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St. John church raises $125,000 to improve audio, video system

  • Pastor Russ Leeper stands at the pulpit in St. John Lutheran Church, which will begin installation of new high-tech audio and video equipment this week. (Press photo James Grob.)

  • Pastor Russ Leeper stands at the pulpit in St. John Lutheran Church, which will begin installation of new high-tech audio and video equipment this week. (Press photo James Grob.)

By James Grob, jgrob@charlescitypress.com

It’s easy to imagine that when St. John Lutheran Church in Charles City was first forming its congregation back in the 1870s, the pastor might have used a stump for a pulpit and nothing more than his own resounding voice to carry his message.

Move forward almost 150 years, and modern technology has changed all that. When Pastor Russ Leeper presents his sermon each Sunday at St. John, he utilizes state-of-the-art video and audio equipment.

“Since digital projectors became affordable, we’ve been setting up screens in corners of churches and doing this kind of thing, and it’s evolved,” said Leeper, who started as the pastor at St. John in August 2017. “It’s a skill that I have, and it worked perfectly with what the congregation was looking for.”

Walk into church on any given Sunday, and you might see Leeper accentuating his sermon with a PowerPoint presentation, a music video or a short video clip from a television show or motion picture.

On the screen there could be a map of Galilee during the life of Christ, a nature photo from a recent canoe ride, or a candid pic of Leeper himself, when he was an awkward teenager growing up in Waterloo. Anything that seems appropriate to the message he’s trying to convey can be presented — sometimes poignant, sometimes whimsical.

Soon, Leeper will be able to present that weekly message with greater ease, as the congregation at St. John recently raised enough money for the church to upgrade its sound and video system. The $125,000 fundraising goal was reached in under two months.

“This is something that’s been in the works for a number of years. It started way before I got here,” Leeper said. “Members of the congregation were having trouble hearing through the sound system they had. It’s loud enough, but we have this beautiful sanctuary with all these hard surfaces and glass, and the sound bounces all over the place.”

The church had begun working with Lifeline Audio, a company out of Wisconsin, that offered an alternative — steerable, line-array speakers.

“The speakers that were installed, essentially, the system was likened to a bullhorn blasting away,” said St. John congregational President Jeremy Heyer about the existing system. “The system was not optimum, the capabilities were not there.”

Heyer said many in the sanctuary couldn’t hear the sermon, or if they could, they couldn’t understand what was said.

“People would stay home. They said they could hear the service better on the radio than in the church,” Heyer said.

Installation starts this week on the new system, which will have a column of 24 individual speaker cones inside the larger speaker that are steerable — meaning they can be pointed exactly where the sound needs to go.

“It can be digitally tuned for the best possible sound,” Heyer said.

“It goes right to the ears of the listeners,” Leeper said. “It’s more crisp, less muddled. Everyone can hear and we don’t have people frustrated.”

Once the sound system is installed this week, work will begin on installing the new laser projector and video screen, which will be much larger, brighter and higher than the current screen.

“It overcomes light much better, and it’s also acoustically transparent,” Leeper said. “It will hang down in front of organ pipes, but will still allow the sound to come through the screen. That’s more expensive, but it’s what our space needs.”

Leeper said that with the current screen, light can come in on the picture and wash out the screen, making it very difficult to see. Heyer said the screen is mounted in a place where it isn’t visible everywhere in the sanctuary.

“This is a decision that this congregation had made before I got here — they wanted to upgrade the technology,” Leeper said. “They wanted to join the 21st century, to use better technology to better share the message of the Gospel.”

Heyer said that the new technology is simply a way to better connect with church members.

“We are visual people, and Pastor Russ incorporates a lot of video in his sermons, and we’ve found that’s the best way to reach people,” Heyer said.

Leeper and Heyer said the installation shouldn’t take more than two weeks, although some tweaking might be needed.

“The plan is to get it in a couple of weeks before Easter, because the last thing you want to do is test out new equipment on your biggest Sunday of the year,” Leeper said.

The church board began sending out pledge cards to raise money for the new equipment after the first of the year. Most of the $125,000 was pledged by the end of February.

“I have to admit that I was a little skeptical that we would be able to get the donations quickly enough, but I was very pleasantly surprised,” Leeper said. “I’m blown away by the generosity of the congregation. I mean, $125,000 is not a small amount of money.”

Heyer said that the congregation has been overwhelmingly supportive of the effort.

“We’re called to spread the word of God, and we try to be good good stewards of the congregation’s funds,” Heyer said. “There are a countless number of things that need attention, but this is a good step.”

Leeper said that using video to present a better visual message in his sermons is something he’s been personally working on for at least 15 years.

“The congregation looked for a pastor who was interested in using the technology,” he said. “Little did they know they would stumble upon me.”

Leeper, who studied at Wartburg College in Waverly and Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, said that when he and his wife, Susan, came to Charles City, it immediately felt like home.

“It feels like a very tight-knit community, where people kind of look out for each other,” he said. “For me, even though I didn’t grow up in Charles City, I just feel like I came home.”

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