Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Memo to Worship Bands

I saw this editorial by John G. Stackhouse, Jr. in Christianity Today, and it really struck a chord with me. It's no secret that I prefer traditional music during worship, but I listen to contemporary Christian music on the radio and I love it. My preference is not due to the fact that I don't like rock style music, or that I don't think it's appropriate for church. It more due to the fact that I don't feel engaged in worship. The music is too loud and it feels like a concert instead of corporate worship. What do you think?

Memo to Worship Bands

Can you hear me? You can? I'm sorry if I am shouting, but I have just spent half an hour in a church service with a typical worship band, and my ears are ringing. I'm sure to be fine in a minute. Or hour. Or day—I hope.

Why does everything every Christian musician performs nowadays seem to require high amplification?

I was at a Christian camp not long ago where we gathered to sing around a bonfire. Guitars appeared, but just before I could get nostalgic and suggest we sing "Pass It On," the microphone stands appeared, too. Apparently three guitars for 40 people were not enough. No, they had to be amplified.

I am not 110 years old, friends. I grew up in the 1970s with fuzz boxes, stacks of Marshall amplifiers, and heavy metal bands loud enough to take on Boeing 747s and win. I have played in worship bands for more than 30 years, and like lots of juice running through my Roland keyboard or Fender bass or Godin guitar. Furthermore, I'm a middle-aged man and my hearing is supposed to be fading. But even I find almost every worship band in every church I visit to be too loud—not just a little bit loud, but uncomfortably, even painfully, loud.

So here are five reasons for everyone to turn it down a notch—or maybe three or four.

First, I know it's breaking the performer's code to say so (the way magicians are never supposed to reveal a secret), but cranking up the volume is just a cheap trick to add energy to a room. The comedic film This Is Spinal Tap showed us all the absurdity of using sheer noise to compensate for a lack of talent. (The knobs on the band members' guitars and amplifiers were modified to go to 11.) Do not compensate for mediocrity by amping it up to MEDIOCRITY.

Second, when your intonation is not very good—and let's face it, most singers and instrumentalists are not anywhere close to being in perfect tune—turning it up only makes it hurt worse. If I hear one more "harmony singer" have trouble deciding whether to hit the major or the minor third and instead split the difference at a scalp-tightening volume, I think my head will split also.

Third, the speakers in most church PA systems cannot take that much energy through their small, old magnets and cones, especially from piano, bass, and kick drum. So we are being pounded with high-powered fluffing and sputtering—which do not induce praise.

Fourth, consider that you might be marginalizing older people, most of whom probably do not like Guns N' Roses volumes at church. And if you suspect older congregants may be secretly delighted behind their tight smiles, ask them. I dare you.

Fifth, let me drop some church history and theology on you. By the time church music matured into Palestrina and Co. in the 16th century, it had become too demanding and ornate for ordinary singers. So Christians went to church to listen to a priest and a choir.

The Protestant Reformation yanked musical worship away from the professionals and put it back in the pews. Luther composed hymns based on popular melodies, including drinking songs. Calvin insisted on taking lyrics from the Psalms. This was music in which almost anyone could participate. The problem today, to be sure, is rarely elaborate music. We could use a little more artistry, in fact, than we usually get with the simplistic and repetitive musical figures of many contemporary worship songs.

No, the contrast with the Reformation is the modern-day insistence that a few people at the front be the center of attention. We do it by making six band members louder than a room full of people. But a church service isn't a concert at which an audience sings along with the real performers. Musicians—every one of them, including the singers—are accompanists to the congregation's praise. They should be mixed loudly enough only to do their job of leading and supporting the congregation.

Now, I like Palestrina and I like good Christian rock. So, church musicians, if you want to perform a fine song that requires advanced musicianship, by all means do it. We will listen and pray and enjoy it to the glory of God.

But when you are leading us in singing, then lead us in singing. And turn it down so we are not listening to you—or, even worse, merely enduring you. I know that is not what you want to happen. But I am telling you that's what is happening.
Sorry, again, for shouting.


Kay said...

So true! We visited a church a while back and I actually winced during the singing. It was totally insane!

It is odd that during the music portion you can't hear anyone around you singing..its only instruments. So instead of feeling like corporate worship, it's a very lonely experience. I'm sure that fact would surprise many worship leaders of today.

I'm not 'old' btw, but I feel old very often in church settings b/c of the music... and then wonder what the older gens feel. Just sad.

Crystal said...

Amen and Amen! I have more to say about this but the little man has a poopy diaper! I might be back later!

Mocha with Linda said...

That's great! Our worship guy does a great job of keeping it down. But my main frustration is having to stand ALL THE TIME. Sometimes I like to sit and sing.

And my MIL said "when the people in this church get old they aren't going to be able to do that."

Buffi said...

I think it just depends on the person. I know several "senior citizens" who prefer the contemporary worship music to the hymns. I personally prefer the contemporary worship music to hymns...it engages me more. I'm able to communicate it back to the Lord as worship from my heart, because I understand it better. There's always going to be controversy in the church over music, because it is SO personal to people. That's a cool thing about having lots of churches to choose from...you can choose the one that you like the best! I love all music though...especially music with vocal harmonies!!! OH!!! I could just get LOST in it! I'm on our worship team and we do lots of harmonies with the band. I love it! Great post!

Heather C said...

I love both the contemporary stuff and the hymns... which is why our congregation uses both in corporate worship. The best is when you can take an old hymn that is rich in theology and put it alongside a contemporary worship song with the same message and they blend... We'll often start with the contemporary song, move into the hymn, and then come back and do one more chorus of the contemporary song to end the medley (for example... Chris Tomlin's "How Great is Our God" and "How Great Thou Art"). We have a wide range of ages in our congregation... and they all seem to appreciate the blended worship style. It's not insanely loud, and sometimes the band will completely back off their mics so that we can all just worship together, with one voice. The one thing I've learned as a worship leader is that you can never please everyone. It's impossible (trust me... for years I TRIED!) And so you seek the Lord and do what He's asking you to do... trying to be sensitive to the needs of your particular fellowship, but also being true to the Holy Spirit's direction. Leading worship is not for sissies... I can tell ya that much. :)

Buffi said...

P.S. Don't listen to the worship CD I recommended on my blog...You won't like it Xandra! :~P It is definitely more "Band" oriented. That's ok though. I think all kinds of music is great!!! Some people have more sensitive ears to volume than others too. Something being too loud is relative. It just depends on who is listening. It's like beauty....it's in the eyes of the beholder!!! Hope you have a GREAT day!!

Xandra@Heart-of-Service said...

I don't thing that I am articulating what I mean very well. I LOVE contemporary worship music. I crank it up as loud as it will go in my car and in my house. I listen to Chris Tomlin, Third Day, Casting Crowns and much more. I don't have an issue with contemporary music at all.

I just don't like showing up on Sunday morning for worship and feeling like I'm at a Metallica concert, where I can't hear myself singing, much less the people next to me because the lead and bass guitars are so loud. To me, that's not worship. It's impossible for me to focus on God and being in His presence when all I can think is "dear Lord, when will this song be OVER??"

It's not corporate worship when you are isolated in a crowd. I know I am not expressing myself very well, because it sounds like I hate this type of music when I don't. I just wish it could be done differently in our church do me more inclusive and to facilitate a spirit of community instead of having 300 individuals praising God each in their own little bubble.

One of the reasons I attend worship is for that sense of community and like-mindedness. I want to hear the praise coming from the lips of those around me, and not just feel like everyone is lip-syncing.


The Small Scribbler said...

We've run the gamut in the past few years. We left a church because of the worship. The same 5 hymns got old after a while. (Really, that's all we sang. When the kids started putting their own lyrics to them we knew it was time to move on.) We've been several churches that have played a mix of music. At one church it was WONDERFUL. Everybody sang everything and the volume was perfect. The worship leader was one of the most humble men I know with a great heart for God. At the other church the volume was fine and the young people only sang the contemporary songs and the older people only sang the hymns. What kind of worship is that?! Now we are at a loud church and I agree with this I want to hear the praise coming from the lips of those around me, and not just feel like everyone is lip-syncing. However, the heart of our worship leader is in EXACTLY the right place and I am so blessed by this so somehow this makes the volume a non issue.

Good topic.


lori said...

I think to each his own. I get bored with the traditional stuff, I feel better with the comtemporary stuff but I like to slow it down and feel united in worship, I guess I am just not a hymnn girl. Thats why it's great there are so many choices in the type of church we attend we can all find what makes us feel closer to God

Beth@Not a Bow in Sight said...

I thought I was the only one who was feeling like an old lady for wanting the music to be softer :)

Kellye said...

Hey, can I borrow your Metallica cd?

Crystal said...

I understood exactly what you were saying Xandra. I love a lot of contemporary music but I've been in many churches where the music is more of a 'show' than corporate worship. Like he talks about in the end, I felt like I needed to sit down and just enjoy the show. You would love the church we're going to now (Lisa's -Keep a Quiet Heart- hubby leads the music). It's a beautiful mix of contemporary music and hymns which are all played and sang with the intention of leading the congregation in praise and worship.

And since some were on the subject of contemporary music... the only thing I can't stand is un- Scriptual lyrics or the songs that make you wonder whether or not your singing about your husband or Jesus. :)

Chris Anderson said...

I play (electric guitar) in a church band and am an indie Christian songwriter. ( http://www.waitiam.com )

I think part of the problem you describe is due to inexperienced musicians being confused about the difference between 'performing' and 'worshiping'. That's why there are problems like songs in a worship service with absurd key changes that nobody can anticipate. If the setting is a worship service and the congregation notices and pays more attention to the singers and band members (as opposed to getting in the zone to worship), then something is wrong. (If it's a concert or ticketed entertainment event, that's different.)

In addition, there are many churches with amateur sound engineers, who could ruin even the most reverent moment. AND there are a lot of worship leaders with NO theological education, so they sing songs that are personal (me,me,me) rather than focused on God.

Most church musicians have their hearts in the right place. They just need a bit of focus in a different direction because, unlike most stage performances, it's not about you. Many do not have the opportunity to get such training, but they are willing to play anyway using the tools they've got.

Good blog topic, glad I found you!

Xandra@Heart-of-Service said...


This was a great comment! Thanks for responding to my post and for sharing your thoughts. I completely agree with you on all points, and would enjoy a contemporary service if it were led in such a way that "got me in the zone"! Although I love the old hymns and the harmonies that go along with, I am a child of the eighties, and I love to praise God with the radio as loud as I can stand it!

Thanks again...


Chris Anderson said...

My pleasure! Great blog!
Chris Anderson