“We know a lot of people that are faced with the question of how to adapt to a new era. The solution has typically been an alternate worship space. But what if this isn’t right for most churches? This was not right for our church,” reveals Rev. Arthur Jones, senior associate pastor at St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Plano, Texas.
“People talk about additional, equal worship facilities,” shares Rev. Jones, “but, what happens long-term with your vision? How does it divide the church? Sharing space allows us to be united. When done well, it can inspire and grow both styles.”
St. Andrew UMC launched a contemporary worship service on September 9, 2012 in the campus’ Smith Hall. Prior to that, the congregation had only worshipped traditionally.
In 2003, the church added a 1600-seat worship facility to the campus designed by HKS and constructed by Balfour Beatty Construction, with Idibri providing theatre consulting and technology design. The directive for the project was to support organ, choir, and orchestra at the highest levels. The result was a beautiful, traditionally-styled room with artistic stained glass, high finishes, and intimate balconies.
A UNIFYING APPROACH
Architects, Stephen Pickard and Michael Lehr of GFF in Dallas, Texas were recently engaged by St. Andrew for a master planning exercise. Principal, Stephen Pickard, explains, “Unifying the campus was one of GFF’s goals. It is physically divided by a creek and a floodway—which while it is one of the most beautiful amenities on campus, it is largely ignored.” This visible physical divide became a conversation point with the leadership. It wasn’t just the physical grounds that were divided. The church was essentially hosting two congregations on its campus. And, the contemporary service—which was growing consistently in double digit percentiles—had overgrown its space.
“The church explored all of their options,” highlights Michael Lehr, project leader for GFF. “They explored expanding Smith Hall and building a new, larger contemporary venue on campus, but ultimately the leadership decided it made the most sense from a stewardship perspective to use the high-quality space that they already had. The challenge was making it work for a contemporary style without compromising the traditional worship.”
THE DESIGN: resolving conflicts between traditional and contemporary
Theatre consultant and technology design firm, Idibri, in Dallas, Texas, joined the team for the reimagining process.
“There are inherent conflicts in designing for contemporary services in traditional spaces,” explains Craig Janssen, managing director for Idibri. “For example, the architectural elements and reflective surfaces that support traditional worship acoustically, work against amplified music. Not only that, but technology is celebrated in most purpose-built contemporary spaces, and hidden in the traditional ones.”
GFF, Idibri and St. Andrews collaborated to imagine what was possible in the space by creating photorealistic visualizations of technology upgrades that would meet the needs of both services—without compromising either experience. Both firms teamed with the church to facilitate the storytelling needed to help the congregation understand the big picture of the vision St. Andrew was attempting to accomplish.
“The goal was to do this in such a way that the required AVL infrastructure and equipment is as invisible as possible as not to sacrifice the architectural and aesthetic beauty of the existing space during the traditional service,” says Lehr. “The most visible changes to the space involved changing the floor to wood, extending the platform to allow the pastors to be closer to the congregation, and replacing the side rear projection screens with new LED screens.”
The decision was made early on to make the center LED screen deconstructable so that the contemporary service had the backdrop required, but it could be completely removed during the traditional service and stored within a storage closet custom built for that use.
David Stephens, project manager for Idibri, gives the details, “The two side LED screens and single center LED screen use the Absen A3 Pro panel at 3.9 mm pixel pitch. Environmental projection on the side balcony faces is accomplished using four Christie Boxer 2K20 projectors. The entire system is controlled using three Coolux Pandora’s Box media servers.”
There was a complete replacement of the 2003 audio system.
Ryan Knox of Idibri designed the loudspeaker system to keep sound energy off the reflective walls while supporting both spoken word and contemporary music. The L’Acoustics Kara system was chosen, and painted RAL9001 cream to blend into the architecture. A Yamaha CL5 console supports both the traditional and contemporary services and was chosen because it can be patched and wheeled onstage.
The result is technology that illuminates the architecture in a new way and creates environments that can change during worship. The technology doesn’t obscure the architecture. It uses it.
When he is asked what it feels like to present in the space, Jones confides, “It’s a little intimidating. The contemporary worship feels fresh, but the sanctuary gives it gravitas and authority. It feels different to worship in a holy place.”
ADVICE FOR CHURCHES adding contemporary services to a traditional space
“The issues are twofold—both technical and emotional,” shares Jones. “If our only challenge was to change some technical things, then every church would have already done it. While the tech is crucial to get right, the more daunting challenge is the emotional task to encourage the people to both preserve tradition and create sustained innovation.”
St. Andrew spent a lot of time before the design process began, working with the congregation on both the traditional and contemporary sides. “This is an emotional problem for the church,” continues Jones. “We have people who want the church to only serve their people—whether traditional or contemporary. The question should be whether we are willing to sacrifice what we want to let God do a new thing through our existing spaces.The key here is that we did so while preserving and enhancing the tradition that got us to this point. For us, it wasn’t an either/or scenario. It was a new beginning.”
“One of the reasons this worked so well is that the church did not go halfway on either the contemporary or traditional side,” highlights Janssen, then adds, “The church of the future will be more effective building connection of the congregation to each other and to the platform than they have in the past couple of decades. These traditional format rooms have the basics that make that possible. They wrap people around, they bring them close and connect them to each other, but commonly the stage is too receded and needs to be modified. Good architectural design transmits emotion to all ages and all style preferences. Don’t tear the buildings down. Don’t ignore them. Use them.”
“God is doing something new out of what he has already been doing,” says Jones. “And our space says that. We hope others do this well in their own congregations, and don’t copy poorly.”