A Closer Look at Corporate Worship

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As sound systems improve, I have seen (and heard) the music get louder and louder. I have also seen drums and guitars incorporated into church worship.   The style of church music keeps evolving as the years go by. And we do need to change with the culture. But I could never understand why I wasn't able to enjoy the worship bands in church.  I tried enjoy it, and sometimes got caught up in the music, feeling very close God through the words that were being sung. But then I started getting tired of it. I could not even hear myself sing, so why sing?

I prayed about it and felt like God was telling me this: Turn off all the microphones and silence the instruments. They are what matters and I want to hear their imperfect voices raised in praise to me. Why do you drown them out when they are the most important sound to me?

Then I began searching scripture and praying to make sure it was really God talking to me. Scripture says nothing about our worship being drowned out by the professionals. But I started to notice how isolated  a person becomes when the music is turned up. It is just you and the music, or just you and God. It may be beautiful, but there is absolutely no connection between you and those around you. A person can worship this way in the car or in their house.  Somehow church needs to be…more connected.

I went to a Resonate Youth Rally.  The music was loud, everyone sang, and then everyone walked out of the sanctuary with the music still playing.  There was no ability to talk or interact with each other. Everyone just walked out of the loudness all alone.

At a church event—a concert for our special needs members—I was so surprised that they did not dance. They always dance! But then I realized that they could not connect with each other or sense each other’s enthusiasm because the loud music separated them. They all knew the songs but felt too alone to participate.

One time in church, there were three women standing in front of me. I knew these women were from Life Recovery and were praising God. They stood and sang and swayed with the music. But they could not hear themselves so they started to clap. They had to make some sort of joyful sound that could be heard.  

At a women’s retreat last weekend, it all started to make sense to me.  We sat in a circle singing worship songs, with one person playing the piano and another playing some sort of percussion instrument. There was no microphone or sound system. I could hear myself sing. As we sang old and new songs, I really felt like this was my personal offering to God. 

As I lifted my voice in song, I heard the piano, drums, and voices of the other women around me, making my offering even more beautiful. The other women were my back-up singers! And my voice was the back-up singer of my neighbor! We were all lead singers, and we were all back-up singers for each other. This was true corporate worship. Each of us was leading in worship, and each of us was supporting the worship of those around us. We need worship leaders and music, but it should complement the gift of worship that each of us give to God. Even if we feel we cannot sing well, our voices blend together making a pleasing gift to God.

Can we go back to this in our churches? Can we have loud, medium, and soft worship? Can we have worship leaders that encourage our offerings of song? Can we allow the instruments to complement the voices of his people rather than drown them out?

There are all sorts of opinions and arguments about worship and what style is best. But can we please find out why we worship the way we do? Why do we expect our worship teams to perform? Why the voices of God’s people are mostly drowned out? Why sound systems have become such a priority? Can we look at this more closely?

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Let us also ask this important question: what does God want?  Let us look beyond our own wants and needs. 

Thankfully, we don't have to wonder what God wants. Regarding the audience of worship, it's both God and His people:
Colossians 3:16 says "Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts."

Ephesians 5:18-20 says "be filled with the Spirit, 19 speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, 20 always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ."

The article explains it well. 

I so agree with you! Why do we feel that we must have drums, guitars, mics that break the sound barrier? If I cannot hear myself, or more importantly the people praising God around me, it feels as if our voices are inconsequential. My church has, by God's grace, not fallen into the louder-than-tolerable worship. Once in a while we have someone on drums or guitars, but these stay within the accompaniment ranges. Thanks for posting!

I would think the instruments where you worship are turned up way too loud.
We use a variety of instruments in our church and when we sing I do hear my voice, I do feel connected to the people around me and to God.
My husband is a sound tech. The musicians need to trust him that he is moderating the sounds in a good way.
The musicians cannot tell what it sounds like to the congregation because they are in the middle of it all. 
When music is too loud it puts people on edge.
We have been places where we thought that a decibel meter was needed to show how much too loud and ear damaging the sound was.
Thanks for this article.
 

Community Builder

Thanks for the article and opinion expressed regarding worship. The human voice is the ultimate created "instrument". The other created beings, angels continually use voice to praise their creator as evidenced by scripture. Songs and hymns and spiritual songs obviously are sung by human voice as the chosen and primary musical instrument of choice of scripture. Whenever the corporate human voice during worship is drowned out by supplementary instrumentation, loss occurs as you have so well described. I have read your post several times trying to understand what is going wrong in your corporate worship setting that is creating the loss of connection in worship you're experiencing. It sounds to me like volume and musician insensitivity. Permit me, as a worship drummer to comment. During corporate worship, any instrumental play is meant to enhance and support congregational worship, unless you are attending a concert, where the gathered people have the intention of listening to music being played. It sounds to me like your worship team and your sound technicians are not trained well enough in the art of worship. 

There is nothing wrong with modern instrumentation like electric guitars and drums and amplification. When played and managed by skillful people who are well trained, worship can be enhanced and guided by modern worship leaders and bands. Like any aspect of public worship, the leader and musicians need to be trained to understand why they are up front in the first place, i.e., to lead God's people into a meaningful worship experience where the human voice is encouraged to be used to God's glory and the people's edification. This same problem you describe occurred when the pipe organ was introduced into 1000's of churches in Europe and North America in the late 19th century. Pipe organists enamored with their new amplified sound, often played them too loud, drowning out the worshippers who had just left the tuning fork and piano behind for this audaciously decibel-enhanced instrument. The worship wars that occurred over the introduction of the pipe organ were devastating to many congregations at the time with churches being divided over the issue of the the "devils's instrument" drowning out the worshipper's voices!

One of the main road-blocks to great worship is proper musical training. Good musicians, who are trained properly to play dynamically, meaning to understand the intent and purpose of a song, enhance the worship experience. Using their musical training to create the emotion intended from the musical score using volume and pitch control creates the atmosphere and feeling needed for worshippers to properly engage their voices (the emotion you described in the worship setting where you felt connected to those around you). As a drummer and percussionist, I enjoyed this type of training in an orchestral big band setting. As percussionists, we were trained to be the rhythm section of the band, keeping time and enhancing the sound of the brass players (the equivalent of the human voice in a big band). I never seek to overshadow worshippers by playing the drums too loud. You may be referring to some drummers today who were trained to play loud rock and metal styles, who unfortunately bring this training to worship and are unable to play dynamically. It's really not the drums that hurt but the drummer behind the actually benign instrument.

Most worship teams are not "professionals" as you have referred to them but fellow worshippers and church members offering their musical gifts on Sunday mornings. If they are overshadowing the human voice then further musical training in worship play is needed to sensitize them to what they are trying to accomplish, just as a pastor needs training in order to preach well week after week.

Drums and guitars are here to stay. Perhaps you can challenge your council to help provide the framework for the funding necessary for your worship team to learn to play more sensitively in order to allow the human voice to shine and be the pre-eminent instrument in your services. As a worship drummer, myself and my band mates listen for the voices as we play and delight as we hear them in concert praising God! its wise to invest in your musicians, so they receive the proper training they need to play worship band properly. Expecting a "garage band" musician or untrained or inexperienced youth guitar player or drummer or an untrained sound technician to pull off meaningful worship is a demand too high. Complaining about loss of quality in the worship experience is an unfair criticism for those who find themselves in front of 100's of people on Sunday morning if they were not required to train properly for the job in front of them. Much time in practice and money for training is required to achieve the desired corporate worship result you describe. Covenants and standards for those expected to produce the quality of music that worship demands should be put in place to insure that everyone, including the worship band feels connected in the worship experience.

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So many of our churches in my area must not have proper training then.  I went to so many churches and they all played louder than the congregation.  I am convinced that they do this so that everyone outside will know there is a party going on in the church and want to come in and enjoy it.  This is totally "tongue in cheek" but nothing else explains it.  A "tent revival" came to our city.  There were about twenty people in attendance and the leaders also had to have the sound system up at a high level.  I politely inquired why and was politely ignored.  Sigh...

Any instrumentation has to support the congregational singing, not supplant it.  I'm always wondering, for example, why worship bands position themselves in front on the congregation when their support is much more effective coming from the back.  Church choirs are often in the back, lending support rather than performance to the result.

We also do a very poor job of responding to the words.  There are times when the words are directed to God, but there are other times when the words are directed to the people with whom we worship.  Perhaps turning to face a fellow worshipper would help us really live out the words better.

And then there are the songs that belong to personal devotional space in both words and music style.  Maybe we should get in the habit of making simple changes of pronoun from "me" or "I" to "us" or "we" to make the song communal.

Thanks for the conversation!

To me one of the great things about our multi-denominational faith is that it has opened up different ways to worship so that we can each find a fit that we are comfortable with. Even within the CRC there are churches that sing more traditional hymns with organ or piano accompaniment and also churches with contemporary worship styles or various types. Not all worship has to be the same, and people feel more comfortable singing in different environments. If worship at the church you attend does not work for you personally, it may still for the majority of the congregation so it may be time to look elsewhere for something that allows you to worship more. Not everyone is wired the same.

We have a reasonably small congregation in a reasonably large building. We also have five different sound techs with wide variation between the volume they like to set. As a worship leader, I feel the congregation is much more engaged with the music when the volume is a little louder - when I am in the congregation myself I feel much less exposed and more able to sing loudly when there is more volume to the music. That said, I think even our loudest levels are nothing like as loud as concert levels (our drum kit is not amplified at all). Excessive volume may be bad, but not enough can also be an issue. But there's also a freedom in lots of volume in some circumstances - the times I have felt closest to God through worship have been at big conferences with lots of worshipers singing to a loud worship band. That's not something I would want every week, but it is great on occasion.

Variety in the choice and arrangement of songs is important. You can do quiet songs, loud songs, fast songs, slow songs... even quiet parts in louder songs. Each allow different people to connect in different ways. 

Finally, it isn't always about the voices. Sure, it's mostly about the voices, as that allows for congregational worship, but the musicians are also worshiping through their playing, and that doesn't always need to take a back seat.

Psalm 150:

Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet,
    praise him with the harp and lyre,
4 praise him with timbrel and dancing,
    praise him with the strings and pipe,
5 praise him with the clash of cymbals,
    praise him with resounding cymbals.

6 Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.

Community Builder

But don't you find that we are becoming like the rest of society in that we sit, listen, and at the end give our "all important thumbs up or thumbs down"?  We can't really participate.  One worship leader noticed that not many people sing any more.  I stopped singing because I can't hear myself or anyone around me.  What does she expect?  Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.  Why is the congregation drowned out?  Have we made our church services into performances?   I know our worship leaders and pastors are under a lot of pressure to give a good church service.  

Because I needed a different type of worship, I went to different denominations in our city, looking for the variety you speak of.  Every church had the same type of worship.  It felt like every church was trying to be better and louder.  And as I looked around at the congregation, there were all these empty faces, watching for something...  I talked to the leaders and they all told me that if it was not broken, there is no need to fix it.  When I talked to the people in the pews, both old and young felt we were missing something too.  They too wanted to be the church on Sunday morning, not just watch another good performance.   God is telling me to wait, but I know there is a new wave coming along.  I am impatient for it.