Technology and the Small Church

In Uncategorized by tfwm

Working with the Right Technical Consultant

Side A: LOOKING FOR THE RIGHT CONSULTANT

Searching for a new sound system for a small church is NOTHING like wading into a swimming pool from the shallow end first! In fact, you can’t even see the shallow end from where most churches start the process. The typical scenario involves a meeting where someone voices his or her dissatisfaction with the three dial-4 tube amplifier and the 70-volt speaker system that has been in the church for the past 50 years. Well, suddenly the floodgates are opened.

Emotions regarding the nostalgic value of the old system pour forth. Fears of the cost of new systems bring panic. Young techies secretly cheer from the sidelines. Official Boards start to consider debt management strategies. Deacons buy new tape measures and gear up for “the new project.” Pastors resign themselves to a battle over the “old” and the “new” or sometimes they just resign! Seriously!

Somehow, it has become very difficult to find unbiased sources of information regarding sound systems for small churches. Yet, the majority of churches in North America, where most sound systems are being purchased, are still small churches with under 100 members. They may have more in attendance, but their core membership remains stable and small.

Churches like these desperately need an honest, discerning assessment of their needs from an informed person. They need to wade through the milieu of makes and model numbers; watts and amps; hertz and kilohertz; speakers, mics, cables, mixers and processors. Admittedly, some people in a small church have no idea of the difference between digital and analog, or volume and power. Nevertheless, all of them ultimately want the same things.

It has been my experience that people in smaller churches value:

• Meaningful/inspiring worship
• Audible sermons
• Intimate atmosphere in the Sanctuary
• Clean, clear sound
• A variety of styles of music
• A variety of venues including drama, video, projected lyrics,
• Uncluttered Sanctuary
• Wise spending and no or little debt
• Visionary planning that includes people
• Reversible installations (in case they grow)
• Reusable/expandable systems
• Outside guest musicians and speakers
• Being small
• The gospel
• The poor and disenfranchised

Planning a sound system upgrade or replacement for these small churches must be custom fit to each individual church. There is little room for a cookie cutter approach to the small church projects. What fits one congregation’s needs will be wildly out of place in another. This may seem to be a very basic statement, but it is amazing how many people consult small churches about sound using the systems they have already installed as a pre-conceived blueprint for the foundation of all systems they install.

In recent experience, I discovered that some consultant/salesmen even dismiss entire strategies for sound because of the myths they have come to believe regarding those systems. For example, if a consultant is experienced in large venues where rock groups play regularly, he/she may never have fully investigated the difference between single source, multiple speaker columns vs. a system that incorporates a true line-array system.

A consultant/sales person recently confessed to me that he had “always wanted to try a digital system install in a small church, but never had the nerve.” This reveals a number of problems in the whole process. What would make him afraid of helping churches move to new equipment at that level? I believe there are several standard misconceptions about small church technology needs. These assumptions will color any insights the consultant brings to us as a small church. You may think some of the things in my list are wrong, or you may even want to add a few of your own. However, try these on for size.
People coming to consult small churches have to be careful they do not make the following assumptions:

• There is no one here that knows technology
• There is no one qualified to run this system
• This church will never use this system to its full potential
• They don’t have the money for this
• There are not enough people here to make it worth my while
• This system is too good for this church
• All people in small churches are old
• Small churches don’t like change and aren’t contemporary

What we need from a consultant is:

• Someone who listens to us personally and to our acoustic needs carefully
• Accurate measurements and simple, unbiased assessment of our technology needs
• Simple systems that are expandable
• System designs that can be built in stages
• Honesty
• Training for volunteers once the system is installed
• Pictures (bring room measurements that are graphics, not numbers…it is easier for people to grasp something they can see)
• Test systems (bring a system that we can use for a couple of weeks to see what it sounds like, or looks like in the case of projectors)
• Commitment

It is easy to send brochures with data and pictures to a church but that does nothing to help the church decide what equipment will best meet its needs. A good consultant will come to the remote area small churches, sit down with us and listen to what we have on our heart. We may not know all the names of all the components, but we know what will serve our vision when we see it.
This takes time, energy and a good ear. We may use words like ‘cozy’ or ‘intimate’ or ‘soft’. A good consultant will take those non-technical words and translate them into technology that will meet our needs. It may be as simple as making the technology relatively invisible to keep the cross as the focus of the room design. It may be the color we paint our walls so the projector shows up better. It may be something as simple as where we run mic cables on a small platform so we don’t trip the pastor!

In larger church installations, these things may be taken care of using drop boxes in the new platform or racks of lights hung high in the air. Small churches don’t often have the luxury of tearing into the fabric of heritage buildings to make those adjustments. We simply cannot always afford it!
In giving us an honest, unbiased assessment, with one or two simple options, the technology consultant will win us to them…not the equipment. If they have a preference of systems, they really need to set that aside while doing the assessment of small church needs. The reality is that they probably make their living on larger consulting jobs that involve systems we will never see or consider in the smaller church market. However, there is still a viable market need at the small church level that is big enough to support the willing consultant.

Come willing to teach us. Come willing to help us achieve the vision that God has placed on our heart. Come willing to spend time, listen to us, and help keep us on track. (Small churches tend to be relational and experience oriented.) Come willing to eat as you consult…we love to entertain and visit. Come willing to charge a fair price for excellent work…we love to reward good work! Come willing to experience the tremendous blessing of small church.

B: (The Flip Side) WHAT A CONSULTANT NEEDS FROM A SMALL CHURCH

I can only imagine the dilemma of approaching a small church regarding sound systems and technology needs. There are so many loud voices. There are so many variables. There is often so much history in the building and in the relationships. There is such a great need for good technology in small packages. There is such a great need for people in small churches to experience worship in a way that enables them to hear and see what God is bringing to them.

I believe small churches need to be honest…both with the consultants and with themselves. They need to be open and authentic about why they are considering a move in the technology world. They need to carefully consider the full implications of what they are setting in motion for their community both within the church and outside the church. I recently conducted a wedding in my small church. The groom made the comment that “he knew we were a cool church because we used a Mac!” (We use an iMac computer for the worship lyrics.)

While I did agree with his assessment that we had a cool church, I disagreed with his reasoning. It is not technology that makes church good. It is God in His people. Moreover, God has enabled us in our small church to implement some technology innovations that have been cool but we need to be honest. It is not the technology that we came for…it is the inspiring worship.
Often small churches suffer from “large church envy” and to compensate they tend to move to install their own mini-version of large technology. This attitude within a church will make it impossible for a consultant to accurately assess the needs of the church and help it achieve its vision because the vision is of something they are not!

Small churches thinking of calling in a technology consultant should do their homework. They might consider the following:

• Have clear vision and mission statement (this helps evaluate projects)
• Have a clear ministry plan and world view
• Have an honest budget for your project and stick to it
• Read up on the terminology and technology (update your knowledge base)
• Limit the number of people involved in the assessment process (find the ones who are passionate about technology in worship and good communicators)
• Be willing to listen to the consultant (lay aside preconceptions of systems or styles)
• Develop a clear Scope of Work for your project and stick to it
• Be willing to test out a few systems (don’t buy the first thing suggested)
• Communicate clearly in all directions (Know all the stakeholders in the project)
• Be willing to wait
• Visit other smaller churches to see their technology or lack of it
• Be willing to be trained at all levels
• Be willing to recommend your consultant to others if you have a good experience!

Having a clear vision and mission will help the small church ask the right questions. “Will this technology help or hinder in achieving our vision?” “How will it help or hinder?” The small church needs to be ready to ask the tough questions and give honest, authentic answers to the consultant. Is there possibility for growth? What are we building into our technology that will accommodate growth and expansion? What is the life span of the system we are installing? What are we expecting?

The bible tells us in James, that the source of many of our troubles come from not getting what we expect. It is important then, to make sure we understand our own expectations at the small church level and communicate these to the consultant. Technology that involves chips and digital transfer of information has its limitations in both use and life span. The equipment we install today may not be built to last half as long as the equipment installed forty years ago.

We also need to be honest about how much we are able to spend without placing the church into unsolvable debt problems. This work on budget before the consultant arrives will save much time and effort. Presenting the consultant with a range for a project gives them the framework from which to start planning all other decisions. Expectations that outstrip the budget will inevitably lead to disappointment and dispute. Small churches can help themselves by cultivating an attitude of contentment with the level of things they are able to do now. This does not mean complacent…just content.

Learning as much as you can about technology before you enter the discussion will help everyone involved but especially your consultant. I am sure time would be better spent training someone how to use their new equipment than to learn the words to describe their new equipment. However, that being said, it is also important to “do your homework” before the consultant arrives. Develop your own small church technology glossary and go over the definitions of what the terms mean.

This may be an opportunity for churches to pre-recruit young techies to ministry. Bringing new technology on board can create space for new volunteers who understand the use of new technology. Even sound men/women with the right heart add to the worship experience!

This may involve taking a Sunday or two or three and visiting other small churches that have upgraded their technology recently. Take time to ask them about their experience. Did they use a consultant? Was the consultant good or not?

A clear ministry plan, whether developed by the Pastor, the Board or the congregation, will enable the church to make the best use of the right equipment. Buying fixed systems and installing them when you want to do a park ministry in the summer is not going to meet your needs. The projector you buy will depend on many variables from light in the sanctuary to the distance you have to project.

A consultant coming in will love you for life if you have a clear idea of what you want to do now and in the future. It will help him/her choose technology that will best meet your needs and help you grow into the coming ministry opportunities.

I always evaluate equipment purchases on a dollars-to-life-changed ratio. For instance, a typical projector costs around $1,000 for a small church. This may seem to be, and is a lot of money. But evaluating the purchase on a dollars-to-life-changed ratio tells us that the projector will help minister to 100 or so people for an hour (Sunday AM) every week for 52 weeks a year for up to five years. The $1,000 purchase is evaluated against 26,000 or more people/hours of ministry time. The cost for the projector amounts to three cents per person per Sunday over a period of five years. Aging people who can no longer read the hymnbook seem to like the clear lyrics projected on the wall and for three cents it is worth every penny!

Closely connected to the clear vision, is a clear world-view of your church. Knowing how you fit into the world around you will help you decide what to do with the technology in your ministry. IF the sermons in your church are largely for you, and have a mainly local connection, then cd duplication may be the way to go, over pod casting. But if your youth group in town is connected on F acebook (odds are that they are!) then pod casting or streaming sermons to your website may help them stay connected.

Seniors may not have a cd player. Perhaps the church could provide them with personal cd players, headphones, and a cd of the sermon if they cannot get out to church that week! Knowing your community will help you decide how you want to use technology. A good consultant, who hears this as part of your vision, will be able to connect you to a good technology plan and set this ministry in motion quickly, efficiently and inexpensively! This will also open doors for cd volunteers and help connect across the generations as young people train older people to use new ministry tools!

Remembering that consulting is a business, and a much-needed business at that, it is a good thing to plan to spend part of your project money on getting the right discerning technology consultant. Ask around in other churches. Ask larger churches if they know of good consultants. When you find one, and you will, be willing to recommend them to others who might need their services. There are many good consultants out there and a select few of them are excellent in relationship to small congregations. If you take the time to pray, plan and wait for God’s direction, He will bring you the right people for the project.