in the midst of COVID-19.

Churches Find Upgrade Options To Improve Services

At Henderson Hills Baptist Church in Edmond, Oklahoma, for instance, the church had prior to March avoided livestreaming its services, noted Michael Scott, the church’s director of media arts. “It’s a crowded market, as we are less than a mile from Life.Church, and they do (livestreaming) so well. Therefore, we didn’t want to get into it, but we had to (once COVID-19 hit),” said Scott. 

Offering livestreaming at Henderson Hills has proven to be such a success. Since returning to in-person services two weeks ago – with the church for the first time offering both livestreaming and in-person services – its online numbers continue to climb.

With what Henderson Hills has achieved so quickly with livestreaming, there was an acknowledgement to make additional livestreaming investments. “We are looking at financing a high quality of production for our in-person and broadcast services. We’re not yet equipped to do them both well,” said Scott. We have re-evaluated, and now see how this benefits the church’s mission, vision and values.” 

Brian Witte, technical director at Journey Church in Kenosha, Wisconsin, noted how at Journey, they have had a similar result. Since reopening for in-house services this month, “most of our viewers are still online, than in-house. We have shifted our focus to keeping the interest of our online viewership.” To meet that goal, Witte noted recently purchasing four cameras and lighting, “to complement the camera shots.” 

Gaining A Different Perspective From Home

For churches that have witnessed a dramatic shift in how much of their congregation now is watching their services online, it has opened the eyes of many of its congregants. Many of them had previously been attending services, and now got an up-close look about the church’s greatest technology needs. 

At West Asheville Baptist Church in West Asheville, North Carolina, for example, lead production assistant Luke Ward discussed how quickly much of its congregation, upon watching streamed services for the first time, came to see how the church’s aging technology was lacking. “When people were worshipping in the church, they didn’t see the value in upgrading the equipment. That attitude has completely changed (once the congregation began regularly watching services online),” he said.

That shift in attitude became particularly evident, once Ward began getting “questions, such as ‘Why are the pictures so fuzzy?’ We had to explain that we were using standard definition cameras from 1997.”

A planned video upgrade is now forging ahead, with the gathering of bids. Learning how the viewing experience would improve with a camera upgrade, he added, “People have now gotten on board.” 

Waiting For Return Of In-Person Services, ‘Silver Lining’ Found

Even as church staffs across the country have had to contend with the recent challenge of having their congregations unable to worship in person for a few months, there was one aspect that amounted to a silver lining of sorts, while working through this ‘new normal.’  

Nathan Williams, technical director at Victory World Church in Atlanta explained, “Usually, we are doing projects Sunday to Sunday (having to pause any work to not interfere with in-house worship that day). Now we can do larger projects, that would have cost us more money. (Previously work crews) would have had to start and stop, and leave the building.” 

Likewise, Kyle Focht, the director of communications and technology at St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Plano, Texas, discovered such extended access on a project was beneficial. “We completed a project to rerun our wiring to get us from CAT5 to CAT6, and other infrastructure, since no one was in the building,” he noted.

Photo courtesy of KYLE FOCHT
At St. Andrew United Methodist Church, among the recent updates the church moved ahead with was by changing to a new online platform, StreamYard

Discovering New Upgrade Priorities

If anything, church tech staff members spoke at length how the pandemic has forced churches to reassess everything. 

Such revaluations included as Focht outlined, where St. Andrew “had done a major renovation two years ago. It took care of audio and video in our sanctuary, meaning we have a nice video system focused on (in-person services),” with the church recently pivoting toward a greater focus in its online broadcasts. 

Among the first small upgrades at St. Andrew, included “some of our extra PTZ resources from other venues.” That was possible, since those locations were temporarily closed to in-person services, noted Focht. Once those locations began to reopen, the church budgeted additional funds to sustain that broadcasting equipment upgrade long-term. 

For Henderson Hills, once it began streaming – and with such success – it became clear it wouldn’t be temporary. In its reprioritization, the church adjusted original plans for a video system upgrade to replace a 10-year-old system, originally aimed to solely improve in-house services. “We had to rethink the video upgrade, to also benefit broadcast … not just one area,” said Scott. 

So too, did Focht experience such a shift, to more of a split between in-house and online services. “We haven’t had to purchase any gear yet. We are having conversations in the next month or so, though, to sustain the high quality of (online) worship right now,” he said. 

With congregants recently turning exclusively to online services, St. Andrew’s growth in online audience translated to “those purchases directly resulting from COVID-19, and the stronger online presence,” added Focht.

At Journey Church, Witte said, “We are working through some ideas (relating to priorities). The PA had been a priority. Some of the camera ideas, though, have shifted our focus on how to keep a captive audience.”

Upgrade Ideas In The Face Of Tight Budgets

Such an urgent focus toward such reassessments was unavoidable for many churches. Once congregants were unable to attend services in many states, many churches had to hold the line on spending. “The budgets we had for 2020 were immediately suspended (by March), unless it was absolutely necessary,” noted media production manager Debbie Keough of Water of Life Community Church in Fontana, California. 

Among the more notable changes instituted in recent months at Water of Life included where “we started using prompters. We also had to have prompter software, along with adding more TVs,” said Keough. “We had to have some additional expenditures, while other ministries unfortunately did not.”

Despite such limitations, Keough elaborated that at Water of Life, the church chose to focus on streaming its services well. “We had to change how we made recorded services, especially with IMAG. It previously had been a key element of our recorded in-person services, but now those worship spaces were empty.”

Photo courtesy of KYLE FOCHT
A view of the worship space at St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Plano, Texas, during an Easter service being streamed, during a time when in-person services were postponed.

Repurposing Of Gear Proves Crucial For Churches

Making such reassessments, though, sometimes hasn’t required new investments in technology, but simply repurposing recently purchased equipment. At Water of Life, for example, Keough cited how the church had purchased a Behringer X32 console, originally intended for one of the church’s small venues. Instead, Keough noted, “we were able to utilize the small gear. That included the console, for offsite recordings,” as part of the church’s new changes when streaming its services. 

At Henderson Hills, the church’s broadcasting needs received a boost with a recent purchase that was also repurposed, Scott said. The original plan had been for the console and stage racks to be part of a portable midsize video setup. 

Over Long-Term, Culture Shift Might Be On Horizon

With states reopening, the anticipation of full in-person worship services for churches are still a ways off, noted Keough. “This has forced any church, from the largest to the smallest, to focus on what goes online, until people get back in the room. We don’t see us getting back to ‘normal’ until January.”

In the case of Water of Life, the recent move to online has been significant, Keough noted. From her perspective, the church had previously been a place where “people would love to be in attendance. We never had that online demand. Now, I see a huge culture shift for our church.”

Faced with such a significant change in how churches have been operating recently, Keough added, “We are effectively changing how our culture does church.”

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