Sacred Sound: Making it Mobile

Understanding the Portable Church
By David McLain

When thinking of a church, most people conjure images of a building with chairs or pews, carpet on the floor, maybe some stained glass. The speakers hang in a cluster near the front and there’s a sound booth in the back. Down the hallway are the nursery and the church office. While that describes the majority of churches, a growing number of churches are forming that don’t fit that description at all. Churches that do not own a building are becoming more common. They just rent a building for Sunday mornings and maybe for Wednesday nights. The church office may be rented professional space or, if the church is small, it may be in the pastor’s home.

A Church with Vision
Bruce Sanders has been the pastor of Capital Vision Christian Church in Olympia, Washington since he started the church seven years ago. On Sundays at 9:00, he arrives at Olympia High School’s Performing Arts Auditorium an hour and a half before the service is scheduled to begin.

Jason Inman and his crew of three volunteers arrive around 8:30 to load in sound equipment, band instruments and Sunday school supplies. They set out several sandwich-board signs on the streets nearby, announcing the service.

Portable churches, sometimes called “church in a box,” are becoming more common. Once strictly the domain of churches just getting started (called “church plants”), more established churches are choosing not to be burdened with the upkeep and expense of a large public facility. On Sunday mornings in Olympia, more than a dozen churches gather in various rented spaces. Many of these churches meet in schools, gymnasiums, cafeterias, classrooms, performance halls, community centers or hotel banquet rooms. Churches that meet on Sundays often rent space from churches that meet on Saturdays. Where climate permits, churches even hold their services outdoors in parks or natural amphitheaters.

Portable Quality
Just because they meet in temporary space does not mean that these churches don’t value a high-quality sound system. In fact, most new churches (the majority of portable churches) have contemporary services, often centered on a guitar-driven pop- or rock-flavored band.

At Capital Vision Christian Church, Jason Inman and his team set up the sound system. One of his crew, often a teenage volunteer, steps behind the mixer, while Inman straps on a Taylor acoustic guitar and begins sound check. Behind him are bass guitar, piano, two keyboards, several backup singers and a drum set. Off to the side, a portable screen is set up, and the computer operator checks the video projector that displays the song lyrics and sermon notes. Other than the school’s piano, all equipment is set up and torn down every weekend.

When 10:30 rolls around, Inman greets the crowd and invites them to stand up and sing with him. Then the band starts into their set, and the next thirty to forty minutes are essentially a 90dB contemporary Christian music concert with the congregation also as the backup singers. Inman finishes the set with a prayer, perhaps with a little keyboard or guitar in the background. Then an emcee gets up and makes introductions and gives announcements before Pastor Sanders gets up to teach.

A Contemporary Vibe
More like a seminar speaker than a traditional pulpit preacher, Sanders walks around the stage with a wireless lavaliere mic clipped to his open collar. He talks with the congregation, stopping every so often to tell jokes or refer to the current news headlines. The projector shows an outline of his sermon, interspersed with photos and video clips to support the message. By noon, the congregation is drinking coffee and eating cookies in the foyer, talking about the sermon and the Seattle Seahawks.

I deal with dozens of churches like Capital Vision, and there are thousands more forming around the country. Several of my clients are just starting, with maybe forty or fifty people in the congregation. Many of my clients are portable churches with a few hundred members who meet twice a week. A small number are quite large; one portable church has several thousand people meeting in each of three services in a rented high school every Sunday morning, with a band and sound system that is second to none.

There isn’t really a standard sound system for a portable church, because there really isn’t a standard church. However, a sound system for a portable church is not the same as a sound system for a band. There are quite a few components in common, but the goals are markedly different.

Sound system characteristics that are important to a portable church:

1.) The system must be simple to set up. Front of house including mixer is all in one rack. The amps are either in the same rack or a similar rack onstage. Racks have a single AC cord with power distribution in the rack and a single “on” switch. Subwoofers are usually too complex, so 15in two-way speakers are on stands left and right of stage. Cables are color-coded or numbered. Mic cables, instrument cables and direct boxes are all in the same storage container. In a larger portable system, multi-pin connectors become important to reduce the number of mic cables used.

2.) The system must be simple to operate. Most churches, especially portable churches, have volunteers running sound. A 40-channel console with four-band EQ and eight aux sends may be more than a volunteer can handle. Many portable churches, especially startups, get by with two or three monitor sends and a three-band EQ. A 16 or 24-channel console will likely be plenty.

3.) The system must be articulate. Congregation members won’t care if you can get 120dB in the back of the room. Can they understand the words clearly and without straining in every seat in the house? Loud is great, but only if it’s clear and clean. It’s more important to have 95dB or 100dB with crystal clarity than have a subwoofer that kicks them in the chest.

4.) The system should be flexible. In a typical service, the system will need to handle a live band, gentle background music, and several people speaking to a crowd that may vary in size from week to week and may change venues at some point. Next week, a different band may be playing. In the summer, they might take the system to the park to do a concert.

5.) The system should be expandable. Portable churches are usually growing churches. When the congregation of 75 becomes a congregation of 200, it requires more from the sound system. An upgrade path is needed. Leave room in the amp rack for another amplifier to run more speakers. Begin with a mixer that has at least five or six channels more than needed, so as the band membership grows, the system still works. This is a good time to apply the maxim, “buy your second one first.”

6.) The system should be affordable (but not cheap). Built from scratch, a good beginning system will probably cost several thousand dollars. Too often, portable churches begin with an inadequate system, and replace it with a second system a year or two later. This is not a place for the latest, state-of-the-art accessories. Digital consoles probably don’t fit the budget, nor will the volunteer staff be able to run them. Effect processors and many compressors are luxuries. Simple mikes, board, EQ, amp and speakers (or self-powered speakers) are sufficient. Do not get the wrong gear just because it’s “on sale.”

7.) The system must be reliable. Saving a few dollars on an amplifier is not as important as choosing gear that is known to be reliable. Your brother-in-law may have donated an old no-name power amplifier from his basement (a syndrome known as “give your junk to Jesus”), but a new Crown or QSC amp for the main speakers may avoid problems. Maybe that no-name amp can be sold to a struggling high school band, and the money can be used to buy a good equalizer. Keep in mind that volunteers will be loading and unloading this system every week, probably for several years. It had better be rugged enough not to need maintenance every month.

8.) The system should be supported. Because most portable churches don’t have a full-time or even part-time technical staff, they need to have a resource person they can trust. This needs to be someone, who knows their situation, knows their system and has experience with what they’re doing. Most important, this person must be able to speak in layman’s terms to translate technical issues into common English.

David McLain is a church sound system consultant with CCI Solutions in Olympia, WA. He has been working with church sound systems since 1978 and with portable churches since 1988. You may reach David at churchsoundguy@gmail.com
Reprinted from January/February 2002 Live Sound International
.Copyright 2002 David McLain