Companies such as Sony, Panasonic, Avid and Hitachi are helping churches spread the gospel as part of an effort to cash in on an exploding market known as "house of worship technology."
In recent years, members of the clergy have begun competing with MTV, video games and the Internet by jazzing up sermons with image magnification systems and large-screen video displays, . The trend has evolved, and churches now are Webcasting to distant parishioners with sophisticated multicamera operations and pumping up the volume inside worship areas with state-of-the-art sound systems.
"It's like going to a rock concert," says Patrick Teagarden, one of the growing number of sound-and-video technicians whose main customers are churches. "It's a fact: Media helps make it easier for people to pay attention."
An illustration of the market's growing clout came this week at the National Association of Broadcasters 2006 electronic media conference. For the first time, NAB dedicated an exhibit area to tech and consumer electronics companies that are catering to churches.
The titles of some of the conference sessions included "Radio Frequency Interference & The Church Sound System," "Worship Software to Expand Your Media Presentation" and "Microphones & Religious Applications."
Perhaps America's best example of the tech-savvy house of worship is the Houston-based Lakewood Church, which last year recorded a weekly attendance of 30,000. Pastor Joel Osteen needed the Compaq Center, a former basketball arena that was once home of the National Basketball Association's Houston Rockets, to serve as his chapel.
Osteen employs three massive video-display screens to project his image to people sitting in the nosebleed seats. Illuminating the walls and the giant globe spinning behind Osteen's pulpit are Altman Micro Strips, strip lights that use a range of tungsten halogen lamps to create different lighting effects.
Lakewood is also planning a migration to HDTV and recently bought eight high-definition cameras from Sony. The dollar value on Lakewood's video and production facilities is about $4 million, according to CIOinsight.com.
At Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill., the technology budget is $1 million a year out of a total annual budget of $27 million, CIOinsight.com reported.
This kind of spending attracts disciples.
"There's not one major electronics manufacturer who isn't trying to target this space," said Dan Stark, who operates Stark Raving Solutions, a company that specializes in outfitting churches with the latest in audio and video technology.
But for the tech and electronics industries, which haven't shied away from using sex to sell products, marketing takes a different tone with churches.
"Let's face it, we've all experienced the occasional sleeper on Sunday morning," says an Internet advertisement from Audio Visual Mart, an online media tools store. "But it doesn't have to be that way. Technology can inspire your congregation in new ways."
Peavey Electronics, a Meridian, Miss.-based maker of musical instruments and sound equipment, has created a new line of products called the Sanctuary Series.
To get started wiring a church, all a pastor or minister need do is call one of the growing number of technicians who specialize in worship technology. Teagarden told a group of other church techies that he can rig a sanctuary with three lower-end cameras, a video switcher (a device that receives a video feed from multiple cameras and selects which images an audience sees) and a Focus Firestore FS-4 DV disk recorder, which lets a videographer record directly to disk.
Teagarden's price is between $25,000 and $30,000, he said.
This kind of set up would let a church record, edit and distribute a sermon via DVDs, the Internet or TV within a couple of hours, Teagarden said.
"Churches have wanted to get their hands on this technology for years," said Teagarden, managing director of Sharing His Light Productions. "In the past it was too expensive, but in the past few years, prices have dropped. This has allowed even small churches to go high tech."
So how does a church benefit from this kind of gear?
Sometimes special lighting and sound can turn a larger venue into an intimate setting, said technicians. Mostly, it helps a preacher communicate with his congregation.
Scott Anthony, the technology director at Cross Timbers Community Church in Argyle, Texas, said his pastor, Toby Slough, will illustrate a sermon about the biblical character Joseph being in prison by videotaping himself at the local jail. Those churches with video display screens often use clips from movies to make their point, said Anthony.
"We live in a media-driven world," he said.
With most churches in the country averaging less than a thousand members, Cross Timbers congregation numbers more than 4,000 only four years after its founding.
Says Anthony: "This is how people, especially young people, are accustomed to hearing a message."