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And while many of these musicians are buying high-end equipment, they are not the only segment of the market driving the expansion of technology within church. With more people coming to worship services for the show – the New York Times recently reported that, “large, modern, nondenominational churches now provide one of the major ways that Americans hear live music” – there has been an explosion of church spending to help spread the Word. Churches are refitting sanctuaries previously designed for the massive bellow of pipe organs, or even building all new centers, to accommodate modern sound systems and high-tech video delivery. So-called “megachurches” like the First Church of Christ in Burlington, Kentucky – an 85,000 square foot worship center housing a bookstore, child care center and basketball courts, among other amenities – are redefining the experience of worship through the use of multimedia presentations.
Logically, musical retailers have taken notice of houses of worship and Christian musicians. As retailers and manufacturers face soft markets, increased costs and more competition, houses of worship with budgets like that of Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Texas – featuring over $800,000 of electronic equipment in the control room alone – represent a major opportunity.
For example, Yamaha Corporation of America launched its Institutional and Commercial Services department back in 2004, providing information and resources for worship leaders interested in incorporating new technologies into their services. The company stages events around the country, in partnership with Shure and Aviom, aimed at parishioners charged with equipment decisions, featuring classes with titles like, “Mixing for Worship.” The savvy move by major players like Yamaha seems to create a win-win for both churches and commerce. “A new survey has shown that if people detect a sub par presentation, they’ll automatically reject the message as sub par,” says Christian Musician’s Bruce Adolph. “But if they go to a church that’s high-tech, with good sound and lighting, they’ll feel comfortable and be more open to the message.”
The Challenges of Church
For an instrument long associated with the music of rebellion, the integration of the electric guitar into modern worship has been impressively smooth. But that’s not to say the instrument hasn’t introduced a number of previously unheard of challenges into the church – one of the most obvious problems being that the electric guitar is loud.
It could be argued that pipe organs are even louder, possessing the power to fill a large room with sound; however, older churches were not acoustically designed for the unique sounds and frequencies of the electric guitar. Once you add drums and bass to the mix, the potential for sound levels inside the worship hall to rise to unacceptable levels is significantly heightened. Some churches, such as North Point, have developed extensive setups for guitarists, going as far to acoustically isolate their cabinets, but most churches lack the resources or expertise to develop such systems.
Thus, as a solution, most church soundmen – at the advice of companies like Yamaha – abide by a “quiet stage” philosophy, bringing in digital drums, keyboards and guitar processors. “These days, there are a new breed of soundman that are looking for low stage volumes, and they want to run everything through the PA,” says CrossTalk’s Britt Stein. “There are all age groups in the church, and they don’t want to seem too loud for anyone.”
For guitarists, approaches to conquering the volume problem typically fall into one of two camps, split primarily along age lines. Older guitarists, players who have been relying on the same equipment for years, tend to find an amp they are comfortable operating at lower volumes. Options like isolating amps in a back room are also available. When asked how he ensures his volume is not overpowering, Russ Cooper says, “We just turn the amps around and mic them. That way you can get the tubes hot, but your sound doesn’t bleed. It’s not as loud as I want, but it’s not as quiet as it used to be.”
For more technologically-inclined guitarists, digital modeling and guitar processors may offer the best solution for achieving good tone while keeping the volume down. Perhaps one of the most visible proponents of digital modeling is Lincoln Brewster, who uses Line 6’s POD in both the studio and on stage. Whether in a strictly preamp capacity, or as a complete guitar solution, digital guitar modeling looks to play a larger part in the church environment, as churches work to bring as many aspects of worship – including volume levels – under control.
However, the sheer volume of the electric guitar isn’t the only obstacle worship leaders are grappling with. With the electric guitar comes distorted signals and a different level of showmanship than the church has been accustomed to. Images of Pete Townshend strumming in wild windmills and Jimi Hendrix kneeling above a flaming guitar have become societal touchstones, and when the guitar enters the church, two distinct cultures – those of rock n’ roll and Christian tradition – must coexist. As the electric guitar continues to enter worship services, the question of what is appropriate, in terms of everything from solos to gain levels, is a popular one. The publishing of a book of sermons in 2003, entitled Get Up Off Your Knees: Preaching the U2 Catalog recently highlighted the growing collusion of mainstream secular music and the church.
The fine line between worshiping with instruments and coming off as a rockstar is a delicate one for many musicians to walk. “There’s a lot of different opinions on the topic – is the guitarist just showing off, or is it for God? We’ve been in situations where people have accused us of being more concerned with the technical instead of the spiritual,” says Britt Stein. “But essentially it’s the same as in secular music; if a solo or a riff adds something to the song, then it should be there. As long as it doesn’t take away from the worship, there’s no problem.”
Perhaps Lance Winkler of Church of the Resurrection best sums up both the questions facing guitarists in a modern worship setting, as well as the place of the instrument within the church: “I know when Kevin Rogers, a local worship leader, plays a solo, he’s playing to the glory of God. I hear the guitar as a clarion call, an emotive sound. It’s a heroic sound that can really move people.”
Christian music has a history of musicians “crossing over” to and from other genres. Here are five names worth mentioning.
Mark Farner – Grand Funk Railroad’s lead singer and guitarist enjoyed success on the Christian charts between Grand Funk reunions during the early ‘90s. Farner even recut “Some Kind of Wonderful” with a Jesus-bent – much to the dismay of many die-hard Grand Funk fans.
Rick Cua – The former Outlaws bassist (“Green Grass and High Tides Forever”) has had a prolific career in Christian music. Without a doubt, his best album to date is 1986’s Wear Your Colors, a guitar- driven collection of upbeat rockers.
Gordon Kennedy – The former axe man for White Heart, a popular Christian rock band that reached its creative peak when Kennedy and a handful of other eventual crossover musicians powered the lineup in the late ‘80s, went on to become an A-list session player, writer and producer. Kennedy co-wrote Eric Clapton’s “Change the World,” which won the 1996 Grammy for Song of the Year.
Rick Derringer – The talented guitarist who gave us tunes like “Hang on Sloopy” and “Rock and Roll Hootchie Koo” was born again in 1997. He has since released two Christian rock albums, titled Aiming 4 Heaven and Still Alive and Well.
Dann Huff – One of many Huff family members who made a mark in Christian music, Dann played lead guitar for White Heart before Gordon Kennedy. Dann is better known for his session work on hundreds of albums and for producing acts like Megadeth, Wynonna, Faith Hill, Rascal Flatts, Keith Urban and Carrie Underwood among others.