The day I was assaulted in church

First, let me say that I am no wimp when it comes to loud music. I lived through the sixties. I operated farm equipment for years without using earplugs. I’ve attended many, many concerts.  I’ve played electric guitar in a band, before we used things like drum cages. I typically stood close to the drummer, and had to crank my amp up to be heard over both the drums and the vocal monitor, which was cranked up to be heard over the drums. My wife claims I’m losing my hearing.

And yet, I felt that I had been physically assaulted by sound waves last Sunday during worship. I kid you not, the sound levels were incredible. I should have asked what the db levels were.  The only thing I’ve experienced anything louder was when I took my son and his friends to a Thousand Foot Krutch concert.

The Story

We have recently started attending a local church that we really like. We know several of the people (which helps) and the pastor seems to have a very strong grasp on grace. We were looking forward to going to church. But then, we walked in the door. I spent about a minute in the sanctuary, then went back out into the lobby, my ears already ringing. The sound was so loud, you had to shout to the person next to you.

My wife, who is more sensitive to sound than I am (remember, I have hearing loss), spoke to one of the ushers. He replied that several people had already complained, and that the pastor and sound guys had been told. My wife even spoke to the sound kid (early 20’s, wearing a red headband), who replied somewhat arrogantly that “he was a professional sound man, and no one had spoken to [him] about the sound.” I had heard one gentlemen yell as he walked out, “Can you make it any louder?”

A couple of times I ventured in and looked around. Most people were not singing along (you honestly couldn’t have heard yourself anyway). One guy in a red shirt played air drums.  It was not a corporate worship experience. If anything, it was a concert, and people responded accordingly (although this is not a “dancing” church).  The worship band was even applauded during the announcements.  The pastor praised the lead guitar player. Granted, they were good. I would have enjoyed hearing them, under better circumstances.

I wanted to leave. We waited in the lobby until the music was over, then went in.  The guest speaker was fine, but by that time I was in no mood to listen to anything (my ears were still ringing). When the pastor got up to close the service, his mic was so loud it sounded like he was shouting.

Again, I am no sound wimp, but this was terrible. I really don’t know if I risk going back, unless I know who’s doing worship (even acoustic sets have been too loud at times).  If anything, I may start coming at 11, after the worship is over. But, I realize that this means I’m not really a part of the church.

The Problem

The main problem is a complete lack of understanding of the nature of corporate worship. I should mention that I have been a worship leader as well as having been the sound guy in a couple of churches. Doing sound for corporate worship is not the same as doing sound for a rock concert; the two experiences are not even in the same category. The only similarity is that both involve music.  In a concert, everyone realizes that the band is the focus. That’s why people come, to hear the band.

However, worship is a corporate experience. The worship leader(s) are there as servants, to facilitate a corporate worship experience.  There are 2 key words: worship, and corporate. Music is actually optional; recall Matt Redman’s The Heart of Worship.

Years ago, while I was sound man at a Vineyard church in San Diego, I recall reading an article by Todd Hunter, who was then the President of the Association of Vineyard Churches. He made a very simple point: If you can’t hear the people around you singing you aren’t having a true corporate worship experience, and the music is too loud.

And, consider this: Putting the focus on the music and worship band is actually stealing worship. Worship, after all, is about focus.  Remember, “He must increase, I must decrease.”  You can’t be a worship leader if you aren’t first a part of the congregation, and you aren’t leading others into worship if the attention is on you. The worship leader should be loud enough so that everyone can hear and follow along; that, after all, is their purpose.

In operating a church service, one of the things we must be aware of is the old Marshall McLuhan concept of “the medium is the message.” What we do and how we do it speaks volumes—perhaps more than what is often said (way more than what many contemporary worship songs say.

Other Problems

Then, there’s the attitude problem of the self-identified “professional” sound man. The sound team in a church should be part  of the worship team. They should understand the purpose of worship, and understand that they play a servant’s role. The sound man is perhaps the 2nd most important person on any given Sunday morning. He or she have the power to make Sunday morning a worshipful experience, or an abusive one. It takes maturity and humility. It takes an understanding of what it means to be a Christian. Am I expecting too much?

There also seemed to be an honesty issue, as the sound kid told my wife no one had spoken to him about the sound levels, although it appeared that others were indeed complaining to him. Perhaps this was just a communication issue—I can imagine that no one really heard what anyone was saying as the music was too loud.

Other problems, not specifically related to this church but certainly including this church, involve the ability of the worship leaders to choose songs which appropriately create a corporate worship experience. If this is merely a concert, that’s not important. However, songs that reflect a personal attitude or an emotional state do not make great corporate worship songs. Again, it’s a matter of focus. “Jesus, I love you” is a pretty weak worship line. It says nothing about Jesus, it merely reflects the writer’s emotional state.  I’ve often sat through these worship songs thinking, “does the worship leader have the slightest clue about what this means?”  Bottom line, emotions change, truth does not. Sing truth, let people have their own emotions.

The Buck Stops Where?

Someone has to have responsibility for creating a corporate worship experience.  In the early days of the Anaheim Vineyard, the pastor, John Wimber, approved the worship list before each service. Some may call this having control issues, but seriously, someone has to take responsibility. A mature worship leader – of which I’ve known a few – can do this. Most, honestly, can not.  Again, what is done on a Sunday morning – including which songs are sung – speak more about the church than the sermon.

So yes, last Sunday I felt not only like I’d been assaulted, but I felt like I had been abused and that I simply wasn’t important.  It’s too bad.  I’ll perhaps try this church again, but not without some good earplugs.

Review: Todd Hunter’s Giving Church Another Chance

Todd Hunter’s Giving Church Another Chance is an interesting—and perhaps brilliant—little book. I am sure that this is not everything that Todd Hunter could say on the subjects of church, liturgy and life, but he says just enough to make you want more, which I believe is precisely the point.

Todd has a gift of being able to “reimage” things so that we see them in a different way. In this book, he has taken the elements of the Anglican liturgy and presents them not as merely a way to worship on Sunday mornings, but as a rhythm by which to live our lives. Without being overly critical of the Vineyard or other evangelical styles of worship, he nevertheless shows us that there are elements missing—not just from Sunday mornings, but from the way we live throughout the week.

He discusses, for example, how we have become addicted to noise and excitement to the point that we don’t even allow time for quiet in our corporate worship; rather than Sunday morning worship setting the pattern for our week, we have let how we live set the pattern for our worship. Todd simply suggests that we “repractice” church, learning once again the value of contemplation, Bible reading, giving, and so on. Furthermore, just as Israel had been intended to be the means to bless all mankind, this is now our calling, to be the Church for the sake of others.

Even those of us from liturgical backgrounds will be challenged by this book to take a step back and reevaluate our attitudes toward church, worship, and life.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Todd Hunter to read and post a review on my site. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s16 CFR, Part 255 “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

If you like singing in church, thank Martin Luther

The BBC has produced a very nice documentary on the Lutheran influence in worship, paying particular attention to Bach, probably the most well-known Lutheran organists and composers.  It’s fascinating – anyone who has an interest in worship music should find this particularly interesting.

I hadn’t realized that in the pre-Luther Roman Catholic Churches, the congregation didn’t sing; the hymns were all sung for them by “professionals” – in Latin, of course.  Luther started writing hymns like “A Mighty Fortress” and taught his congregation to sing.  This started a whole new trend in popular worship, as you could imagine.

Again, the documentary is fascinating, and features music by Luther, Bach, and others performed by The Sixteen, conducted by Harry Christophers, as it traces the influence of Luther and his followers on worship music, and specifically that of Bach.

The good news is that this is available as a series of 6 HQ videos on YouTube.  Here’s the first installment:

Paul T. McCain has also blogged about this series here, where he has provided the following links to the 6 videos:

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

Part 5:

Part 6: