April 19, 2006 - A church youth group has taken over a 175-seat sanctuary in Oro Valley, substituting rows of overstuffed sofas for the pews that last Easter overflowed with people celebrating resurrection.
That's because this Easter, members of Oro Valley Church of the Nazarene worshipped next door in a new 600-seat sanctuary with giant video screens, subwoofers under the stage and a lighting system sophisticated enough for a small theater house.
Parents carry vibrating pagers that connect them with the nursery, and a nook resembling a box office offers CDs of each church service soon after the benediction ends.
A recent article in the Washington Post described the new face of Christianity as "upbeat and contemporary, media-smart with a heightened sense of entertainment and general appeal." The Nazarenes at 500 W. Calle Concordia reflects that trend.
"People are used to a certain level of technology in their life, so to come to church and feel at home is an advantage," said Jeff Gee, the church's youth pastor.
In 1998, leaders of the church began meeting with architects to come up with plans for a building that would bring the worship experience into the 21st century. In April of 2004, the church broke ground on the $4 million, 20,000-square-foot facility, having raised $2 million. About a year ago, the first worship service took place.
A production offered in the sanctuary this month illustrates the fruits of the effort. On the Sunday before Easter, a large choir in sequined costumes sang praises on a 65-foot-wide stage, boosted by 10 surround-sound speakers plus two floor-vibrating subwoofers. For word prompting, the choir watched a 10-foot-wide screen on the wall behind worshippers. For sound quality, the choir listened to a monitor sending the piano music in their direction.
The lighting system, with its many colored gels and 76 circuits, added to the mood.
"A medium-sized lighting systems means that it's not as big as the TCC (Tucson Convention Center), but it's as big as a small theater house would be," said Larry Vinyard, the church's music pastor. "It makes it roughly approximate to what a small theater can do."
Video cameras at three of six available camera perches recorded the performance. Operators zoomed the lenses in and out, directed by an overseer in the back who spoke to them through earpieces.
In a windowless room in the balcony, an operator watched a wall full of screens - some with live video footage and some with images from the gigantic screens in the sanctuary - and put together images from the screens to create a commemorative DVD.
The technology during worship is substantial, and during special performances, as many as 13 people work behind the scenes to operate electronic equipment, Vinyard said. But the technology extends beyond the worship experience.
The nursery boasts a large reception area with a computer-lined desk that looks like it belongs in an elementary school. Children wear printed nametags with colored picture identification and notes about food allergies and medical conditions. Mom and dad are only a pager vibration away, and some of the facility's technology hasn't even been taken advantage of yet, Vinyard said.
"There's potential for barcoding your kid in or out," he said.
The church also has a Web site that allows members to chat with each other and even find their Top 10 matches in categories ranging from profession to hobbies. Members who want to find others who enjoy activities as marginal as cloud watching - that's one of the categories - need only search the Web site.
Jennifer Engle, a 22-year member, said she approves of churches staying up-to-date with technology and likes hearing the choir in surround sound.
"I think it is powerful," she said. "When you listen to music and hear the gospel and it's coming from every direction, it speaks to the heart. The technology enhances the words. In the olden days they'd be singing good Christian songs and you were struggling to hear what they were saying."
Engle said she that although the choir sounds more professional than it did in the old sanctuary, the feeling in worship is not overly professional as it is in some churches she's visited.
"It's a big church, but you feel a closeness with people," she said.
If church attendance is any indication, people seem excited about the changes at Oro Valley Church of the Nazarene. In 42 weeks, attendance has grown by 19 percent, with about 110 more people attending each Sunday than last year, Vinyard said.
To accommodate a growing congregation, the church plans to build additional parking. Also, a family-life center is in the planning stages.
The purpose of all the technological and structural enhancements is, of course, to bring more people into the fold of the church, Vinyard said.
"From Day 1, we said we don't want to build a facility for ourselves," he said. "We want it to be something to reach more people."