The Ultimate Gear List for Portable Churches on a Budget

I’m excited to have my friend, Joshua Shaw on the Churchfront blog to share some practical advice for purchasing portable and low budget gear for your church. Josh is the lead pastor at Lighthouse Church in Lakewood, Colorado. Two years ago, Lighthouse began as a small group of less than a dozen people meeting at Josh’s house. Now they average 200 in weekly attendance. Josh did not have a multi-million dollar budget to build his worship production system. Instead, he strategically researched and purchased gear that was inexpensive, portable, and reliable. I’m gonna hand it off to him to tell you all about the ultimate gear list for portable churches.

Are you a church planter, worship director, or pastor of a portable church? Are you overwhelmed by the thought of all the sound and video equipment you think you need to buy to ensure that your Sunday experiences are excellent? You’re not alone!

Nowadays, the expectation on portable churches and the quality of production they create on a Sundays is incredibly high. And not just from Christians. Non-Christians expect excellence. They’ve been to portable outdoor concerts. They’ve been to a set-up/tear-down festival. They know quality can be accomplished on a portable system.

So the question is, how are you, as a pastor, leader, volunteers, supposed to buy the right equipment, organize it for easy setup and tear down, and ensure that it is easily accessible for volunteers, but not sacrifice quality? Well, today is your lucky day.

In this article, I am going to share with you the secret sauce of portable equipment that won’t destroy your church’s budget, and in fact, will make your setup and tear-down process a breeze and it will cost a lot less than what you are expecting.

We will first begin by discussing the sound and lighting world. Then we will move to the band’s equipment.

1. Mixer

Do not purchase a full-blown soundboard. Yes, we all know that the Behringer X32 is amazing. Or the newest mini Digidesign or even the new Studiolive32 is fun to look at, but don't buy them.

They are heavy, they required massive hard cases, they are overwhelming to the average volunteer. And most important, they are unnecessary.

In a portable setup, you need to be as efficient as possible, which is why I recommend the Behringer X32 Rack. You can rack-mount this 32 channel on the stage (so it acts like a stage box for your musicians), you can attach a router to it, and your sound guys/gals can run the sound from iPads. Of course, there are no real life faders. But who cares. When it takes your sound person 10 minutes to set up instead of 1 hour because they are setting up a mixer, running cables to the stage, etc., this little mixer is your best friend.

2. In-Ear Monitoring

Do not purchase additional in ear modules such as the Behringer P16 or Aviom system. Rather, from your X32 rack, you can run up to 8 XLR out channels to an eight channel headphone amplifier and then you can run 25-foot headphone cables to each musician.

How is each musician going to be able to control what they hear in their mix? Well, remember that router I told you to purchase for your X32 Rack. Each musician can log into that router and run their in-ear mix with Behringer’s free X32 Q app.

This set up costs you a total of $200 if you buy the headphone amp, cables, and even a cheap set of in-ears for everyone. That is cheaper than one P16 system.

3. Speakers

Do not purchase low-budget speaker and subs with XLR inputs. Also, do not buy passive speakers. You will be running cables for days, and you will end up spending more on power amps than you ever could have imagined.

Buy yourself a set of 12” powered tops that have CAT5 DSP technology. And buy yourself a set of two 18” power subs with CAT5 DSP technology, too. JBL, QSC, and others all have speakers that fit this bill. But my recommendation is Turbosound IQ speakers and subs. Turbosound and Behringer are owned by the same parent company, which means that all their technology works together.

Think about this for a moment, the only four cables you would run throughout your entire sound system would be four shielded CAT5 cables. That’s it! With the X32 Rack, you could run one CAT5 from it’s P16 output to one of your Turbosound speakers; then you would daisy chain from the output a CAT5 to each of the other speakers and subs. Four cables for an entire sound system set up.

And oh, by the way, none of them would be running from a front of house mixer, because, remember, you have an iPad doing all of that for you. Your sound person is going to love you!

4. Lighting

Whatever you do, do not buy a lighting board, and do not buy any lights that are not DMX. It’s just a waste of time in a portable set up.

Online you can purchase a device called a DMXKing from Amazon that plugs all of your lights into a simple wifi router. You can then trail one DMX cable to your lighting system. Power all your DMX lights and then run all your shows from a wifi signal via the iPad app, Luminaire.

Think about this for a moment: Your Sound person could also run your lights. All with just one iPad (if they have an iPad pro, which can run two apps at the same time). Mind-blowing, isn’t it?

And it would likely take them 30 minutes to set up both the lights and sound. Incredible!

5. Projection, Screens, and Programs

Here’s the deal, less is more (if you haven’t already noticed). So it is with your projection system as well. The best thing you can do is purchases a projection software called Proclaim Worship Projection. It is a cloud-based, monthly subscription software just like Propresenter, but it is way simpler, and perfect for portability. It has all the features you need in a portable church plant (no, you don’t need nine-screen compatibility, or LED wall technology. You need to project lyrics, in a beautiful presentation, for people to sing to. So buy this). And it’s much less than Propresenter, which again, saving money is always nice.

For your projection screens, I recommend anything from the company called Elite Screens. They are so freaking easy to set up and your volunteers will love you. My recommendation on screens is buy a big one, and don’t buy two. Having two screens usually isn’t appealing to the eyes, and its a pain to set up, because you need HDMI splitters, extra projectors, and more setup time.

For projectors, do yourself a favor and buy the Optoma Short Throw Gaming Projector.

This baby works perfectly in almost every situation. It is cheap. It is a short throw (meaning you don’t need much space for it to work) and it is hefty. Don’t buy any other projector. Don’t pay more than $700. It’s unnecessary.

Music Gear

Here is the section that most of my musician friends will hate me. I know, I know, what I am about to write breaks the cardinal rules of musicianship. I get it. But in a portable setting, where volunteers are running sound, and your Worship Director knows very little about the overall equipment, these are the best practices to make your set-up, tear-down, and Sunday experience as excellent as possible.

1. No bass or guitar amps

There isn’t a point. Amplifiers create way too much stage noise. And in your tiny little elementary school, rec-center, or gym, they will be horribly loud and your sound guy will hate you. Rather, remember that X32 Rack I told you to buy? It is likely mounted in a portable rack case with wheels. And I bet it has plenty of space for additional rack equipment in those spaces is where your “amps” will be.

For your bass guitar, and your electric guitars, I recommend buying  Line 6 Amp Modelers. Rack options like the POD Rack Pro are perfect. They are created for studio use and they make a wonderful amp sound. Also, they sound great in in-ears, and your guitarists and bassists won’t hate you too much.

If your bassists and guitarists only have to bring their pedals and nothing else (no heavy equipment!) after about one year they will love you.

2. No Live Drums

Technology is just too good for you to blow the face off your front nine rows of people with your “shielded” drum set. It doesn’t make sense to bring a live drum set every week, tune it, mic it, and eq it. It’s just a waste of time, energy, and I can guarantee you, your sound guys are likely not EQing it correct. So what’s the point?

Purchase yourself a hybrid drum set. One like the Pearl E-Pro live or buy a converter kit that will turn your live-set into an electric set.

Now, hold on for a moment. Am I advocating for electric drum sets? NO! That would be blasphemy!

What I am advocating for is turning your acoustic set into a set that has rubbered and triggered heads and cymbals (all costing about $1,500), and then running those signals to the electronic drum brain like an Alesis DM10. But you don’t stop there.

Everyone knows the sounds on an electric drum set are terrible. So what do you do? Well, you buy a program called “Addictive Drums” which is a drum modeling program used in studios, and you plug your Drum Brain into your laptop running Addictive Drums via USB. This then turns your hybrid set into a midi controller for the Addictive Drums to simulate sounds. You can then run a right/left output from the headphone jack into two channels on your X32 Rack. And voila!

You have a perfect studio drum set eq reading to be level-adjusted by your sound guy. No more mic. No more XLRs. No more drum shields. No more stage volume. Just delicious, studio quality drums, for around $1,800. And if you think that’s expensive, go ahead and buy yourself a decent drum set, with mics, XLRS, and a drum shield, and all the complaints you’ll get about volume. Trust me, $1,800 is cheap for delicious drums that any volunteer can level-adjust.

2. No UHF Microphones

UHF wireless microphones are great, but they are expensive. And they likely won’t work in your situation unless you invest a lot of $$ in them. So, I recommend for your handhelds and lapel microphones using a 2.4ghz wireless system. They don’t receive interference, and they sound great!

The best system out there right now is the Audio-Technica System 10. Just make sure you do not mount these near other Wifi Routers (hint, keep them about 3 feet away from your X32 Rack Router and your Lighting Router. If you don’t you will get some interference because they are on the same frequencies).

There you go. I hope this list helps you in your purchasing processes. Have fun researching, purchasing, and installing!