H.O.W. Production Profile: Eagle Brook Church

by Nook Schoenfeld
in Features
The church has gained members by taking some risks.
The church has gained members by taking some risks.

Dynamic Lighting and Video Production Helps Minnesota Mega-Church Visuals Soar

Eagle Brook Church is the largest house of worship in the state of Minnesota, in terms of attendance and size. The church’s six campuses in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area have a combined average attendance of more than 17,000, and that number can exceed 22,000 for non-holiday weekends. During Christmas services last year, more than 48,000 attended the holiday services.

The church’s dramatic growth has been taking place under the leadership of senior pastor Bob Merritt. A native of Pennsylvania, Merritt, a Baptist minister’s son, got a Masters Degree in Divinity from Bethel University in Arden Hills, MN, served as pastor of a Baptist church in Wisconsin for six years, then returned to Pennsylvania to get his Doctorate in Speech Communications. He then became pastor First Baptist Church of White Bear Lake in 1991, which had been operating as a traditional Baptist church since the 1940s.

Under Merritt, things started to change, and the steady growth in weekly attendance accelerated. By 1997, the church had changed their name to Eagle Brook. Baptist in origin, the services were updated to welcome people from all denominations looking for a Christian message in a non-traditional setting during a time period when many of the more traditional Christian churches — from Catholic to Lutheran to the Assembly of God — were experiencing attendance declines.

The church has grown under the leadership of senior pastor Bob Merritt, who has guided the church services toward a more contemporary, and less traditional vibe.

Taking Flight

After Eagle Brook’s congregation outgrew the original church in White Bear Lake, Merritt moved the congregation to a state-of-the-art theatrical facility in nearby Lino Lakes, MN. However, by the time the new church opened, there still wasn’t enough room to welcome everyone who wanted to attend. So Eagle Brook reopened the White Bear Lake campus as an additional location.

Today, there are six separate campuses. Along with White Bear Lake and Lino Lakes, Eagle Brook has churches in Anoka, Blaine, Spring Lake Park and Woodbury. All focus on contemporary, non-traditional services on Saturdays (4 and 6 p.m.) and Sundays (9 and 11 a.m.). The relaxed atmosphere, comfortable theater type seating and abundance of blue jeans worn to service has attracted an audience that is growing in leaps and bounds.

Colored lights draw the crowd into the excitement at the service.

PLSN visited two of the campuses — the main (and largest) one in Lino Lakes, and a smaller (and latest addition to the family) in Anoka, which opened this spring. Neither has a steeple, stained glass, pews, or even an altar. When I walk onto the stage, the only thing I see reminiscent of a church from my youth is an ornate cross off to the side that one of the staff built. And during the services, instead of traditional organ music, attendees are more likely to get an earful of electric guitars and big drum beats.

“Not everybody likes it, and that’s okay,” notes Merritt, on the church’s website. “We’re trying to hit that 80 percent. It’s the type of music people listen to during the week — so why not Sunday?” Eagle Brook has also done away with the old “passing of the plate” offering, as patrons can easily donate through kiosks in the lobby or online.

Chauvet Rogues wash the audience

Lighting

Nate Nohling, production director for all six campuses, gives me a tour of the church’s main facility in Lino Lakes, which also serves as the broadcast campus. He oversees the lighting, video and audio aspects for everything involved and works with the individual production managers, video directors and audio engineers working at the other church locations. There are also three lighting designers. Each one looks after two separate lighting rigs at their respective campuses. This facility first opened their doors in 2005.

When I enter the building, I notice a comfortable lobby where people can mingle, along with a book store and a café to eat. I walk through the children’s area and I see a state-of-the-art play and teaching area for kids that would rival even the best daycare facilities. We walk into the chapel, and it is an expansive room with seating for 2,100. The comfortable seating is set with the floor sloped like a theater for great viewing from any angle.

I look towards the stage and notice three large diamond shaped trusses that are flown at an angle that is almost vertical. Nohling explains the concepts behind lighting designs for the campuses start with this one, which contains the largest stage and production.

Elation Bar 360s were specified in the early 2017 design.

“Every six months or so, we change our cycle and come up with a total redesign for the main campus. Then we scale down the design to mirror it in smaller fashion for each campus. This time, we came up with a diamond configuration, which is basically three 16.5-foot squares of 12-inch box truss that we rigged point-up with four Stagemaker SR5 half ton hoists lifting each one.” The other campuses feature a scaled-down version of the diamond design.

“We consider ourselves a Martin house, as we own a lot of MAC fixtures,” Nohling states, and this is evident by the many MAC Viper AirFX I see hanging on the truss and laid out along the upstage floor. They purchased these four years ago, and all of them are still functioning well. They have some MAC 250 Wash fixtures off to the side as well for aerial effects.

grandMA consoles and Martin MAC Vipers are staples at the church.

To add to “the scenic element,” Nohling continues, “we are big on LED tape surrounding our truss. We have gone with different models over the years, but for now we are really happy with the Enttec brand. We are using their Pixelators with great success. We found theirs to be the most flexible product as far as data distribution and networking within our system. The tape we currently get from them contains 60 LEDs per meter.” Nohling points out that an ArKaos media server is used at times to pixel-map the tape.

The stage is currently set for a four-piece band (guitar, bass, keys and drums) as well as vocalists. They are often washed by Chroma-Q Color Force 12s mounted to the tops of the diamonds. Chroma-Q Studio Force V Phosphors line the downstage apron to provide some white light to fill in facial features for the camera shots. “We have well over 100 Color Force products spread across the campuses,” Nohling notes.

Another interesting set of lights are the homemade fixtures that production teams have built from stove pipe reducer sheet metal parts bought at the local hardware store, DWE lamps (par 36 wide blinder bulbs) and placed on stands. These are living upstage for this design and blast a bright, wide white swath of light towards downstage. “This is one of our signature looks on all our stages. At any time, we can have a beautiful silhouette look of the musicians,” Nohling says.

An event for youth is accented with beam fixtures.

The design team doesn’t always stick solely to what gear is in house. They are always on the lookout for new ideas, and this year’s concept was a beauty. “We wanted to do something a little different and eye-popping this year,” Nohling says. “All our campuses utilize the grandMA2 line of consoles, and we wanted to take advantage of all the features. We added more LED fixtures to the rig.”

This is where Seth Scott, owner of Monkey Wrench Productions out of Golden Valley, MN, near Minneapolis, came into play. His company is set up to supply everything a production might need, from tape (LED to Gaffers) or clamps to lighting fixtures and consoles. While they are more of a supplier of gear than a rental house, they step up to the plate and help Eagle Brook whenever they can.

Nohling likes to refer to Seth as his lighting consultant, or, as Seth describes it, “I offer my services as a non-paid member of the design team.” Monkey Wrench has been working with Eagle Brook since 2014. “I love working with these folks because they have a world class production staff and enjoy using the latest technology,” Seth adds. “As their design vision comes together, they look to me for product recommendations.”

'Not everyone likes it, and that's okay,' says Bob Merritt, on the church's website. 'We're trying to hit that 80 percent.'

Raising the Bars

Nohling expands on factors that determine what gear Eagle Brook purchases. “Whatever fixtures we decide to buy must be used for years. While fixtures such as the Vipers are certainly a sound investment, other fixtures that may be perfect for this recent design, may not fit in so well with next years’ design.”

This year, Seth provided a long-term rental to all six campuses with almost 200 Elation ACL 360 Bars between them, and the hardware to hang them. These fixtures feature a linear row of seven LED cells on a yoke. Each of the three diamond pods in Lino Lakes contains 14 fixtures.

I talked to lighting designer/director Tom Clark, who serves as LD for the Lino Lakes and Anoka campuses, about this product. “These light fixtures are extremely flexible. We can pan and tilt them in any direction or spin them on any axis. We ended up networking everything together because our pixel count was so high. We mapped each fixture on a grid, which allows us to use the pixel map function on the grandMA to come up with great effects.” Clark also mentions that haze is a big part of making sure his beams and gobos are always reading well. “We went with MDG Atmospheres at all the campuses. They have held up surprisingly well, considering how much use they get.”

The technical team strives to optimize the visuals while keeping expenses in check.

While Nohling and the church love the design they have this year, choices must be made to ensure that they don’t break the bank. He realized the almost 200 ACL 360s was a great fixture for this design, but Nohling wasn’t convinced that the church needed these in their permanent inventory. This is where Monkey Wrench stepped in.

As Seth explains, “with my company, I was able to broker a deal where I bought the lights and have been renting them to Eagle Brook. The original plan was for a six month rental, but because of the tremendous response to the product and design needs, they just extended the rental. When the church feels the need to move on to another fixture, I will sell all these at a reduced rate. Since they never travelled far, they will be a great deal for someone eventually.”

Confetti rains down on the youthful crowd like manna from heaven.

Having an associate like Monkey Wrench also helps eliminate many other production costs. For instance, to install the ACL 360’s, the church noted that they would require a lot of new XLR cable to get DMX to all the fixtures. Seth was quick to point out a way to cut that cost down. “All I did was suggest we go Art-Net with all the fixtures. Shielded Cat5 patch cable is one-fourth the cost of the cheapest DMX 5-pins out there. When you need this much cable, it can be a major expense. I’m always glad to work with anyone and help find solutions that will fit their budget, but I always insist on selling only quality gear that Monkey Wrench can support.”

In the house, I notice a bunch of ETC Source Four Pars that were installed as the original house lights when the building was built. There is also a front catwalk full of ETC ellipsoidals with 10° lenses that are corrected to cameras for front light. These fixtures work great for bathing the house and stage in white light.

Updates include color-changing audience lighting. And while it's too dark to read a hymnal, text projections make the hard copy books obsolete.

“In all the other campuses, we have been leaning towards installing The Light Source pendant fixtures, such as the HL Series,” Nohling explains. “We can choose the beam size with the lenses and dim them easily. We have all white models installed, but in retrospect I wish we had spent a little more and gotten the color mixing fixtures. But either way, we love them, and we dim them down for the performances.”

They did make a big change in the auditorium in a quest to add color to the audience at the main campus, as Nohling explains. “We broadcast live from this room to all of the other campuses, as well as online. The jib camera often sweeps through the crowd on its way to the stage, and we felt we really needed a wash fixture that we could focus remotely, to color the audience.” They needed a fixture that was bright, reliable and affordable for the task, and opted for Chauvet Rogue R2 wash fixtures. Tom Clark explains the choice. “It’s pertinent that we keep all eyes on the stage and the message we are trying to send. But we are also trying to get people in the doors to the church to spread our message. Through word of mouth and the internet, people can see what we are doing, realize the fun and excitement that our congregation is having and attend themselves. The jib camera picks up the colored faces, but the audience will keep their eyes on the brightly lit stage.”

A lyric screen from CreateLED helps  elicit joyful noise from the crowd.

Video

Before discussing what video elements they have in house, it’s important to understand how the church works to provide the same weekly message for everyone. Each campus has its own pastor who speaks to his congregation during the hour-long service. But at one point, approximately half way through each service, a sermon from senior pastor Bob Merritt is broadcast to each facility. Each weekend, the teaching pastor has a message that is delivered live at Lino Lakes. Mind you, this campus has four services per weekend, and the pastor has but one set of vocal chords. Nobody could deliver four sermons per weekend and keep their voice.

When the teaching pastor comes out live, they will often have a large plasma screen that rolls out to assist him in the message. Through the service, there are two control rooms backstage hard at work. One room concentrates on the live show and cutting the cameras, adding in content to various video surfaces. The other studio concentrates on the broadcast portion, which includes recording and sending the Pastor’s sermon to all the other campuses to include at the proper time.

Each campus is a little different as far as the layouts of their video components used in the production. But one thing is constant — each campus relies on products made from CreateLED for their LED surfaces, which Nohling credits as high in quality.

Projectors on pantographs were used on some campuses.

In the Lino Lakes auditorium, the center screen is a 16-by-9 ratio 5mm wall they obtained from Mankin Media Systems, out of Franklin, TN, near Nashville. Located in the center of the stage, it flies in and out on command. “We like to fly this LED wall down to within an inch of the stage,” Nohling says. “To do so, we chose two inverted Pointman motors and run them with a Kinesys motion control system. The Pointmans came to us with the Kinesys encoders already installed, and this system has worked consistently.”

This LED wall is used to play back the 20-30 minute long messages predominantly, after the original sermon has been recorded. When the Lino Lakes campus was erected, a decision was made to hang some side screens so the viewers seated off center could get a close-up view of the Pastor. The screens basically project I-Mag and use the lower third for text, especially when the congregation sings.

On that note, I should mention there’s a permanently hung “lyric screen” that hangs on center above the lighting diamonds. This acts as a teleprompter, displaying the words to hymns so the congregation can sing along. There are no hymnals, as this goes along with the church’s decision to keep all eyes focused towards the stage. This, too, is a CreateLED 5mm product.

There are nine cameras involved in the production at the main campus. There’s a camera on a dolly below the FOH setup that can move left to right. Behind that at FOH are two cameras, one for tight shots of the Pastor and musical soloists, and one that can pick up wider shots. A 20-foot jib is located house left and can pan the crowd and do traditional sweeping moves toward the stage. Three handhelds, a wide shot and what is referred to as “the stupid camera” (more on this later), add to the mix.

The lower third of the CreateLED video screens are used for lyrics and other messages.

The Technical Crew

While each campus has their permanent staff, they rely hugely on a staff of volunteers that work the services. All the camera operators are taught a skill. Volunteers are taught electrical skills, working with lights while others learn what it takes to mic the band and learn audio. There is ample opportunity to work your way up in rank and even obtain a permanent position. One such employee is Jenna Sederstrom, the video director who works in the control room calling the camera shots. Along with the video director, the shader, system tech and graphics head (in charge of lyrics) and assistant director work in the in-room control center as well.

Bjorn Bagnall, Eagle Brook’s broadcast video director, works out of a separate room known as the online control room. He’s in charge of streaming the broadcasts live as well as sending the Pastor’s weekly sermon to the other campuses. He’s aided by a similar cast of techs. I note that all the control rooms are equipped with various Ross switchers.

Nate Nohling was originally hired as an LD for the campus, but says he doesn’t really miss it terribly, as his role has developed over the years. When asked how he has assembled a team of good spirited individuals, he puts it quite bluntly. “We are all believers in the message we are trying to convey through this church. This is a job that we all love for two reasons; we get to do something creative, production-wise, and we also get to spread the word. I think that anyone can learn a position, but not everyone can walk in here with the same devotion that we all have, and that’s key to a good staff working together here.”

The church's outreach efforts also help test the waters before expanding to new locations.

Expanding Further

Along with the six church campuses, Eagle Brook is testing the waters with temporary church services located in schools or older buildings looking for tenants. They stream the sermons there, and gauge the response. If attendance at the temporary church locations show signs of promise, Eagle Brook will consider constructing a more permanent church campus in that area.

In March, Eagle Brook opened a church campus in Anoka, after getting a good response from the satellite church services it had been offering at Coon Rapids High School, about six miles away.

The Anoka church is located in a retrofitted Kmart store, but you couldn’t tell from looking. It offers a scaled-down version of many of the amenities at the other church locations, including a smaller version of the cross seen at Lino Lakes.

This church’s auditorium is smaller than Lino Lakes — I’m told that they had to dig down in this room to remove earth to get the proscenium theatrical seating in place — and with its lower trim height, the light rig differs. This one has a mass of smaller diamond shapes made up of unistrut bars. While different, Enttec LED tape is used as a scenic element to help tie in the looks with the other locations.

As with the other Eagle Brook campuses, the Anoka facility often stages special events such as student activities that require extra production to be brought in, such as trusses, lights and confetti. And along with the two usual services on Saturday and Sunday, one location — in Blaine, MN — also offers services later on Sunday, at 4 and 6 p.m.

These efforts to reach out to the community and present a religious method in a new and exciting way have already made Eagle Brook the biggest church in Minnesota. But it looks like the church is set for even further expansion. If Pastor Merritt meets his stated goal, there will be a full-fledged Eagle Brook campus within ten miles of everyone in the Twin Cities area.

An old store is restored and turned into a campus for worship.

Kudos to the Crew

Nate Nohling wishes to acknowledge the hard work of his staff as well as the volunteers that show up to work on various aspects of production. Many of these folks have entered the business as professionals. The crew there is always on the hunt for like-minded people to hire to fill positions. Key crew members include lighting designers Tom Clark, Jason Goglio and Ryan Wilson; lighting technician Jimmy Finelli; video director Jenna Sederstrom and broadcast manager Bjorn Bagnall, among others.

Eagle Brook's Woodbury Campus.

 

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