Challenges of the Portable Church

I don’t know if you’re church sets up and tears down each week, but here is some sound advice and tips for your ministry …

This article is a re-print from Shure Note’s – House of Worship newsletter

Sound Advice For Church Plants and Established Churches:

Tips from an Audio Pro about Maximizing Your Sound Ministry

Lightning Atkinson loves systems. He gets excited when things run smoothly. It is this love for systems that has kept him in the audio industry for over 15 years, wiring radio stations, mixing live sound, designing and installing sound systems, mixing for broadcast, and consulting and training for church clients.

I’ve made my living for the past fifteen years as a professional audio engineer, working in both the concert and corporate sides of the industry. In that time, I’ve consulted with lots of churches and been on staff at some very different ones. I’ve been involved in several church plants and written a couple books on the topic of church audio.

Here’s some quick advice, based on my own experience that can save you from some of the most common pitfalls of running church sound.

Develop a Comprehensive Plan

Every church should plan on spending money regularly on the sound system. This approach of steady maintenance and growth will be much better in the long run than purchasing equipment frantically to resolve a crisis.

“The comprehensive plan should list the equipment to be purchased over the next 3-5 years, and it should be grouped in different phases.”

Regardless of the size or age of the church, there should be a plan on paper for the growth of the sound ministry and the purchase of equipment. Having a comprehensive equipment plan will help the church budget for the future, and will also prevent the people purchasing the equipment from being swayed by every wind and trend in the audio market.

The comprehensive plan should list the equipment to be purchased over the next 3-5 years, and it should be grouped in different phases. Each phase should build on the previous phases so none of the equipment purchased is abandoned as the church grows. Unfortunately, there are few resources to help a church develop a comprehensive technical plan. It’s worth the investment to have a trusted audio professional spend a few hours learning about your church and helping you put a plan on paper.

You can find an example of a comprehensive plan in my book The Audio Handbook for Pastors and Church Planters.

Think Relationally
In all areas of the church, leadership must be relational. This seems obvious and comes naturally for those who lead small groups. Sometimes this relational orientation goes out the window when church leaders are interacting with people who serve in technical roles.

This may be because the people who serve in technical roles sometimes have a different set of social skills. It’s really important to maintain a relational paradigm throughout the technical ministries because all volunteers must be acknowledged and appreciated. Your technical ministries run on volunteers. Protect them.

“Your technical ministries run on volunteers. Protect them.”

When this relational orientation extends also to vendors and consultants, the advantages are many. When you consolidate your spending across two or three vendors, you’ll get better pricing, better service and more likely than not, support in crisis situations.

Don’t Purchase Non-Scalable Systems
Music stores love to sell all in one package sound systems to churches. I’ve seen many medium-size ministries and church plants buy one of these only to regret it later. All the components of these systems are manufactured by the same company and the package is highly portable.

The downside of these cheap systems is they can’t be upgraded and they aren’t durable. It’s common for a church plant to go through two or three of these systems in the first five years. The money spent on packages would have been better spent on individual pieces of equipment that could have been upgraded to suit the needs of the growing church.
(See the PCI article in this issue.)

Have Realistic Expectations Of Volunteers
After his volunteer audio tech quit, one senior pastor told me, “there wasn’t a single Sunday that he ran sound that I wasn’t frustrated”. Many pastors live in a state of constant annoyance with their sound teams because of weekly screeching feedback, difficulties with preaching microphones, forgotten sermon recordings and endless volume wars.

Pastors believe their audio volunteers are careless, inept, defiant or lazy. This is rarely the case. The issues that confound technical ministries are most often the result of:

  • Volunteers who don’t have the necessary training,
  • Equipment that is of mediocre quality or wasn’t designed for the way it is being used,
  • Volunteers who are functioning outside of their natural strengths and temperaments, or
  • Lack of leadership in the technical ministries.

The volunteers are probably functioning at the highest level they can.

“Many pastors live in a state of constant annoyance with their sound teams because of weekly screeching feedback, difficulties with preaching microphones, forgotten sermon recordings and endless volume wars.”

As I talk to pastors about this issue, the next question they ask is usually, “why don’t they have these problems out there, in the secular world?” The answer is funding and experience.

First, a local church often chooses sound equipment that is of a significantly lesser quality than the equipment used at professional concerts, because the better equipment is more expensive. The equipment churches often settle for doesn’t sound as good, is not as durable (which is very important in the world of portable church), and lacks the features necessary to achieve quality sound.

Second, the sound technicians that tour with bands have been doing sound every day for years. A volunteer who faithfully serves two out of eight Sundays in a rotation can never achieve this level of proficiency. Audio engineering is a profession that requires a very specific technical skill set, an experienced and trained ear, a grasp of electronics, an understanding of some aspects of physics, and an artistic ability to blend a band of individual instruments into a cohesive mix.

“It is unreasonable to expect a church volunteer to be a high caliber audio technician.”

These characteristics are in addition to the people skills, professionalism, problem-solving skills, and physical health required for any active on-site job. It is unreasonable to expect a church volunteer to be a high caliber audio technician. A person with no formal training who does sound only on a rotation will never be able to advance his/her skills beyond a beginners level.

Establish Priorities
This reality forces us to grapple with the question how high a priority is quality sound at your church?

If you have an active drama ministry, or use a lot of multimedia elements in your service, or have a congregation of young people, sound might be a very high priority. If your congregation is comprised of people who didn’t go to a concert on Saturday night, then the sound at church on Sunday morning might not be as important. The trade-off is obvious: the better you want the sound to be, the more money will have to be spent on equipment and the more professional involvement (and therefore money) will be required.

Build Harmonious Relationships Between the Sound and Worship Teams
I know of a worship ministry that used to refer to their technical staff as the ministry prevention department. This is a glaring example of a common but nearly invisible problem.

“I know of a worship ministry that used to refer to their technical staff as the ministry prevention department.”

In many churches, there is a latent tension between the sound team and the worship team. This tension is the result of years of poor communication, misunderstandings, and each team not appreciating the skill of the other. This tension can be instantly transformed into vivid expressions of distrust and antagonism when the audio technician asks the electric guitar player to turn his amplifier down, or when the drummer asks for his monitor to be turned up.

There are a few factors that have contributed to this situation:

  • The audio technician feels unappreciated,
  • The audio technician is caught in the middle of an un-winnable volume war,
  • The band doesn’t understand the complexity of the audio technician’s job,
  • The audio technician views the band as disorganized and sloppy, and
  • The band views the audio technician as unaccommodating and rigid.

And here are a few suggestions for combating it:

  • If your church sets-up and tears-down every week, have the band show up at the same time as the tech team to help carry the equipment. The audio team will feel the band is helping them, and the band will understand the amount of work that goes into setting up the sound system every week. Leave no room for prima donna musicians.
  • Include the technical volunteers in all worship team meetings. Consider the technical ministry part of the worship ministry.
  • If you have enough technicians, try to align the audio rotation and the worship rotation so the same tech team is always working with the same band. This will allow trust to develop between the worship leader and the volunteer who is mixing and can lead to beneficial inter-ministry friendships.
  • Foster a strong relationship between the leader of the worship ministry and the sound team leader. Either leader should be able to talk to the other about the team members who don’t have the right attitude or aren’t pulling their weight.
  • Teach your musicians a few basic audio principals so they can plug in their own instruments and monitors.
  • Coach both the sound team and worship team on healthy communication and conflict resolution skills.
  • The goal is for the audio team to want to serve the worship team, and for the worship team to treat the technical volunteers with respect. Worship is much too important to be derailed or diluted by tension between the technical team and the worship ministry.

Church plants are full of passion and energy. Seeing a new expression of church birthed through your hard work is exhilarating. In the excitement, details are sometimes missed and strategic planning falls by the wayside. Investing some intentional time and money in your technical ministries by addressing these common pitfalls will set the new church on a road to success and longevity.