A new testament to the power of technology

Times Staff Writer

For some ministers, the most advanced technology used in a church service has been a wireless microphone. But with people growing savvier about computers, home theaters and the Internet, Fuller Theological Seminary is trying to find ways to make spiritual connections through high tech.

"Many people who come to church browse YouTube for two hours in the morning," said Fuller President Richard Mouw. "How can we preach the Gospel to people who are getting their news, getting their entertainment, in totally new ways from the 20th century?"

Fuller's answer is a 35,000-square-foot worship center that will house two chapels, classrooms, offices and performance facilities.

The centerpiece of the complex will be a 500-seat main chapel with 63 ranks of organ pipes, a grand piano and the latest in digital electronics to control house and stage lights.

"The goal is to build as fine a concert hall as there is," said Fred Messick, associate vice president of the Pasadena school.

The attention given sound and lights, Fuller officials say, reflects larger trends in American worship -- an emphasis on performance and a willingness to express faith in diverse ways. In the chapel, panels on the walls and ceiling could be moved to enhance the sound of, say, a string orchestra, while a sophisticated sound system could accommodate hip-hop performers dishing up a bass-heavy take on the Gospel.

The design also will allow for PowerPoint presentations. Movies and videos could be shown on two LCD screens.

"The church will always be asking what are the appropriate patterns of worship that dictate what we are trying to preach to people," said Mouw. "High tech is just going to get higher and higher. It continues to shape the culture, and 10, 15 years from now, it will have relevance to the way we communicate the Gospel."

In the basement level, the worship center will have rooms for composing, recording and editing performances.

Clay Schmit, director of Fuller's Brehm Center for Worship, Theology and the Arts, said the center will give students and faculty a place to explore how the arts relate to worship.

"The arts articulate in ways that words alone cannot," he said. Worship has historically had elements of architecture, music, visual arts and drama, Schmit said, and the worship center will embrace them as tools in ministry. "The new worship center allows us to explore, academically and practically, in a way that serves the church."

On the way to greater artistry, however, Fuller faces a challenge: preservation.

The worship center is part of a 20-year development plan that will affect long-standing structures on campus. One, the 84-year-old Herkimer Arms Apartment House, was a focus of debate in a city where preservationists often wield considerable clout.

Fuller had planned to demolish the university-owned building, which houses students, because it would interfere with the creation of a "campus gateway" off Union Street. Preservationists objected, calling the Herkimer Arms, designed in 1912 by Charles and Henry Greene, a historical treasure.

"Fuller seemed to dismiss it as not important," said Claire Bogaard, former director of Pasadena Heritage. She said that despite alterations over the years, the building could be restored. Bogaard added that Fuller officials had shown "a fair amount of impatience" with preservation efforts since the 1980s, when a previous Fuller development plan failed.

Lee Merritt, the school's vice president for finance, said that although Fuller's mission is not historic preservation, the seminary has preserved other landmark properties. The school, founded in 1947, also has protected green space on campus.

Sue Mossman, current director of Pasadena Heritage, said she had two "long, cordial meetings" with Fuller officials.

"Nobody budged," she said. "Nobody blinked. Ultimately, the city was the arbitrator between two different points of view, and the result was a compromise."

In November, the Pasadena City Council approved Fuller's development plan on the condition that it pay $200,000 toward moving the Herkimer Arms and wait 360 days before demolishing it if a new owner is not found. A city design commission must approve all plans for future campus buildings.

Also included in the development plan is, in the short term, a library expansion. Long-term, Fuller wants to add more student housing, parking and administrative space. Merritt said Fuller has raised $18 million toward building the $30-million worship center and that, if no obstacles arise, it could be built in five years.

In addition to technical amenities, the worship center, designed by the Virginia firm William McDonough + Partners, will help alleviate a campus space crunch. Fuller has never had its own chapel and for decades has rented space at nearby churches.

Allison Ash, director of chapel programs and a master of divinity student, has helped organize some worship services in campus classrooms. This year, Ash said, services have attracted more people than the rooms could hold. "We had to ask people not to come in because of fire codes."

Sometimes, she said, discussion time after services is cut short by students arriving for their next class.

But the need for the center goes beyond space. Fuller pushed for the facility because students and faculty need a flexible space to tie the arts with different styles of worship.

"The worship center will give us places in which to teach the practice of preaching, the practice of worship leadership, and places to explore the arts that relate to worship," Schmit said.

Mouw agreed that Fuller was cramped for space. But he said the worship center should fill a void that reaches beyond campus: The center, with its high art and high tech, should also be a step toward global ministry.

"The irony is that everywhere in the Northern Hemisphere, churches have gone high tech," Mouw said, while in other parts of the world ministers struggle to find preaching materials.

Mouw said Fuller will archive its ministry inside the worship center so that future students, or perhaps preachers from Africa, could observe American techniques.

Along with the lighting, sound and editing systems, the center will have video equipment to record student preaching.

He added that Fuller's ministers could learn from other countries as well.

"How can a seminary like Fuller learn from what's going on there?" Mouw asked. "First, you put it on the agenda. Second, you try to reach them with technology."

adrian.uribarri@latimes.com

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