Virtual Congregation

March 22, 2005
On Rose Hill in Kirkland, Wash., overlooking the sprawling Microsoft campus in Redmond, sits The City Church. Formed in 1992, this once small multi-denominational church has grown rapidly in both size and mission over the last 13 years. But instead of “growing up” and moving into a larger church building, this congregation decided to “grow out” by acquiring two satellite campuses. Thanks to a masterfully integrated audiovisual system, worshipers in the three disparate locations are transformed each Sunday into a single, unified congregation.“They saw an ever-growing need to expand their outreach as a church,” says Jeff Sanderson, senior consultant with On Point Design of Olympia, Wash. ”Rather than just making their main facility bigger and trying to house more people there, they sought the idea of remote campuses that in time could be fully staffed with administrative and pastoral staff.” Increasingly, church organizations are relying on sophisticated communication technology to spread their messages to a wider audience, says Sanderson, whose relationship with The City Church dates back to when it was a tiny fixture in a business park.“Instead of having Pastor go back and forth among the locations, we wanted his sermons to be simulcasted to all the campuses,” says Nobu Ohara, chief audio engineer for The City Church’s Kirkland facility. The church’s aim, he says, was to bring its mission to different demographic groups in their own neighborhoods throughout the greater Seattle area.To accomplish this mission, The City Church needed an audiovisual system to link the two satellite campuses to the main 2,200-seat facility in Kirkland. Charlie Morgan, president of MorganSound in Lynnwood, Wash., says the church “already knew how the JBL VERTEC system worked, and they understood where the system could go and how it would be installed.” Still, the church had to adapt the two radically different satellite campuses to achieve sound environments for broadcasts that were compatible with each other and with the Kirkland hub – and they had to do it on a tight budget and within an even tighter time frame. “We considered fiber optics, T1 lines, or satellite,” Ohara recalls, “but decided T1 was the most cost effective route.” The consultants and church officials chose the JBL VERTEC line-array system because of its adaptability. Six T1 lines connect Pastor Wendell Smith to the satellite sites in real time each Sunday. The two satellites are the Belltown campus in downtown Seattle, in the sha-dow of the famed Space Needle, and the Plateau campus, located on the Issaquah Plateau. Retrofitting the three buildings for consistent broadcast sound quality presented unique challenges because each dated from a different era of construction. The main church in Kirkland was built in 1970s, the Plateau church was built in 1960s, and the Belltown building dates back to the 1950s.The Belltown facility, a former union hall for electrical contractors, was constructed with concrete flooring, walls, and ceiling, which presented an enormous acoustical challenge. “When we first started, it echoed like crazy,” Ohara recalls. The first step in addressing the acoustical problems was to install sound-absorbing surfaces by carpeting the 300-seat auditorium and adding padded seating. But it turned out that those solutions had limited impact. “Even though it was small, it was a horrendous room acoustically,” says Sanderson. To tame the 3,200-square-foot Belltown satellite, the A/V consultants added raised acoustical panels to the side and back walls. The panels are designed as a custom-built cityscape, with lighting accents that emulate windows. This skyline design mirrors the cityscape pattern in the Kirkland facility. “They are a very visual church, so we wanted to design the panel system to not only serve as an acoustical function but as an architectural function,” says Sanderson. The panels are raised from the walls in the Belltown facility to add both visual dimension and greater sound absorption.  In addition to traditional sermons, the congregation places a great deal of emphasis on contemporary worship music, performed by an ensemble that includes singers, drums, and electric guitars. “We have two different aspects to our worship services,” says Ohara. “One part is like a concert, and the other is the spoken word. Both aspects had to be addressed.” Sanderson brought in MorganSound to provide a technically advanced audio system that could meet all of the church’s criteria. A full-service company, MorganSound specializes in sound equipment design as well as installation. The acoustical treatment at the Belltown facility made the space feel intimate. “The consistency between the venues was really easy to achieve,” says Morgan, “because we had a model, we had a set of equipment, and we had predictable behavior.” The Plateau campus is the polar opposite of the Belltown facility. A spacious church building that is shared with TrinityLutheranCollege, it features a soaring 65-foot ceiling and a grand pipe organ. The Plateau campus was originally designed for traditional, cathedral-style acoustics, so The City Church had to modify its acoustical environment to accommodate contemporary music and broadcast needs.“There was a tremendous amount of acoustical treatment that had to be delivered and installed to bring the reverb time on this church down,” says Morgan. Acoustical treatment of the Plateau facility included triangular cloth-covered panels, which were designed to mirror the building’s stunning multi-paned stained glass windows. A box truss system was constructed over the Plateau stage area, and two straight trusses were suspended over the congregation area to hold lighting and sound equipment. The custom stage rigging, installed by Donovan Rigging of Seattle, is controlled by four chain motors that allow the trusses to be raised and lowered for maintenance and lighting adjustments. The new rigging lends a hip, high-tech look to the space that reflects The City Church’s contemporary urban image.  All three facilities use ETC consoles to control the house and production lighting systems. Large incandescent light fixtures help make the Belltown space warm and inviting, but bright, consistent lighting has also made all three locations suitable for television broadcasts. The cityscape motif at the Kirkland and Belltown facilities provides accent as well as background color. At the Kirkland and the Plateau campuses, three large, backlit display panels add background color and brightness.   “This is the only opportunity I’ve ever had to take an audio system design and replicate it in its essence, and use the flexibility of the products to make this replicated system customized for each venue,” says Morgan.  In addition to state-of-art audio systems, all three locations are also connected via massive video infrastructures. The Belltown campus is out-fitted with three LED screens. The center screen receives a live feed from the main campus, while the two remaining screens display song lyrics and other text. At the Plateau facility, a single LED screen displays video and sound with a text overlay. “From a technical standpoint, the church is thrilled,” says Morgan. In addition to the equipment performance, The City Church was pleased that the equipment arrived on schedule and installed easily. The entire A/V installation was completed in just 45 days. The A/V system was expressly designed for ease of use. Video broadcast is controlled at the Kirkland campus, where the director can also cue the satellite campuses via an intercom system. To prevent synchronization mishaps with so many different consoles, all use presets. “It’s great that if anything goes wrong we can recall a certain preset and simply tweak it from there,” says Ohara.Morgan attributes the project’s success to the early involvement of integrators and consultants. “Oftentimes with audiovisual systems, people say, ‘Well, we’ll get to that later,’” he says.  “They don’t understand the infrastructure that is required to support the sound systems. That was not the case here, and we were happy to be involved early so that we didn’t have to become a pain in someone’s neck later.”Tight collaboration among the installers, audiovisual consultants, and the church, coupled with the tireless efforts of the church’s technical staff, also contributed to the project’s success. It is telling that Sanderson calls Ohara “the heart and soul of these projects,” while Ohara says of Sanderson, “I loved having someone to throw ideas at, to see if they will work.”  The CityChurch’s congregation currently numbers 4,500. Beyond the Kirkland hub, the Belltown facility in the west, and the Plateau campus in the east, the church hopes to branch out into the north and south areas of Seattle. The hub/satellite arrangement grew out of The City Church’s stated mission, as an apostolic congregation, to seek fellowship with other churches of all denominations, including prayer summits and citywide worship events. “This project began because Pastor wanted to reach out into the city, and not just in one church in one location,” Ohara says. “We want to go to the different neighborhoods instead of having people travel half an hour to come to us.  We are pleased that it is a success.”

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