In 1999, the leadership of Willow Creek Community Church knew their rapidly expanding congregation would soon outgrow their 4,500 seat sanctuary. They had already outpaced the current center’s ability to handle new technology for communication. The video suite was packed into a former office, cable runs were strewn over floors and ceiling tiles. It was time to plan for a new facility, one that could house the flock and offer a better environment for worship, drama, understanding, and interaction.
As the technology team, headed by Chris Gille, David Cooke, and Bruce Smith, formed to lay out a plan and budget for the new 7,200 seat sanctuary, the church board put forth a clear vision in the form of five guidelines:
1. Teaching should be warm and intimate throughout all seating areas of the Auditorium. Intimacy between the pastor and the congregation is essential. Because of the large size of the 7200-seat auditorium, video screens must provide a dramatic and visual support for teaching, music, and video supplements to dramatic vignettes.
2. Praise and worship is a key part of every service. The sound should be warm and enveloping in all seating areas. Communication between musicians and vocalists should provide accurate pitch and timing cues to members of the congregation.
3. The platform must support dramatic presentations, from short vignettes common to most services to semi-annual large-scale events. The sightlines from the congregational seating area should be excellent and make these presentations as visually engaging as possible.
4. The congregation’s participation should be supported by acoustics of the main seating area and should inspire and assist in creating a high level of energy and excitement among the participants by allowing one to hear their own sound as well as the sound of others.
5. A sense of community must be supported by the new auditorium design. Ideally, a member of the congregation should be able to see all the other members of the congregation.
The team’s plan included a budget of about $12 million dollars, including costs for design, consultation, fabrication, cabling, labor, and equipment. By taking advantage of in-house talent and strong church volunteer support, the team was able to pare the costs to under $8 million. Bringing the project into reality required a cooperative effort between Willow Creek staff, architectural firm Goss/Pasma/Bloumquist, consultant Acoustic Dimensions, theater consultant Schuller & Shuck, and audio consultant T. C. Furlong. Meeting the guidelines and resolving often conflicting architectural, acoustic, video, lighting, and staging requirements was a challenge met with innovative and revolutionary solutions.
Tight coordination between the tech team, consultants, and architects dramatically reduced errors and oversights on projection placement and obstacles, cable trays and pathways, and other artifacts typical for a technology-laden theater facility. Manufacturers and integrators kept the team up to date on innovations, allowing the group to adapt to new technology during the 5-year planning and building process. During construction, members of the team worked side-by-side with contractors, resolving questions on wiring and positioning as they arose.
At the same time, the team coordinated a volunteer group that designed, built and installed many elements of the new building. In addition to fabricating 100-foot flying light bridges, the group also installed virtually all the audio systems and terminated many of the AV connections and plates. In this case, understanding how to mobilize the gifts in the church not only strengthened the church’s community bonds, but also saved nearly $5 million in project costs.
The Right Image
Opened in September, 2004, the pièce de résistance of the new Willow Creek Auditorium are two 14’ x 24’ Mitsubishi DiamondVision LED displays, either flanking the stage or drawn together to form a massive 48’ image.
With six 40’ high windows located on each side of the stage, and a ceiling crisscrossed by catwalks and lighting trusses, a projection solution was out of the question. Moreover, they could integrate the flat panels as a theatrical element. A novel double I-Beam system using Chain Master hoists and trolleys, designed and built by church volunteers, allow stagehands to move displays apart, together, up, down, pivot, or pan.
The church’s original Barco projectors serve a new role, double-stacked to project on a center-stage rear projection screen. Video support for balconies and other areas is provided by 4 rear-projection screens and 12 plasma displays, fed with SDI video.
Staging the Vision
A brief walk across the stage begins reveals a gem designed with many facets. Out front is a sloped main floor with single balcony above that sweeps around the stage in a 160-degree curve, allowing the audience to see themselves as easily as the stage. Directly above are a 70-foot fly tower and 30 battens. Backstage is a wagon house with 90’ by 30’ flying door. You are standing in the largest fully-featured theater in North America. The staging can handle live dramas that serve as modern-day parables for the message, Christian musicals produced by the church, concerts, conferences, multi-image video presentations – whatever is needed to deliver and extend the message.
At the same time, one never feels lost or alone on the stage or in the audience. There is a feeling of connectedness on both sides of the relationship. This is no accident – it is a shared value of the church that is integrated into the architectural, audio, and video elements of the facility.
Infrastructure, Infrastructure, Infrastructure
Learning from experience, Willow Creek built in extensive electronic and physical support for events held in the Auditorium. Raceways throughout the facility carry a wide array of audio, video, and RF wiring, including 53 Triax feeds, as well as 11 audio and 19 video patch bays. People need space to prepare for the service as well, so Willow Creek provided ample space underneath the auditorium, including six studios, four rehearsal areas, and four warm-up rooms. The rooms can also be reconfigured for special events, recently presenting the service in twelve languages during a worldwide leadership conference.
In addition to baseband video feeds, the facility includes an in-house RF system that distributes camera feeds, digital signage, and selected off-air channels throughout the facility. Handicapped and parent’s seating feature 32 seat-back 17” displays in handicapped and parent’s areas. This feature is highly praised, for wheelchair-bound members can now see the service when everyone else stands up. Sixteen 42” and 50” plasma display service and signage channels. Other displays feed video to stage support areas and the coffee shop. Clever idea: one channel serves as a master clock, featuring the house time code inserted over a wide-angle stage shot. All displays are operated over the same RF coax with Contemporary Research TV controllers. The key reasons for choosing RF instead of Cat5 wiring are that RF coax supports multiple channels of analog and HDTV programming, is easily extended, and networks display control as well.
Presenting the Message
To bring the audience closer to the service, eight Sony DXC-D35 WLS widescreen cameras and one Panasonic box camera are employed during the services, used for fixed, variable, and shoulder-carried shots. Two cameras are robotically controlled using Vinten Lynx tripod-mounted controllers, minimizing the learning curve for volunteer operators.
Downstairs in the production suite, directors assemble the live production from large-screen video wall that can display over 30 images. Three 50” plasma displays can show up to 10 videos each, which can be scaled and arranged as needed.
The fully digital studio use a Ross Synergy 4 production switcher and Talia Condor AV routers to send media to displays, recorders, and RF modulators. While the cameras and presentations are presently produced in widescreen and 4:3 SD video, the live and post-production equipment are ready for HD-level broadcasting.
During the service, video is fed to a nearby room designed for overflow presentations. Two 9’ x 16’ screens echo the left and right DiamondVision screens in the auditorium, while a center screen displays an alternate camera angle. According to video designer David Cooke, “The center image may be a tight shot of the stage, the worship team, or head-to-toe shot of the speaker, depending on what’s going on the side screens. This helps the viewers to feel a part of the “real” service. Some churches are now using a center screen HD feed with a fixed view of the stage, which is also very effective.”
The Saturday night meeting is recorded onto eight Sony DSR-DR1000 hard-drive recorders, which are used on Sunday by three Chicago-area video churches, with a fourth site coming online in the fall. The churches have their own pastoral staff, and some have full worship teams as well. Using a DNF controller, the sites can easily search and play the sections needed for their congregation. In addition, a church in Rockford uses a single-screen tape of the sermon, and has grown from 300 to 4,000 members in just a few years.
The video team provided an innovative solution for last year’s Christmas services because Willow Creek, like many other churches, did not meet on Christmas Day, which fell on a Sunday in 2005. However, 30,000 people came to 10 services that led up to Christmas Eve, and each family was given a DVD with a Christmas service designed for the home. The video was extremely well received, and may find other avenues for expression in the future.
The Auditorium mix is executed with a 96-channel Yamaha PM1D system, using one CS1D control surface in the production suite for recording, and two more in the Auditorium for live sound and monitors. The staff feels the system is ideal because it facilitates different engineers and back-to-back event/rehearsal/service turns. For similar reasons, Yamaha PMD5 systems are used for youth and other worship centers.
Stereo Meyer Milo and M2D line arrays are used to provide primary music and voice presentation, with additional MSL-4 and other speakers employed for center, side, and front fill applications. Four Meyer M3D subs are flown with the arrays, while an additional four USW-1P subs are used on the stage deck. Using self-powered speakers for primary fill eliminates extensive amp racks, improves efficiency, and greatly simplifies installation and support. Additional Meyer UPM-1 speakers are installed around the facility for targeted fill and delay under the balcony and in the mezzanine – driven by QSC CX702 amplifiers.
Simplified, Distributed Control
Willow Creek chose to employ control solutions by Extron, Sanyo, and Contemporary Research because they are easily programmed and operated by in-house staff. The Extron and Sanyo controllers connect video projectors and sanctuary displays over Ethernet, offering basic control, scheduling, and e-mail alerts. Contemporary Research’s iC Commander 4 PC software manages 88 displays through the house MATV system, scheduling power, volume, and channel operation. Operators like iC Commander’s ability to create a unique schedule for special events, then return to normal operation for everyday operation.
In the end, the Willow Creek story really isn’t about technology; it’s about how technology, architecture, and people can work together to meet a common vision.
1. Define the Vision. A new project begins with a reason. Leadership should clearly define measurable goals, preferably in terms of people, not things.
2. Earn and Accept Authority. Willow Creek’s team had earned leadership’s trust, having the clear responsibility to conform the design to the stated objectives.
3. Find Wisdom. In addition to in-house experts, consultants and integrators are important resources for any successful project.
4. Plan. The project team should be given the time to preset a well-reasoned plan and budget to leadership. Technology often rewards those who wait.
5. Keep in the Loop. Keep the team together and communicating throughout the project to ensure what is designed well is installed correctly.
6. Mobilize the Membership. You’ll receive a lot less resistance from the congregation if they are partners in the solution.
Finally, speaking for all the sound, video, lighting and staging staff serving in worship spaces around the world – thanks guys, for getting it right.