By Susan Valot
The room is dark. The stage is bright. A Christian rock band jams in front of a wall of video screens that could easily be in an arena. About a thousand people listen, bob their heads and tap their feet in the hotel ballroom. Some people stand up and raise their hands, swaying with the music.
This is "House of Worship" night at the NAMM Show, the big National Association of Music Merchants trade show that converged on Anaheim last weekend. The night celebrated one of the hottest markets for live-performance equipment: churches.
"In any city today that you go to, there's now more bands playing live music on Saturday night and Sunday morning in churches than there are in any clubs," said Bruce Adolph, the creator of "Christian Music" magazine and "Worship Music" magazine. "The DJ's have hit the sector and taken away some live music. Karaoke's hurt live music. But a lot of the guys are actually returning to church and playing music."
That is why pastors and worship leaders started to come to the convention that's more known for its rock star sightings.
Holland Davis is one of those pastors, from the small Worship Life Calvary Chapel in southern Orange County. He said churches are now the largest purchasing market of audio-visual equipment in the U.S.
"There's over 300,000 churches in America alone. And so just the sheer volume of churches and they all use audio equipment, microphones, instruments, lighting," Davis said. "And we're in a time where the number of churches that are being started from scratch is phenomenal."
Technology has gotten better. Some church musicians even use iPhones to control audio equipment remotely.
"Now churches can do a video webcast on their iPhone in their living rooms," Davis said. "So now, what was only available to the big, high-end churches, little bible study studies can, through U-Stream and their iPhone, they can now broadcast their meetings all over the world."
And the cost of the technology is now more in-tune with a house of worship's pocketbook, too. Davis said as technology's advanced, so have churches.
"It used to be that every church you went to had a live pastor," Davis said. "But, for instance, in Southern California, we have Saddleback Church, which has, I think, 18 campuses with one pastor that's live and all the rest have video campuses. But they all have live musicians.
Yamaha's Mike Overlin, who deals with the company's house of worship market, said it is not so much the technology changing church music, but more that the music is moving along with the times. Many churches are transitioning to more of a rock feel with drums and electric guitars.
"It's not that any one style is better than the other," Overlin said. "But the way I've always kind of explained it is that if you're in Germany, you don't preach in French. So you kind of use the language that people will understand."
David Gutekunst of WorshipTogether.com, a company that distributes new music to churches, said houses of worship aren't just getting in on new audio systems because they sound cool.
"It's really easy to look from the outside and go, 'Oh, these churches are spending a bunch of money on things,'" Gutekunst said. "It's important the people know that the churches are...trying to support the greater message and get the gospel out there and present it well."
As the technology has become more accessible and music has shifted to contemporary, audio industry experts say more churches are looking at how they're using their sound systems.
"A lot of churches were built for choirs and organs. And now they're bringing in praise bands with drums and guitar amps. [They're] things that aren't compatible typically with the venue that was built for the choir and the organ. So they're having to now retrofit these sound systems to be able to accommodate these new styles of worship," said Corey Fornier, who deals with church and education sales for Roland, an audio equipment manufacturer.
Davis said churches that are building new sanctuaries are approaching them like theater venues or performance houses and putting the focus on good audio-video systems.
"It is one of the mission kind of visions of churches is that they want to be a place where people want to come," Davis said. "And everything that they do is real similar to a performing arts theater. There's drama. There's music, and it's a variety of music. They have orchestras, choirs. I mean, you're not going to get any more theatrical an environment than a local church."
That means church leaders and volunteers must understand the ever-changing technology.
A few dozen people sat in on a session at the NAMM Show about how to set up microphones in church.
In the front of the room, a representative from a microphone manufacturer explains different kinds of microphones and which ones work best in houses of worship. People in the small crowd ask questions specific to their own churches.
Fred Suesoff listened quietly. He is in charge of audio at Destiny Community Church in Whittier, east of Los Angeles. He sees the modern music at his church as an evangelism tool.
"You have to use the entertainment aspect to bring people who don't go to church to get them coming to church," Suesoff said. "And once they're there, you know, God does the rest."
Suesoff said the shift to contemporary music in churches has to do with the American culture.
"Our culture has become more entertainment-based," Suesoff said. "If you go to -- we'll do evangelism in other countries [and] they don't need that because they're not growing up with that. If you came with just a guitar and sang, people just love the music. But they're not exposed to all this TV stuff."
"Christian Musician" magazine founder Bruce Adolph pointed out that in today's high-tech world, people expect high-quality music, whether it's in the movies, on TV or in church.