Northland: Pioneering the "Networked Church"

In Uncategorizedby tfwm

When Dr. Dr. Joel C. Hunter was called to the post of senior pastor at Orlando’s Northland Community Church in 1985, he brought with him a model for a different kind of church. He envisioned Northland as a body of believers reaching outward, transcending physical boundaries, and establishing active worship relationships with others – anywhere and everywhere. To underline the point, he urged the congregation to adopt a new name: Northland, a Church Distributed.

Dr. Hunter had no intention – at least no direct intention – of propelling Northland to forefront of advanced audio and video technologies. Yet his vision set in motion a process that, step by step, led the church toward ever-increasing utilization of technology in order to connect worshippers with each other, both around the globe (see sidebar) and just down the road.

Tim Tracey, Northland’s Worship Director, recalls his first encounter with the bold concept: ‘In one of the first few days after I came here, back in 1992, Joel told me that there would be a day when we would not be limited by geography in our worship. All along we’ve felt that Northland exists to go beyond itself, to build relationships with other churches by connecting through our most glorious calling – the worship of God.”

This energizing vision contributed to in the church’s rapid growth, a trend which accelerated throughout the 1990’s. But growth in turn led to problems. Essentially, the church started running out of room.

Since the mid-1980s, Northland’s primary home had been a converted roller rink on Dog Track Road. Abandoned and rat-infested when purchased by the church, the modest but sturdy rink structure was upgraded piecemeal over the next two decades, and finally underwent a complete expansion and remodeling in 1995. Seating capacity was boosted from 800 to 1200, yet the number of weekly worship services required to fit everybody in crept upward from five to six to and then to seven a week, as combined attendance eventually pushed past the 10,000 mark. “We simply could not do more services,” says Tracey, “without exhausting our volunteers – and ourselves!”

Fortunately – or perhaps providentially – the church discovered that the Lyman High School Auditorium, located about one mile away, was available for use on Sunday mornings. Holding two worship services concurrently at the 800 seat auditorium would ease the overcrowding, at least for a while.

Northland assembled a team to tackle the project. Tim Tracey set the overall goals for the project, while the church’s own staff video director, Neil Morrison, investigated technology for linking the two sites and took responsibility for all aspects of video production. Bill Platt of Platt Design Group (Pasadena, California) was called back to Florida to consult on audio. A key audio designer for Disney in Orlando during the 1990s, Platt had designed new audio systems for the church that were installed during the 1995 remodeling and expansion.

“We started out connecting with Lyman using ganged T-1 telephone lines,” recalls Tim Tracey, “using basically what is teleconferencing technology. But we only had two audio channels, and we still had a delay of several hundred milliseconds. That’s not bad for a teleconference, but it will drive you crazy if you’re trying to play music back and forth.”

This is where Northland started pushing the technology envelope. Most concurrent worship services are limited to a “push-pull” mode, where one location leads and the other follows, often alternating the “push” and “pull” roles. Worship is concurrent, but not fully unified into a single common experience. Northland’s ambition was to, essentially, meld the two locations seamlessly into one.

The problem they encountered – as many other churches have found – basically boils down to one of bandwidth. A standard telephone line, for example, has very limited bandwidth. A cable modem has much more, but still far less than that needed to transmit multiple channels of audio and video back and forth with negligible “latency”, the term for delay in the digital world. The only way to obtain the needed bandwidth was with their own dedicated fiber optic cable link. Once again, good fortune (or providence) was on Northland’s side. Most of the distance between the Dog Track location and the school was along the back fence of a subdivision. It wouldn’t be easy, but by marshalling enough volunteers, they could lay down a mile-long fiber cable on Saturday and roll it back up Sunday afternoon. That became the plan.

But before going to all that trouble, they had to assemble the other pieces of equipment and make sure it would perform as desired. On the video side, Morrison specified a Telecast Fiber Systems Viper interface to carry the 8 digital channels at broadcast quality. That part was relatively straightforward. Audio was more complicated, because the goal was to have several dozen channels going both ways; this would allow a large praise band and choir to split across the two locations and still perform as one ensemble. Audio consultant Bill Platt chose an Otari Lightwinder interface for the job, since it has 48-channel bi-directional capacity plus auxiliary channels for data and intercom. But before accepting it, he subjected to the latency (delay) test.

“To keep a real-time feel, I knew we had to keep latency under 3 milliseconds,” Platt says. “We measured it with everything connected and it came out to less than 2.5 milliseconds, which was well within tolerances for having two musicians feel like they are playing next to each other on stage.”

To assure top-notch quality as the audio signals went in and out of the digital domain, Platt also specified ten 8-channel Aphex 1788 preamplifiers with optional built-in analog-to-digital converters. According to Platt, members of the music team were surprised at the difference these units made in the audio quality at both ends of the fiber optic line. “By having the high quality preamps on the stages at both ends we shortened the microphone lines,” he explains,” so quality was improved a great deal. People were saying that the felt closer to the other musicians now, a mile apart, than they did when they were there on the same stage.”

With the basic elements of the fiber link decided, the next challenge was to create a temporary system for the Lyman site that mirrored what the congregation was seeing and hearing at the main Dog Track site. That would prove no easy task, considering that the church had already devoted considerable resources to upgrading the audio as part of major expansion six years before.

The keystone of the 1995 audio upgrade for the church was a new, self-powered main loudspeaker system from Meyer Sound, again designed by Bill Platt. The building’s previous main PA had proven unsatisfactory, in large part because of acoustical problems created by the structure’s curved roof. Rather than spend a great deal of money on acoustical treatments, Platt suggested they go with the highly directional Meyer system. According to Tim Tracey, “Bill showed us how, by using good design principles and speakers that behave very well, we could achieve our goals without major changes to the room.” For his part, Platt adds that the extended dynamic range of the Meyer speakers also suits the character of Northland’s worship. “They have the music team rocking from time to time,” he observes, “but often during the message, the pastor is whispering. If you have this kind of dynamic range in your system, it helps focus the effect.”

For the problematic acoustics at the Dog Track building, Platt specified Meyer’s highly focused MSL-4 cabinets, supplemented by a center cluster of the smaller UPA-2C cabinets and the diminutive UPM-2 cabinets built into the steps as front fill. Three of the former main cabinets (EAW KF-300) were retained to provide fill for the rear of the room.

The acoustics at the Lyman auditorium are much more manageable, allowing coverage of the whole room by two Meyer Sound CQ-1 cabinets with added fill from three self-powered UPM-2P units. Deep bass at both ends of the fiber line comes from dual Meyer 650-P subwoofers.

The system’s primary mixer, at Dog Track, is a 56-channel Amek Recall, an analog board known for its sound quality and sophisticated programming functions. Because portability is a key factor at the Lyman location, the mixer there is a much more compact Roland VM-C7200 digital unit. To keep unnecessary sound off the stage, and to help maintain the illusion of everybody being together on the same stage, monitoring is via Shure and Future Sonics in-ear units.

Northland’s video facilities easily match the sophistication on the audio side, again with similar equipment at both ends. Both ends use the same Ikegami cameras, both have Christie digital projectors, and both have dedicated video monitoring for the musicians and singers. The main production and switching control room is at Dog Track, of course, since all the equipment used at the Lyman end must be moved in and out each week.

In fact, for the first few months of the fully concurrent worship services, not only did volunteers move all the equipment in and out, but they also laid down and pulled up a mile of fiber optic cable. However, once the validity of the concept was proven, the church negotiated for – and soon received – the necessary clearances to bury the line from the church right up to the property line of the school. At this time, only the last few hundred feet of line are laid down each week.

The key player in the weekly ritual of set-up and tear-down is the church’s staff equipment manager, A.J. Johstono. He supervises a crew of roughly fifteen volunteers who carry out the three-hour set-up procedure late on Saturday afternoon – or even early on Sunday mornings if the school has a Saturday night performance. Carefully rehearsed, the tear-down and pack-out procedures are normally accomplished in about an hour.
The key to keeping everything simple and (relatively) foolproof, says Johstono, was thoughtful design and fabrication of the main fiber link and preamplifier rack. “This one rack contains all the patch panels, the splitter, the Otari Lightwinder audio interface and all the preamps,” he says. “We roll it in, drop the covers, and patch the snakes in to the stage. Everything else is permanently patched internally, so the volunteers can manage it all with only a few hours of training.”

With the concurrent worship services at Northland underway for just over a year, everybody involved seems pleased with the results – and excited about the future potentials.

“It has worked our far better than we had thought it would at the outset,” says Tim Tracey. “We’re still learning, but because everything is fully concurrent, we can do so much more than we could with our first attempts. We no longer have to work around with that ‘push-pull’ method.”

Video producer Neil Morrison concurs. “It’s a pretty phenomenal experience. I’m a bass player myself, and I started out wondering, ‘Gosh, what is this going to be like when I’m trying to lock up with a drummer a mile away ?’ But the distance issues fade quickly because the application really works.”

The technology now in place at Northland’s two worship locations is, for now, somewhat unique in that it depends on the ample bandwidth of a dedicated fiber optic link in order to deliver a ‘real time, fully integrated’ concurrent worship experience. But in the world of digital technology, ‘for now’ is not for long. Neil Morrison is already looking ahead to wider applications of the technology over greater distances.

“The encode times for the MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 encoders are getting shorter and they are becoming more efficient,” he says, “which means we can push more data – more audio and video – through a smaller network pipe. We are also looking at applications over multiple T1 [digital telephone] lines that operate in an IP mode with very low latency. That would allow us to add many more venues, which is what we are looking at in the future.”

Translated into layman’s language, Morrison is saying that what Northland now can do only over a dedicated fiber link will soon be possible over leased digital lines, and at affordable costs. Soon more venues could be added, many miles away, and even change for month to month. The worship space where believers gather no longer would require even close proximity. Essentially, it would signal the dawn of a digitally networked church.

“I think that this might be the direction the church in America is headed, away from the mega-campus with a worship auditorium for 20,000,” says Tim Tracey. “Instead, we will be unifying people into a single worship experience in several locations. The implications are tremendous, because it opens up a new dimension of Christian worship across cultures in a way that couldn’t be done before. Worshippers can feel like they are fully present in each location. Even though life circumstances may be totally different, they will sense how they are bound together by a common faith.”

This may not be exactly the same, theologically speaking, as Dr. Hunter’s vision of “a church distributed.” But from the viewpoint of technology, it looks to be a close parallel.