Wednesday, April 17, 2013

More Volume = Better Worship?

Blogger Thom Rainier recently posed the question "How loud should our church music be?" Having visited a few churches lately that pumped the volume up to Spinal Tap levels, I have been asking myself the same question. And since a reputable blogger brought it up that means I can take a crack at it.

The foundational principles of loud music during church are presented in Thom's article,

"Conventional wisdom tells us that more volume equals more energy. After all, people don't want to hear themselves sing, right?"

I believe it is thoroughly unreformed to have a church's music volume at a point where worshipers cannot hear others around them singing (the problem is amplified when I can't even hear myself worshiping).

First of all we start with the Bible. It's problematic that worship leaders are basing their practices on "conventional wisdom," especially when this leads us in a direction that might contradict Scripture. Throughout Scripture it seems as though God desires all worshipers make a loud sound of praise. The shouts of the Israelites brought down the walls of Jericho, seventeen of the Psalms encourage God's people to shout his praise in a loud voice and the ultimate picture of worship from Revelation 5 is of people lifting up the name of the Lord with loud singing. Worship should be loud. As loud as all my inmost being praising his holy name.

But does that necessarily mean that we can't have loudness in the instrumentation in addition to the congregational singing? This is where the Reformation comes into the picture.

The rationale of worship leaders who espouse loud music is that people don't want to sing or hear others singing. It's right there in the aforementioned quote. And so that logically leads them into dangerous territory: the worship team will sing for them. Amplified sound produced by professionals will take the place of the loud singing from all believers that God desires.

To me, this mindset is adjacent to prevailing ideas about worship and faith in the pre-Reformation church. Regular people can't handle the Bible, so the professionals will handle it for them. Regular people can't understand the deep mysteries of God, so the pros understand things for them. Regular people can't sing, so the pros sing for them. The Reformers rightly drop-kicked this bad theology, but it's returning thanks to the poor pneumatology of far too many pastors and church leaders.

At its worst, high volume from the professional worship team all but replaces congregational participation. It's happening all over the evangelical church. Instead of causing concern among worship leaders, this phenomenon only entrenches them further into their assumptions that people don't want to sing.

Loud volume from the worship team and instruments prevents people from being encouraged by the regular voices around them. That person standing next to me has cancer, but I can hear their voice singing "Blessed be the name of the Lord." That person sitting behind me was an alcoholic, but I can hear them singing "Grace that is greater than all my sin." That guy at the back of church might not carry a tune like Pavarotti, but he can encourage others (and obey God's command) by proclaiming "Victory in Jesus, my Savior, forever!" with a loud voice in the presence of the assembly.

It's possible that's happening in every church where the music is pumped up to 95 decibels, but I wouldn't know because I couldn't hear my wife, my kids, my neighbor or even myself.


  1. Mark,
    I've been hesitating to respond, mostly because it's late, but I'll give it a shot. I find some very broad generalizations in your blog not to mention the ring of condescension toward worship leaders who may being doing their best to lead people into the presence of God.

    It is a generalization to assume that these modern worship leaders have but one goal in mind, to sing in place of the people. I have been a worship pastor for years and have led many worship bands from youth to adult. I have participated in and even spoken at quite a number of Contemporary worship conferences and can tell you that the vast majority of these leaders and band members just want to be a Levite and lead people into the holy of holies.

    They don't want to sing for the people but teach them to sing, give them words with which to express the adoration and love for God or that express biblical truths that people otherwise may not know how to articulate, much like the hymns you mention.

    As for the loudness, I would agree that there is a limit as to what is valuable, but I also know as a musician myself that instruments using amplifiers don't sound very good below a certain level. I have my amp set no lower than 1.5 or 2 which still sounds loud to some people on stage. To go any lower, I may as well not play because the tone is terrible. So with electronic instruments there is a reasonable constriction. However, out in the sanctuary people are still able to sing well and hear themselves and others. It's a fine art to mix sound well keeping within reasonable decibels. But for most people "loud" is a relative term. For one person, the organ is plenty loud so adding guitars or drums is way over the top. For others of our popular society they'll sing along with their favorite songs at a metal concert exceeding 110 decibels which is terrible for your hearing.

    Part of the loudness of popular music is about feeling it. I personally love the feel of the kick drum or bass in my chest. It draws me deeper into the music and its message. If mixed well you can still hear yourself sing and the person beside you, behind you, etc but with the added dimension of physically feeling the music.

    I've been to some huge churches where the music was reasonably loud but everyone was singing right along and worshipping intently, deeply and wholeheartedly.

    1. " I personally love the feel of the kick drum or bass in my chest. It draws me deeper into the music and its message."

      This is nonsense. It causes most people (including us) consternation to feel the bass in our chest.

  2. Thanks for the thoughts, Allen.

    First our address your concerns about my tone. This is something that I feel strongly about because it's a big issue. John Piper jokingly mentions the music at Mark Driscoll's church hurts his ears. I have family members who can't bring their small children into worship because of the decibel level. This is a hospitality problem in addition to a worship problem.

    Second, my tone is strong despite the likelihood that worship leaders who love to "crank up the volume" have good intentions. I don't doubt the desire to lead people into worship. I'm sure that same desire was held by many well-meaning scholars and church leaders before the Reformation.

    The pneumatology I question is expressed in the quote that I selected (which I believe is representative of the article and the vast majority of comments). It is theologically offensive to claim that higher volume of instruments creates a greater sense of the Holy Spirit in the worship space.

    My biggest concern is that pastors and worship leaders are basing their actions on "what works at the big churches" before Scripture. Those two concepts are not mutually exclusive, but I hope the latter is always the first consideration. The lack of Scripture or theological principles in the article in question and the comments that follow is what I mostly question.

  3. Too often I find that those leading worship end up supplanting the voice of the congregation. I doubt this is ever their intention. Volume, of course, is one aspect of this.

    Personally, I'm getting tired of amplification. The more time I spend in my own church, the more I notice the lack of dynamics that come with amplified instruments and voices. I also find that many churches are constructed in such a way as to direct sound almost AT the congregation. The congregation acts as the receiver of the sound rather than a source. The art of creating a space that allows the blending of both instruments and congregational voices is being lost as more churches are built with the goal of making sure the congregation can here what the band is playing rather than the voice of the body rising and bouncing, creating a cocoon of music enveloping the people with the words they sing, melding the sound of many into one.

  4. I loved the insight in your blog post. The "American church system" as Francis Chan calls it, is just big business.