New Applications for Assistive Listening in Houses of Worship

In Uncategorizedby tfwm

In their age-old efforts to feed souls and help individuals, houses of worship are always trying to identify ways to better meet the needs of their congregants. One of those needs has always been the necessity of hearing the message, both for the general membership as well as for those with special needs such as a hearing disability or a language barrier.

Many houses of worship are turning to assistive listening systems (ALS – also called auditory assistance systems), not just to address the traditional challenges of hard-of hearing audiences, but for new and innovative ways to help their members.

An assistive listening facilities’ main sound system (also called an auditory assistance system) consists of a transmitter and receiver. The transmitter can either be installed (stationary) or portable. A stationary system is wired directly into the fac system, and transmits the same audio signal that is distributed to the facilities speaker (spoken words from the pulpit microphone, music from organs or other instruments, or audio feed from a projector or satellite feed).

A portable system is typically a belt pack unit with a microphone worn by a single individual (such as an interpreter or tour guide leader). In either case, the transmitter broadcasts a signal very similar to an FM radio station (referred to as “radio frequency” or RF, typically in the 72MHz or 216MHz band ranges). Ranges on these units vary, but are generally no greater than 3,000 feet (these frequencies are controlled by the FCC).

Receivers can vary from individual belt pack units, to receiver speakers, to stationary receivers. All receive the RF broadcast from the transmitter, and convert the signal back into sound for headsets or speakers. Typically, hard-of-hearing members utilize the receiver to hear the audio presentation better or to receive a simultaneous interpretation in their native language.

This is not the limit of the ALS applications, however. Grace Brethren Church in Simi Valley, California, is a perfect example of how an existing ALS system is being put to a new use. Grace Brethren’s membership includes individuals with varying degrees of hearing ability, including hard-of-hearing and deaf individuals. The existing ALS system was in place for use by those patrons with minimal or extensive hearing challenges.

For example, one member of the audience at Grace Brethren uses a belt-pack receiver with a neckloop. The neckloop generates a magnetic field that is received by a “T”-coil hearing aid. The individual’s hearing aid interprets this signal as sound. The advantage is that most hearing aids amplify all sound in the area, including background noise. Since the neckloop is feeding audio directly from the facility sound system, it doesn’t have this extra noise and makes it easier to hear.

Other members of Grace Brethren use headsets, similar to those you find with personal stereos, to hear better and with greater quality. About 10 percent of our population are dealing with some degree of hearing impairment, many houses of worship utilize similar systems to allow their congregants to have a better experience and enjoy the meetings since they can control the volume on their own units while sitting anywhere in the meeting hall.

Marcia Walter is a sign language interpreter for Grace Brethren’s deaf congregants, and is also hard-of-hearing herself. In normal situations, she reads the lips of people she is speaking with, however the placement of the podium made this nearly impossible. Add to that the chapel’s hard, “gymnasium-like” walls that made amplified sound echo and reverberate, and it was very difficult for Ms. Walter to distinguish speech or music, let alone interpret for the deaf members of the congregation.

The solution: Ms. Walter now wears a belt-pack receiver and ear speaker to listen to the speech routed through the assistive listening transmitter. She can now easily understand the pastor and other speakers as well as musical presentations. “I don’t know what I would do without it,” said Walter. “Before, I was literally at the mercy of the speaker at the pulpit. It they were too far back or turned even slightly, I couldn’t hear clearly or read their lips to interpret. I have been so thankful for this system.”

Another common challenge for houses of worship is an ever-diversifying congregation. Language barriers mean that a house of worship must either hold multiple services in different languages, or provide for language interpretation during the service. Some groups have the speaker give a sentence, and wait for the interpreter with a second microphone give an interpretation – a slow, time consuming process. Another option was one used by the Holliston Methodist Church in Pasadena, California, where a pew in the back of their chapel was designated for Spanish speaking participants. The interpreter would walk back and forth along the pew, whispering the interpretation to the members.

This was not a good solution, however, as it was difficult for the Spanish speaking members to hear the interpreter as well as distracting and disruptive to the other members of the congregation (not to mention back pain for the interpreter!). With an assistive listening system, Holliston religious leaders and others have an answer to their challenge. Holliston’s interpreter sits in the balcony or back of the chapel with a portable transmitter and microphone where his whispering doesn’t intrude on other member’s worship.

The Spanish speaking members sit wherever they would like, listening to the entire service interpreted and broadcast over the wireless listening system in their language of choice. The advantage of this system is that a separate sound room or booth can be set up, and multiple simultaneous interpretation can take place to provide the best possible environment for everyone participating.

Other applications for ALS systems include remote sound amplification. Remote sound amplification is where a presentation is being conducted in one area, and another area (either an adjoining room or separate room entirely) has speakers set up to deliver audio. With older or historic buildings, it can be difficult to run hardwired speakers to remote locations. Wireless receiver speakers can be used in conjunction with the existing auditory assistance system to place speakers in locations such as nurseries, foyers, overflow rooms and kitchens.

Outdoor services can also be set up on a temporary or week-by-week basis, allowing for last minute changes due to size of congregation or current weather conditions. Social events or parties can also enjoy amplified music or outdoor sound systems since the wireless systems are often completely portable and require no “hardwiring”. The popularity of personal camcorders in special programs or weddings is also at an all-time high.

The problem many aspiring amateur filmmakers (aka, parents) face is that the small, unsophisticated microphones on most camcorders pick up as much background noise in meeting rooms as they do the presentation itself. One solution is to connect the camcorder to the house of worship’s ALS system with adaptive cables. This works extremely well with mobile receivers, as the videographer or proud parent isn’t “plugged in” to a specific location or wall, but can move around freely, to get that “perfect shot”.

New products are being introduced on a regular basis, allowing for high quality audio to be distributed via transmitters and stationary receivers. These newer receivers often incorporate power amplifiers to drive speakers placed around a room or outdoor event, or can be integrated with another sound board to create a remote sound system that can be set up and taken down quickly and easily.

“We have been so pleased with the adaptability of our transmitter and receiver system,” said Walters. “One of the goal’s of any house of worship is to make sure that everyone has a pleasant experience during the service. Having my own receiver makes it easier for me to interpret, thus making sure everyone gets the message intended at the meeting.”

There are many applications for ALS systems in houses of worship. Whether it is to address hearing challenges, language barriers or remote meeting facilities, it might be just a matter of adapting a current system to the needs of the congregants in question. Just because a system hasn’t been used to address a certain need in the past, doesn’t mean that a new or innovate idea or technology might not now address the need and make the worship service meaningful for everyone in attendance.

As Ms. Walter so passionately said, “If I can help even one person to hear and understand the message better, my joy will be great and I will feel we have succeeded in our goals.” For more ideas of applications of assistive listen or wireless audio systems in houses of worship, visit the Listen Technologies Corporation website at, and click on “Applications”.