Those are no ordinary horses strutting their stuff onstage in the annual Easter drama at Southeast Christian Center in Louisville, KY. They're showbiz steeds imported from Branson, MO, specially trained not to be panicked by bright lights, crowds, and loud noises.

And they're just part of a two — hour spectacle that plays to more than 80,000 guests each year. Other elements of this massive production (now in its eighth year) include handmade leather costumes on 50 Roman soldiers, a working chariot, and a climactic effect in which Jesus ascends from the church floor past two balconies and disappears through the ceiling, five stories up.

“It's pretty impressive,” says Cindy Coffee, communications director for the church, who managed the production for its first seven years.

Impressive…but not that unusual. In fact, some of America's most ambitious theatrical and concert events are taking place in church facilities these days, and a growing number of churches are building venues explicitly with entertainment in mind. Anyone who thinks of church drama as an arena dominated by volunteers and amateurs is only batting .500. Volunteers are still the backbone of these enterprises, but they're anything but amateurish.

Southeast Christian Center Photo: John Congleton

“Once church facilities go above about 2,500 seats, they really become performing-arts centers,” says Jerry Meier, national sales manager at Digital Projection, Inc., which has supplied high-brightness projectors to many large churches. “They usually will have fly space above the stage, and a backstage configuration that allows actors and set pieces to move around, plus catwalks and theatrical lighting rails so they can reconfigure their lights.”

T C Furlong, principal of MacPherson, Inc., a professional loudspeaker and audio equipment maker in Skokie, IL, agrees. “More and more churches are going first class,” he says. “When we design churches now, we design with the assumption that national acts will be coming in, and we want the main infrastructure to be there. Churches are thinking about loading doors, truck bays, and things you would never have thought about in a church a few years ago.”

Staging dramatic or entertainment events is part of the new dynamic in churches — reflecting a mission, Coffee says, to “evangelize the lost and edify the saved.” So is hosting performances by major touring artists with a religious orientation, many of whom take a back seat to nobody when it comes to the production values they want to deliver to their audiences.

A Lot to Learn

Bill Schuermann, a principal at the Houston, TX-based acoustical consulting firm HFP Acoustical, thinks many churches seriously underestimate the demands of staging big events. “In many cases the basic issues are the same,” he notes. “They almost always have power problems. Electricity is always an issue.” A 1,000-seat room, for instance, typically needs 150A to 200A of power for concert-quality audio, and “existing systems probably won't do. Even churches that have contemporary services with a small combo won't have the kind of things needed by touring acts.”

Wireless microphones are another stumbling block, Schuermann says. “It sounds simple, but it's one of the more complex things. A good wireless system is just that, a system, but what most churches have is a wireless collection” — a bunch of mismatched devices bought at different times from different suppliers, which will present numerous problems in actual use.

“Now that churches are doing video with everything,” Schuermann continues, “that often creates problems with lighting.” Either theatrical lighting overwhelms the projectors or super-bright projected images interfere with onstage activities. Moreover, he adds, “Video and lighting both run on 220V. You can't put them on the same circuits.”

All of these shortcomings account for the tendency of touring acts to insist on their own equipment, Schuermann says. “They've all gone through a series of gates where they've said, ‘That will never happen to us again.’ Even if the house sound system is really good, they'll still bring in their own effects, their own board, and so on.” As a result, “There are so many hidden costs that unless they've done it before, a very, very thorough site survey is in order,” he adds.

To Todd Seage, marketing manager at Houston, TX-based Stagelight, Inc., many special challenges of church facilities arise from the fact that “they're trying to take care of a whole lot of things with one space. At one moment it might be a sanctuary and at another it could be a theatrical space.” Given this divided mission, the easy accessibility of lighting and other systems that's a hallmark of theatres is often just not possible in churches, where “whatever they install, it needs to go up and stay up, and can't really be adjusted.”

Similarly, Mark Seney, project manager at Ford Audio-Video in Oklahoma City, OK, sees a continuing concern with “blending with the facility decor, establishing microphone and light rigging locations. Some of the greatest demands,” he adds, “center around fly points.”

How are the most innovative and theatrically-minded churches attacking these challenges? A few recent productions underscore the flavor of the big-time productions being staged in houses of worship across America.

Southeast Easter Pageant

Onsite housing and care for horses and a camel is just one of the details Southeast Christian Center drama minister Shane Sooter will have to worry about in his first year at the helm of the church's Easter pageant. The event is staged in one of the country's largest and best-equipped facilities, but the 9,000-seat venue undergoes some drastic changes for the 13-performance run and its preparation.

A volunteer applies makeup to an actor for the Southeast Christian Center Easter drama.
Photo: John Congleton

“Our sanctuary was not built at all for theatrical events, it was built for preaching,” says Coffee. First, about 2,500 of those 9,000 seats are removed to make room for a set that stretches 270' across. The stage was designed by Randall Wright of Wrightworks, Dallas, TX, and it's rebuilt and modified slightly each year, Sooter says. For 2002, for instance, a new scene is being added in which Judas hangs himself. These additions to the staging are designed by The Production Studio of Louisville, KY.

The stage itself is reinforced with steel to accommodate the great weight of performers and sets. Among the set pieces are two 40' towers on which scenery is mounted. It's all stored year-round in seven or eight trailers, according to Coffee.

In all, about 1,500 people get involved in the production, doing everything from performing onstage to baking real bread for the miracle of loaves and fishes. The 50 Roman soldiers in the production wear real leather costumes sewn by church members, and the Three Wise Men come with full entourages, all costumed as royal courts ought to be. All props and costumes are designed and made by church members, Sooter says.

“Our light bank is too far away from the stage to have any meaningful use for theatrical lighting,” says Coffee, so additional lights are also installed, provided by Majestic Lighting Productions of Indianapolis. The production uses more than 100 ETC Source Four lighting units, with a variety of gobos, all controlled through a Strand console.

The standard house sound system is also stressed by the production, which involves about 30 wireless microphones (22 Shure V4Ds and an assortment of others). “It maxes out our system,” says Sooter. “We have 150 channels at our disposal and we use them all.” In fact, Sooter says, many performers share microphones, making quick swaps as they go on and off stage. Only a handful of performers get their own wireless mic.

The 316,200W audio system at Southeast Christian Center features Tannoy loudspeakers — more than 200 drivers counting main arrays, delays and under-balcony speakers. DSP is done with BSS Soundweb, using one hub unit and 16 other processors. The house console is a 72-input Soundcraft Series Five, augmented by a small Allen & Heath submixer.

“A couple of flying stunts,” as Coffee terms them, take full advantage of the sanctuary's five — story height, and give people in the two balconies an extra treat. The most impressive is the finale, in which Jesus ascends the entire height of the facility and disappears from sight. The performer moves about 150' vertically and a similar distance horizontally, “flying” out over the audience. The stunt is staged by ZFX Flying Illusions' Las Vegas office.

Last year 84,000 people attended the performances, which include 12 that require paid tickets and one free show offered for residents of local shelters and others in financially straitened circumstances. “We sell out every year in advance,” Coffee says. Video of each performance is fed to overflow rooms elsewhere in the Southeast Christian facility. “It wasn't really this ambitious in the beginning,” says Coffee. “But people liked it and it sort of grew.”

Blessed Are the Volunteers

Bill Meissner, director of video ministry at Calvary Chapel in Fort Lauderdale, FL, explains that his church is able to accomplish so much with volunteer efforts because they are “blessed with gifted people.” In particular, he says, the congregation includes several people with extensive backgrounds in the sound and music industry. They put this experience to work staging 12 to 15 events annually. “We don't get so much into drama to tell the story,” Meissner says. “We let the worship do that. But we do have special events.” Those special events include concerts by such visiting artists as Avalon, as well as performances by Spanish musicians.

Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale is located in a converted computer products warehouse that seats about 3,600. The 26' ceiling allows for flexible lighting effects, and Meissner notes a Strand 96-channel lighting system has been installed in the church, along with two Digital Projection 7gV projectors. “We have some offside stage areas, but not really a full-blown stage arrangement,” he says. “If the church continues to grow as it has we will need to look for another building.”

Touring Acts

“We put on just about every major Christian artist that comes to Florida, plus major conferences throughout the year,” says Stephen Brown, technical director at Carpenter's Home Church in Lakeland, FL. The 10,000-seat sanctuary was actually designed with major production needs in mind.

Brown says Carpenter's Home Church hosts a major event roughly every three weeks from September through May, and needs to fit all of the setup and other functions around the ongoing worship schedule. Typically, the first technicians will come into the facility around 8am, and all equipment will be off the floor by lunchtime. Four o'clock is the target for a sound check, and doors will typically open at 6:00 or 6:30 for a 7pm concert. Afterward, all equipment and crew are moved out by 1am.

Michael W. Smith, the Newsboys, Stephen Curtis Chapman, and other “A” Christian artists have been recent performers, Brown says, and they'll typically draw 6,000 to 10,000 people per show. “We have three to four major power supplies,” Brown says, including a 1,200A supply, a 400A, and a 100A. We also have space for generators if they're needed.” There's also a truck-loading bay, and the church usually supplies as many as 40 stagehands.

The 12-year-old facility boasts a stage 150' wide by 50' deep, with a seven — ton electrical fly grid mounted overhead. The motor-driven grid can be lowered for mounting of equipment. The church has installed a complete Meyer MSL self-powered loudspeaker system.

The church's Strand lighting system is driven by Genius Pro software running on a Strand console, which includes Strand Rack 88s, a Genius light controller, and Strand DA-Ad converters. Light fixtures include 10 2Ks, 55 PAR-64s, five 5Ks, four High End Systems Cyberlights, two Lycian 2K followspots, and two Rosco hazers.

Still, many visiting artists don't want to depend on house systems. “Most touring artists have a semi or two they'll bring in, even in our facility,” Brown adds, “often simply for their familiarity with their own equipment, which makes for easier setup.”

Carpenter's Home Church also does dramatic and choral productions, which provide much more lead time but can be just as complex. It takes about two weeks, for instance, to build the stage set for The Gospel According to Scrooge, a widely produced Christmas program. The two — level set is built on a stage 120' wide by 20' deep, and recreates a London street scene of Dickens' time. Stage design was done in-house and painted by Keith Goodson, who was then a church member.

A special Christmas performance by Ricky Skaggs at the First Baptist Church in Pearland, TX.

Designed for Production

“This building was designed for production as well as worship,” notes Mark Christian, worship pastor at First Baptist Church of Pearland, TX. The church moved into its new 1,600-seat facility last July and promptly brought in Tony Orlando for a christening concert. Next came a July 4 celebration that featured indoor pyro and a full orchestra. More recently, Ricky Skaggs visited the church for a Christmas show. “They just came and plugged into our system, which is unusual,” says Christian.

Audio Systems installed at Pearland Baptist include a Yamaha M300A-56 mixer, Sony 1024HD switcher, BSS digital signal processing, EAW monitors and front-fill speakers, plus Meyer powered speakers for the main arrays.

Stagelight's Todd Seage comments that "the church community is starting to value technical expertise much more. And they often have technical directors on staff. But we still see a lot of concern with ease of operation, because at any given time the church is really at the mercy of its volunteers."

Valerie Summers, an agent with William Morris Agency who represents many touring Christian acts, offers another caution: "The production and touring costs for Christian artists are the same as for any other genre of music. Just because it's Christian music doesn't make mean the buses cost less or the production or personnel costs less, and yet the consumer who buys Christian concert tickets will not support a ticket price of much more than $18 on average."

Result? The Christian artist, and the church hosting his or her performance, are challenged to compete in production values with all the other touring acts out there, but with a much smaller cash flow.

Where does all this music and drama fit into the mission of churches? Furlong's answer is: "Drama, like all the arts, is a more powerful tool to make the message heard and to make it more relevant." For Brown at Carpenter's Home Church, it's all a matter of "numerous alternative methods of outreach, all designed around touching hearts."