Show biz and worship may meet most spectacularly in the highly publicized mega-churches springing up all over the country these days, equipped with the very latest lighting, audio, and broadcast-quality video systems. But the trend to professional quality lighting, audio and A/V is both wider and deeper, industry experts say. It encompasses very modest congregations as well as headline-grabbing 10,000-seat sanctuaries.

"Almost all new churches are doing important step-ups in their sound, lighting and video," reports Steven Stanford of Allied Sound in Minneapolis, MN, which recently completed an A/V design and installation for People's Church in Franklin, TN, a suburb of Nashville. This "interim sanctuary," built to house services and other activities while a major new building project is underway, seats about 2,000.

"Churches as a market have been really strong," Stanford adds. The People's Church installation involved a "very elaborate" audio system that included a left-center-right configuration with numerous delay speakers and other equipment.

"Over the last four to five years, churches have become a very, very large portion of our market," says Robert Harris, national sales manager for Electronics Diversified, Inc., an entertainment lighting specialist with extensive experience in theatres. "Churches are putting on state-of-the-art entertainment to try to recruit new people. Their lighting and audio are at a really professional level."

At the top end, huge and complex installations continue to turn heads. This spring sees the opening of the new assembly hall of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) in Salt Lake City, seating 21,000 and "loaded with theatrical capabilities and major broadcast facilities," says Len Auerbach of Auerbach + Associates, the architecture and theatre consultant on the project (Auerbach + Glasow is the lighting design consultant). "This is one of the largest theatrical lighting installations in the world," Auerbach says, citing morethan 6,000 network-controlled dimmers and totally automatic rigging throughout the hall and other buildings on the site.

Greg McLagan, market manager for engineered sound at QSC Audio, reports "a large push to do bigger systems, but also a move down into smaller churches. We've done extremely large churches where they have more sound and video equipment than an NFL stadium." But the trend is sweeping across size ranges and denominations, observers say. McLagan's overview? "Every church out there is installing a higher-grade sound system."

Meeting church audio requirements often presents conflicts, McLagan adds. "In a church, you generally have a very lively and reverberant room, where it's hard to get good sound." Moreover, speakers and other apparatuses have to be hidden. "Anything that's visible is often objectionable," he says.

Charles Cosler of Charles Cosler Theatre Design in New York notes that designers "always have the dichotomy between wanting a long reverb time so the music sounds wonderful, but still wanting the speaker's words to be audible."

Musical performance is often part of worship service, and many churches offer seasonal concerts and other performances as well. Although the Evangelical Christian denominations, often broadcast-minded, have led the way for the past decade, smaller groups these days are making big moves to top-quality production capabilities. "Even small congregations have lecture series and performance events that require theatrical lighting," says Auerbach.

To handle lighting, Harris adds, "Very few churches we do now have only architectural control. The vast majority have full-blown theatre control boards, as well as sound mixing boards. Even smaller churches, with smaller congregations, want to be able to put on an Easter pageant, and so on."

In part, churches want to attract and retain worshipers with production comparable in value to what they see on TV and commercial stages.

But are churches really just following a show business lead? Not according to Phil Mahder, a multimedia consultant in the St. Louis area who spent 20 years with a leading A/V dealer before launching his own firm last year. Mahder manages A/V at one of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod's fastest growing congregations, St. John's, in Ellisville, MO. His firm, Courageous Communications, is "a ministry of St. John's Lutheran," but offers services widely to churches of other denominations, Mahder says. This broad view keeps him abreast of regional trends.

"At least three churches in the St. Louis area have Midas sound boards," Mahder says. "No theatre in this region, to my knowledge, has that board." He adds that it's becoming commonplace for church installations to offer 180 channels of lighting control, 16 channels for UHF wireless microphones, and full sound management systems, including special effects. "Churches are putting in light and sound systems that rival those of any theatre," Mahder notes.

"Are they doing it to copy the entertainment industry?" he continues. "No, they're just saying, 'That's a good tool. I can do something with that.' "

Of course, "show biz" isn't the point in a church, where lighting, audio, and video all must serve the chief goal of enhancing worship. Still, there are parallels between stage and sanctuary.

Cosler sees "many similarities in lighting for church and for the theatre. You use lighting to provide focus, and help the congregation look where they're supposed to be looking." This strategy often relies on preset configurations for specific events or portions of a service, which "can be very dramatic or very subtle."

Meeting even basic lighting considerations--like being able to read hymnals--can be complex, Cosler notes. Given long naves and high ceilings, "using theatrical spotlights is sometimes the only way," he says. "Especially in larger churches you have very long throws, and you need lenses to focus the light."

Add uplighting to highlight the church's architecture, focused lighting for the altar, pulpit, musical performers, and diverse iconography, and "it can become a very complex mixing operation," Cosler says, "approaching what people are doing on Broadway. A small theatrical board is usually necessary just due to the number of channels. Twenty-four channels are not unusual, even in a modest installation. If you try to program that with one of those little LCD stations, you could lose your mind."

Lighting issues become even more complex when video enters the picture. And although broadcast-quality digital cameras, edit suites, and similar systems are being installed all over the country, they're often not meant to support actual broadcasting.

"Most churches buying television equipment today have no intention of going on TV," says Anthony Coppedge, church media consultant with Intellisys Group in Irving, Texas. Instead, he explains, they're creating their own original content for in-house uses, producing brief video clips to illustrate sermons or longer programs about issues or current events. "These guys have got their act together," Coppedge says. "They produce stuff that's often staggering."

Mahder has noted the same phenomenon. "For church media people to be creative and production people, that's new. This is where the real growth is," he says, attributing this trend to dramatic price declines for very capable and user-friendly video equipment. A package of broadcast-quality digital video camera, lights, and a nonlinear edit suite with all necessary hardware and peripherals can be assembled very economically today. "For under $15,000, you can do some very serious video production. The cost of equipment will not be the determining factor. It's finding the creative people who have something to say."

In-house video projection is an increasingly prominent part of worship. Video projection in the sanctuary, including image magnification, is "the fastest growing technology application area in churches today," Coppedge says. Even relatively small churches are using video to project hymn lyrics and promote worshiper involvement and participation.

But this approach creates its own conflicts, especially when in-house video and broadcast television come together. "Any stray light on the screen is battling image quality," notes Coppedge.

He cites the recently completed Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, TX, a 7,200-seat facility in which two 16' x 28.5' screens are served by 12,000-lumen Barco ELM R12 projectors, delivering 1,280 x 1,024 resolution. The high ambient lighting required for the church's regular television broadcasts meant "we just needed raw horsepower" in the projectors, Coppedge says.

Whether staging a holiday pageant for church families, or broadcasting to audiences of millions every Sunday, American churches are moving to professional-quality staging capabilities. But they're not forgetting their real mission.

The leaders of People's Church in Franklin, TN, "really made the point that communication was the top priority," recalls Allied Sound's Stanford. And consultant Coppedge notes the point of all this technology is to improve communication. "If this tool set helps people to retain information, then their ability to apply that information in their daily lives is pretty good," he says.