A Vision-Based Approach to Purchasing Church A/V Systems

Chris Reed, CTS   -  

This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in LITURGY on 21 Dec, 2023, available at https://doi.org/10.1080/0458063X.2023.2260710

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Over the course of my life, I have watched church sound systems grow from simple solutions meant to reinforce audio within a single space into complex systems capable of delivering multimedia content to audiences in multiple locations. My first exposure to a church sound system was in 1984 when, as a technically minded pre-teen, I was taught to operate the console that controlled the two wired microphones which would hang on nylon cords draped around the necks of the clergy who served the Presbyterian church I grew up attending. Tucked away in the balcony, I was still able to hear the spoken words clearly amplified through the tall column speakers mounted on either side of the stout wooden beams that rose from the floor and arched across the sanctuary. Those who had a more difficult time hearing were aided by a small speaker which they could plug into a special box on the back of the pew in front of them and hold up to their ear by means of an attached handle. I was also responsible for recording the service on cassette, which would be duplicated later in the week for delivery to shut-ins and others who were unable to attend the service in person.

These simple solutions were adequate for the time, but the landscape has shifted considerably in the last forty years. Mighty pipe organs, which require no audio reinforcement, are now commonly supplemented or replaced by instruments that cannot be heard at all without the aid of a sound system. Video projection systems are increasingly taking the place of hymnals and bulletins. Assistive listening systems can now discreetly deliver audio directly to devices worn by attendees with impaired hearing. Those who are unable to attend in person can participate virtually—experiencing both the audio and visual elements of the service in real-time. And should any of us miss attending services one week, we can tap into the vast archive of audio or video recordings now available through our church website.

This heightened level of audiovisual experience and convenience has become widespread and normative as evidenced by church budget line items, staff titles and responsibilities, and the expectations of the people who attend services. Technological advances and cultural expectations have moved the reinforcement and distribution of the audio and visual components of religious services from an ancillary concern to a mission-critical one. What was once known as A/V (audiovisual) technology is now referred to as AVLC + S (Audio, Video, Lighting, Control, and Streaming). The associated technical systems require thoughtful design, implementation, and management in a way that the systems of forty years ago did not.

AVLC + S technology has become a mission-critical aspect of conducting church services. The planning, purchase and ongoing operation of these systems is therefore a process that benefits from a vision-driven approach, which I will now seek to describe. Note that I do so from my own experience as an Integrator of AVLC + S systems.

The Mission-Critical Nature of AVLC + S Systems

Nearly every modern building has plumbing, electrical, and HVAC systems, because all building occupants share a common need for these services. In contrast, a building will only be equipped with AVLC + S systems (hereafter A/V) when a specific need to deliver content is part of the building’s purpose. A/V is a mission-specific facility function.

The requirements of an A/V system cannot be assumed without knowledge of the intended purpose of the facility for which it is being designed. The needs of the system will be defined by the culture, values, and mission of the organization. If the content is deemed important, delivering it clearly and effectively will be important as well. The ideal A/V system configuration is therefore best identified through a process engaged with a team of specialists who make up what we will refer to as an A/V Design Team.

When to Involve A/V Design Specialists

Building design plays a significant role in how conducive a space is to a particular communication style, and it is typically less costly to design a space for that purpose than it is to attempt to remedy acoustic problems after construction. It is therefore appropriate for churches who are considering construction of a new space (or renovation of an existing one) to secure the services of an Acoustical Consultant who will work with the architect to ensure that the design of the building supports the envisioned use of the space from an acoustical perspective.

Consider a reverberant cathedral, a concert hall, and a lecture hall: the thoughtful design of such spaces contributes to how useful they are for their intended purpose. Is a choir an important part of your worship gathering? Do you utilize a contemporary worship band with drums and bass? Does your service or mass consist largely of recited or sung liturgy? These cases will all benefit from different acoustical environments that should ideally be considered when the building is first being designed.

As the building concept begins to take shape, an A/V Design Consultant should be brought on board. Although they will work closely with the architect, they are primarily tasked with discerning the A/V implications of the church’s vision for the space, and are therefore typically accountable to the church rather than to the architect. The Design Consultant will help the church articulate the objectives of the A/V system and will propose solutions that meet those needs within the parameters allowed by the building design.

When structural drawings begin to come together, an A/V Design Engineer will help ensure that adequate infrastructure is included to support the technical requirements of the A/V systems that will eventually be integrated into the space. This may include providing electrical load estimates and planning for the location of power circuits, specifying the inclusion of conduits for A/V cabling to strategic locations, forecasting the thermal loads added by A/V equipment which may require abatement by the HVAC system, and ensuring the inclusion of appropriate support structures for rigging of A/V components such as speakers, projectors, and lighting elements.

Design-Bid-Build vs Design-Build

If the A/V aspect of the project is being engaged according to the “Design-Bid-Build” framework, the A/V System Design Consultant will supply documentation to support the creation of a bid package. Through a bidding process, an A/V Contractor will be selected to provide and install the systems conceived by the Consultant as detailed by the Design Engineer. This is a common approach in commercial construction, but I believe the mission of the church is better served through the alternative, known as “Design-Build.”

In an A/V Design-Build project, the consultation, engineering, and installation services are all provided by the same company, referred to as an A/V Integrator. A primary benefit of the Design-Build approach is the development of a partnership with a single organization who will work to discern the vision of the church, help articulate the A/V implications, design appropriate solutions, procure and install the equipment, and—crucially—continue to support the church through ongoing training and service once the buildout is completed.

It is hard to overstate the value this single relationship offers over the design-bid-build process for churches. Someone who is only retained to design a system cannot be held to account for the results once they have completed their scope of work and provided a bid package. In such a situation, the A/V Contractor is only accountable for completing what is called for in the specification, regardless of whether or not it successfully meets the needs of the church. Any oversights in infrastructure specifications by the Design Engineer are left for the church not only to discover, but to resolve and pay for. By contrast, an Integrator is singularly accountable for the entire process, including post-completion support.

It should be noted that Acoustical Consultation is a building design specialty. An Integrator will work closely with both the Architect and Acoustical Consultant but cannot generally perform the services offered by either of them.

Finally, it is understood that not every A/V project involves a new building or the renovation of an existing space. For churches that are simply considering upgrades to existing A/V systems, an Integrator’s expertise is best leveraged early in the process. Equipment manufacturers focus extensive marketing efforts on the church sector, and it is likely that members of the church upgrade team will have awareness of certain pieces of equipment that other organizations are using. It is best to evaluate upgrade needs through the lens of the problems you are trying to address rather than to approach them initially from the perspective of the equipment you think might aid you in solving them. An Integrator can lead you to an appropriate solution based on a structured and methodical evaluation of your specific needs.

Preparing for Your Project

In preparation for an upgrade or design-build project, a church would do well to consider some preliminary questions. Here are some things an Integrator or Design Consultant will likely want to know about. It is best to give these questions some thought at the organizational level before engaging an A/V Design Professional.

Who are the Key Stakeholders Within Your Organization for This Project?

This will often be influenced by the organization’s governance structure or culture. Important perspectives to include on the project team include the overall vision and culture of the church, the financial and budget implications of the project, knowledge about desired technical capabilities, and the depth of the potential volunteer team who will operate the systems.

It will not be practical to have all these people involved in the project at the same time. Getting lost in the weeds of the technical capabilities before clearly establishing the vision that they will support is not productive. Similarly, envisioning the complexity of a system before considering the project budget will slow the process down unnecessarily. Nonetheless, identifying the key stakeholders in advance has merit as it will help prepare the community in which the project will take shape and reassure people that there is a process in place through which their input will be heard and considered at the appropriate time.

What are the Vision, Values and Underlying Organizational Culture of the Church?

Work has likely already been done to articulate these, but preparing to communicate them conversationally will help you orient your Integrator to the things that matter most to you. This will equip the Integrator to make decisions and recommendations with your interests in mind.

How Will A/V Systems Help Advance Your Vision?

Once the vision is clearly articulated and understood by the design team, considering how A/V systems aid in advancing the vision is a relatively easy but necessary step. General points such as “speech needs to be clearly heard and understood” can be safely assumed, but this is an opportunity to articulate any further A/V-specific implications of your vision. Listed here are some considerations that might be added to the desire for speech enhancement.

  1. Prominence or intentional lack of projection: Churches whose services consist largely of read or sung liturgy might consider whether a projection screen adds value or detracts from the aesthetic of the space. If projection is desired but graphical backgrounds are not, it may be feasible to tastefully project elements onto a neutral colored part of the architecture. A target area can be incorporated into the design of the building in a way that is architecturally congruent without appearing to be a projection surface when not in use as one.

  2. Streaming: Although streaming is a common cultural expectation at this point, churches should consider whether streaming is in keeping with their specific vision. If it is important, spend some time articulating why. Some churches see it as an outreach mechanism in addition to a means for serving shut-ins and existing members who may be unable to attend. Others see a marketing value in having an example of a recent service available online. Articulating how streaming (or recording) advances your vision will have significant bearing on how that sub-system is designed.

    Considering the impact of your vision on streaming will also help you answer eventual cost/benefit analysis questions. How much of your budget and volunteer effort are you willing to leverage toward an experience created solely for people who are not in the room? Is that level of investment congruent with your vision? Should the production value of the stream be scaled back to bring that number in line with your per capita investment in other ministry areas? Is it more vision-fulfilling to focus only on the technical essentials needed to create and maintain an accessible archive of teaching?

  3. Technology in the forefront vs technology in the background: The prominence of A/V technology may be viewed as a positive factor in spaces where visibility of certain technical elements is perceived as culturally attractive (youth spaces, churches that minister among specific sub-cultures, etc.). However, in more highly liturgical spaces, overly visible technology can be distracting. Discreet A/V systems are certainly possible, but more significant design consideration may be required when the building is still being conceived. Discretion of installed technology should be raised early on.

How Will We Prioritize Our Values When They Conflict With Each Other?

Whenever more than one value is held, there is a risk that honoring one will require compromise on another. Ranking the priority of certain values in advance will help establish a plan for how to handle overlapping interests when they come up during the project.

A common example is the collision between a desire for clear articulation of speech and an emphasis on maintaining the aesthetics of a worship space. Sound travels by line of sight, and indirect or reflected sound compromises intelligibility. This generally means that it is not practical to simply tuck speakers off into corners of the room, but facilities can often be designed in a way that accommodates the required audio, video, and lighting components discreetly if these values are brought to the table early and considered concurrently. This can be more difficult in a retrofit project.

How Long Do We Expect the A/V Systems to Serve Us Before Upgrading or Renovating?

Some aspects of a system typically last longer than others. A well-designed speaker system may serve a space for twenty years or more (assuming the seating layout remains constant) while endpoint equipment such as audio consoles, projectors, and cameras might need replacement in closer to ten years.

This question also invites consideration of the church’s longer-term vision and growth trajectory: Do we expect to outgrow this space within a certain timeframe? If so, would we plan to expand this facility, build a new one, utilize an additional space in the current building, conduct multiple services, etc.? Considering the implications your vision has on future growth will help your Integrator design systems in a way that accommodates anticipated expansion needs.

What is the Capacity of Our Volunteer Base?

The operational requirements of A/V systems should be considered during the design phase. Does the church have a sufficient volunteer base to ensure successful ongoing operation? Is the outlook for growing the technical team realistic, or should a budget be established for hiring staff or contractors to manage and run the system? Answers to these questions will have a significant impact on system design. Automation of some system functions may be possible, but this will generally add cost and reduce flexibility. There will likely always need to be capable humans involved with certain aspects of A/V system operation, and this necessity should be anticipated and planned for.

What is Our Budget for This Project?

Engaging the A/V design process with a realistic appreciation of the cost is essential if the system is to yield the envisioned results. A/V system expenses are often assumed to be included in a project’s Fixtures, Furnishings and Equipment (FF&E) budget. This may be realistic for a small background music system in a commercial building, but it is not generally adequate for projects where A/V is a mission-critical system of its own.

Because A/V solutions are designed specifically around the needs and desires of each individual church, it is difficult to give realistic generic guidance on budgeting. A helpful starting point for a new building may be to consider the seating capacity of the worship space, and multiply that number by an appropriate factor.

For complete A/V systems including video projection, even sound coverage at a high quality, and a basic video acquisition and streaming system with a modest but sufficient stage lighting package, a realistic factor in recent years has averaged around $1,000 per seat. The accuracy of this number decreases for venues that are notably smaller or larger than approximately 300 seats, and it scales up and down depending on system features and quality level. Nonetheless, it can be a useful benchmark for establishing realistic expectations about the cost of such systems and creating preliminary budgets for the A/V portion of a project. If your new sanctuary will seat 250 people and you want to equip it with a relatively comprehensive A/V system, $250,000 may be a realistic initial budget number.

Finding the Right Integration Partner

A contractor provides a defined service for a defined fee. The interaction is essentially transactional. I use the term “partner” to convey something slightly different. In this context, a partner works to understand your mission and serve as a co-steward of it. The interaction is inherently relational. As discussed earlier, this distinction is significant due to the mission-critical nature of A/V systems in churches and is largely tied to the differences between the Design-Bid-Build and Design-Build approaches.

When seeking a bid or quote for a predefined service, a typical transactional approach involves soliciting a minimum number of submittals (typically three) and choosing among them, largely based on their relative cost. This phase of the Design-Bid-Build process does not take into account the vision, values, or culture of the church because the service being bid on has been pre-defined.

Engaging the A/V design and integration process as a relationship rather than a transaction requires a different approach. To find the right Design-Build partner, consider conducting three interviews rather than soliciting three quotes. You are not looking for a contractor, but a partner who will seek to understand your vision, assist you in discerning the implied audiovisual needs, and help you make wise decisions about the eventual purchase of corresponding technical solutions. Approach the process as though you are hiring someone to join your team as opposed to shopping for the best deal on a product.

The highest and best A/V solution for your use case will not materialize until you have formed a partnership with someone who will spend the time required to understand your vision and help you work through the A/V implications. Any quotes submitted before this partnership has been established carry the risk of a system specification that fails to fully support your vision. Be prepared to decide who you will work with before asking them for a proposal. Once an Integrator is officially on your team, you can expect them to do their best work for you.

You may want to evaluate your prospective Integrator through an interview process using the following questions:

Do They Agree With You in Faith?

This may not be an important consideration for your organization, but I include it because of the mission-critical nature of A/V systems in churches. An ideal integration partner will need to understand your vision, culture, and values, and this may be more natural if they share certain core convictions. Certainly, many successful church A/V integrations have been completed by companies that have no faith basis, but the nature of the associated ongoing support and training relationship is less certain.

Do They Evidence a Willingness to Co-Steward Your Mission?

A partner will value your entire mission, not just the A/V portion. Do they evidence an understanding that a dollar spent on A/V is a dollar not spent elsewhere in the mission of your church, and is that important to them? Do they ask good questions that help you articulate where your vision has A/V implications? Are they willing to work with you to maximize your current systems if appropriate by providing education, training, process improvement suggestions, etc.? Do they show a desire to help you make wise technology decisions that honor your budget and priorities by focusing on the solutions rather than the gear?

Do They Have the Appropriate Expertise?

Your integration partner does not necessarily need to have deep in-house technical competence in every aspect of your project, but they should have access to (and know how to leverage) the resources that will provide unique solutions for your use case in areas where they are not specifically knowledgeable. For example, an Integrator need not be well-versed in the control capabilities of the particular architectural lighting system that is being specified by your Electrical Engineer, but they should have a willingness and demonstrated ability to research those capabilities and communicate needs with other members of your project team during the design phase in order to arrive at a solution that will allow for unified control over both the theatrical lighting (which is in the Integrator’s scope) and the architectural lighting (which is not within their scope.)

Do They Have a Track Record of Integrity and a Commitment to Ongoing Support?

Ask your prospective Integrator about their history partnering with organizations on projects similar to yours. Obtain references and contact some of the key stakeholders on those projects to ask about their experience working with the Integrator both during the project and since completion. You may also want to assess their ability to serve as a continuing training and educational resource after your project is completed.

Working With Your Integration Partner

Once you have an Integrator on your team, expect them to ask a lot of questions. In addition to learning about your vision, mission, values, and culture, they will want to know about frustrations you encounter with your current system if you are renovating an existing space, or your objectives if you are designing and building a new space. Churches should clearly identify which members of their team are empowered to answer these questions in each area of the project (vision, financial, technical, aesthetic.)

If you have engaged an Integrator as a partner, you should be willing to fully disclose your budget expectations to them. Since they are providing a design-build service rather than submitting a bid, their aim will be to help you accomplish your objectives at the highest level attainable within a pre-defined budget.

You may initially be presented with a “highest and best” solution proposal which exceeds your budget. The Integrator may present this recommendation in order to help you weigh the financial costs of fully achieving your goals against the opportunity costs of alternative approaches. If the budget is inadequate for meeting all your objectives right away, they may recommend a phased approach to the system. They may also present data that will help you conduct a cost-benefit analysis to determine if certain proposed solutions are worth the required dedication of funds.

When your project is completed, the relationship with your integration partner should continue. A relationally-minded partner will have your long-term vision in mind. Involving them in discussions about upgrades, modifications, new ideas, ongoing education and training will help maintain the usefulness of your current A/V solutions while building a foundation for the next upgrade or build-out.


A frequently cited article in the A/V Integration industry observes that churches often buy three sound systems before arriving at a proper solution.1 This is the unfortunate and costly result of a process that is often viewed more as a business transaction than as a vision-fulfilling relationship. A/V technology has become critical in how some churches carry out their mission. Engaging the planning, design, purchase and ongoing operation of A/V systems through a relational partnership can help ensure that the first system your church invests in will be the right solution for the unique needs of your ministry.

Notes on contributors

Chris Reed has a passion for equipping and empowering churches to better leverage their talents and technical systems so that the gospel might be more clearly proclaimed. He leads client-training initiatives and manages installation projects for Provision Audio Video Solutions, a Wake Forest, NC-based integrator specializing in church AVLC + S design build projects.


1 R. Jim Brown, “From the Archive @SVC: Why Churches Buy Three Sound Systems,” Sound & Video Contractor (Dec 6, 2019), https://www.svconline.com/news/why-churches-buy-three-sound-systems-364865.


Chris Reed (2023) A Vision-Based Approach to Purchasing Church A/V Systems, Liturgy, 38:4, 63-70, DOI: 10.1080/0458063X.2023.2260710