The church market has been going strong for some time now, and while other markets may ebb and flow, this one doesn't show many signs of slowing down. The only thing that is changing is the technology that is being installed into these facilities.
John Fuqua, director at All Pro Sound in Pensacola, FL, notes that several years ago, the emphasis was on audio systems. Today, churches are requesting that almost equal attention be paid to video and lighting. "This has to be integrated and coordinated so that you don't end up with the light fixtures in the way of the speakers, and the projectors in the way of the lighting, and that sort of thing," he said. "A lot more coordination has to take place very early on in the process so that you end up with systems that work."
Sid Gattis, president of Gattis Pro Audio, reflects that this turning point took place about five years ago. "At that point, video was still very expensive, but the big churches jumped into it. The contemporary churches led the charge, but steadily, over the last five years, we have see video presentation and multimedia systems explode in this market," he observed. Before, one out of 20 clients wanted to talk about video. Now, one out of three clients are buying it. "With prices coming down and the product base getting larger, there is a lot more choice. There are even little 150-seat churches that are hanging screens and installing projectors."
Fuqua attributes this to not only the decreasing cost of high-end technology, but to an increase in customer knowledge. As the integration industry matures, churches are becoming more tech-savvy than they were even a few years ago. "There is a higher degree of knowledge that they can acquire, be it from expos or trade shows. The industry in general has gotten better, so people are seeking better quality," he said. Clients are capable of asking for system specifics, right down to the make and model of, for example, a projector. "The systems have been out long enough now for people to understand what works and what doesn't, and what the next step is, to get the level of quality that they are really seeking."
And, Fuqua adds, this is driving the demand for higher quality systems. "The demand for higher quality, integrated systems is going to continue to grow," he said. "Things have gotten cheaper, and I can deliver a higher quality system for a lower dollar figure than I could four or five years ago." This trend, he believes, will continue.
The demand for higher quality is two-fold, notes Ken Dickensheets, principal design consultant at Dickensheets Design Associates in Austin, TX. Not only do church customers want quality, they also want more return on their investments. "They are demanding more bang for their buck," he said. "They want better systems that are cost-effective. They want higher performance without throwing a lot of money at it."
One of the most significant technological developments in the church market is the employment of digital mixing technology. With manufacturers like Yamaha addressing houses of worship specifically, churches are warming up to the concept of being able to program, store and recall their mixes with the push of a button. "Digital mixing consoles are perfect for the church world, because church now is not just about worship; it's about music, dramatic productions, and anything you can imagine, and all of this takes place in the same space, day after day," Gattis said. "With digital consoles, you don't have to re-write the mix; you can recall things that you have done or build on a mix that you have rehearsed and then stored." Gattis believes that it won't be long before these systems become the standard for churches.
This would even evolve into systems that are designed for those who aren't professional engineers-that is, church volunteers who don't have the opportunity, or time, to practice their mixing techniques day in, day out. "The weakest link in the whole chain is the church sound engineer, because good sound engineers are hard to come by, and you can't just do this once a week and be a great technician," Gattis conceded. "Those people are few and far between, and are going to remain that way, because the vast majority of these people are not paid employees; they are volunteer members, and they have just so much time to deal with. I can see a system that monitors gains structure and acoustic issues, and deals with those issues within DSP processing, so that you don't have to have the best ears in the world."
As is the case with any market niche, one of the most important factors in addressing the house of worship market is to build a solid relationship with the client-especially in cases where they may not be very knowledgeable when it comes to technology. "We, far too many times, come into contact with a client who has been sold down the river. They have been persuaded that their system is going to be the best, and they end up with something much less than that," Fuqua relayed. "Establishing a relationship of trust with that client is crucial."
From a consulting perspective, Dickensheets emphasizes that the integration community also needs to focus on the relationships between the different trades. "The church market needs to understand that the consultant/contractor relationship is one based on teamwork, not an either/or situation," he said. "A lot of churches put all of their eggs into one basket with one contractor, and wind up having to go back and do things that the contractor didn't address, such as acoustics and noise control." Consultants, too, he said, need to acknowledge that systems contractors are part of the team, too.