Who Are The Toys For?

by Michael Hoddy | Jan 03, 2014


A few years ago, I found myself sitting in a large church conference, and the presenter, the lead pastor of a very large, very creative tech-savvy church, was discussing production technology- sound, video, lighting, and acoustics- and its uses in the local church environment. In the middle of his presentation, he made a statement which has echoed in my mind in the years since: “Always ask the question: who are the toys for?”

That struck me to the heart. I love production technology. For years, decades, since I was a teenager, I would wait expectantly for the newest music store catalog to come in the mail, and I would browse its pages, dreaming of owning this piece of gear or that musical instrument, and all the things I could do with it. I know I’m not alone here.

It’s one thing when we do that on our own time and with our own resources But when I took my first church ministry position later in life, I found myself with those same longings every time a new magazine or catalog came. Only this time, I had a “ministry budget”- someone else’s money, and the ability to justify purchases and expenditures for their ministry value. Suddenly, the stakes were higher- much higher.

We human beings have immense capability to rationalize our decision-making, and even deceive ourselves about the reasons we are doing things or buying things, even when it comes to ministry. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of well-implemented production technology in the local church, and I believe it has immense capacity to inspire and communicate, or else we wouldn’t be operating Somerset Media Group. But I also believe that we need to continually ask ourselves “Who are the toys for?” Otherwise, we are prone to build our own personal gear collection more than we are the Kingdom of God- more likely to spend resources on our own technological thrills than on touching hearts and lives, and with the best of intentions.

Several times in the past few years, we at Somerset Media Group have found ourselves talking our clients out of a purchase or a new technological direction, because we didn’t feel it was the best stewardship decision or ministry fit for their particular paradigm. That’s a really odd place for us to find ourselves in, but we remain committed to the principles that got us into this line of work in the first place: Technology applied with Artistry to catapult Ministry. We’re here to serve local places of worship with cutting edge technology solutions, applied elegantly and precisely, that make each organization more effective at its mission. If one piece of the formula is missing, the formula doesn’t work.

As a result of this experience, we have attempted to formulate some guiding principles and questions that help us as consultants and designers as we work with people like you. No two ministry organizations are exactly alike, and there is no single correct answer for each question, but it’s our hope that they’ll help you as you consider the stewardship question of investing in new systems, upgrades, or new equipment for your ministry. Here they are:

1. Will most normal people notice the difference if we invest in this?

Will whatever investment or upgrade you are considering change the experience for most people in a noticeable, positive way? “Most people” are the typical people who walk through your doors every weekend, the ones who have no specialized understanding of music or sound or technology or production. Will most of them notice a tangible difference?

2. Is that difference more inspiring or less distracting, or will many find it more distracting and less inspiring?

The goal of production technology in a ministry environment is to help the participants focus more on God in the context of gathered community- whether through worship, teaching, or simply through a physical environment which is conducive to connecting. If technology draws attention to itself and away from these things, even if in a positive way, then it’s distracting, and not helping to truly facilitate ministry. We have found this to be especially true with certain types of lighting, video, and environmental design, and with sound levels, but the specifics are very dependent on the values and context of each local congregation. What can be more inspiring for the ministry leader or production team can actually be distracting for the typical congregant. It’s critical to look at things through their eyes.

3. Does this purchase help reinforce the values and unique characteristics of our organization as they stand, or does it pull them in a different, unexpected direction?

Over the years, we have worked with vibrant, successful organizations that have a high level of technological competence and innovation, and other equally vibrant, successful ones who have a surprisingly low level of technology implementation. This has taught us that technological advancement and ministry success sometimes have very little to do with each other. The greater question is whether a particular investment in technology reinforces the true values of the organization, or if it pulls things in a different direction. A church known for a strong sense of family togetherness and street-level community outreach may not be the best fit for a flashy moving light rig, while a progressive church in the suburbs of a large city populated by white-collar professionals might benefit more than usual from a high-definition video installation due to the values, culture, and expectations of its congregants. There is no single fit or right answer to this question, because context is everything, but it must be asked.

4. Does this purchase represent a game-changing improvement for our volunteers?

As a ministry leader, the biggest gift you can give your team is a ministry environment that maximizes the investment of their time and abilities and inspires them to give their best. There’s nothing more demotivating over the long term than systems, instruments or equipment that thwart the best efforts of your volunteers rather than springboard them to a higher level. Evaluate the system or upgrade you are considering: Will it raise the quality level of the volunteer experience significantly? Is it easier to use or harder to operate? Is it more consistent or less reliable? Will it transform the environment and truly act as a springboard, or will it prove difficult, distracting, and demotivating?

5. If we spend these resources in this manner, what other ministry initiatives does it mean we are saying “no” to?

And which is more important in the long term? One of the basic principles of budgeting is that when you say “yes” to certain priorities or decisions, it means you are saying “no” to other ones, even if you don’t realize it. It’s so easy for church ministry leaders to view their departments and budgets and ministry needs as their own turf, and forget to see the big picture. What other opportunities does the church have for impactful ministry? Is spending these resources in this way the surest way to get the most bang for the buck in your organization’s efforts in their entirety right now?

6. Are we committing enough resource and priority to resolve this issue properly for the foreseeable future?

One challenge with good sound, video, lighting, or acoustical solutions for houses of worship is that they often cost unexpectedly large amounts of money to do properly and reliably. Unfortunately, this often drives ministry organizations to select lower-cost solutions which are either incomplete in scope or which are offered by lower-budget firms that are inadequately experienced to design, install, or support the solutions they are offering. The result is a system that’s incomplete or unreliable, or a solution that has cost money but hasn’t really solved the problem that it was designed to address. This is completely avoidable, by selecting a competent firm who understands your ministry and your goals and who can develop a master plan for your systems as the ministry evolves. Then resource that plan adequately in logical steps so that you invest once in each step and thus invest well, without having to revisit, do over, and spend more.

7. Is there an “85/50 solution” below the one I am considering?

An “85/50 solution” is one that gets you 85 percent of the capability or function at 50 percent of the cost. The numbers aren’t always exact, but in every production technology field, there is a tipping point of price and performance below which performance goes up dramatically with small increases in cost, and above which cost goes up dramatically with small increases in performance. At Somerset Media Group, we try as much as we can to design solutions that dwell near this tipping point. Consider your options, and be sure there’s not an effective, reliable option that still provides the bulk of the performance at a fraction of the cost.

So who are the toys for? We hope these questions help you bring clarity to your organization’s decision-making process as you seek to exercise wisdom and stewardship with the resources under your care. And as always, we’d love to assist in any way possible, so please contact us and let us know how we can help.


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