A Proposal to Unplug Worship

Monday, March 5th, 2012

When we think about the legacy of the 16th century Reformation our minds quickly go to such sublime themes as justification by faith and the priesthood of all believers.  However, if you actually lived in the 16th century, the biggest “felt” impact of the Reformation was in the area of worship.  Prior to the Reformation, worshippers were largely passive.  They watched as the Latin mass was sung, Psalms were chanted and the priest consecrated the Eucharist.  The Reformation was a stark reminder that the word liturgy means the “work of the people.”   The Reformation spawned an explosion of congregational hymn writing which produced such remarkable hymn writers as Martin Luther (A Mighty Fortress is our God), Isaac Watts (When I Survey the Wondrous Cross), Charles Wesley (O For a 1000 Tongues to Sing) and Fanny Crosby (Blessed Assurance).  Within a few generations the church was singing again!  Worship was active, not passive.

In our own day we have seen another explosion of wonderful hymn-writing.  Great hymns such as How Deep the Father’s Love for Us (Stuart Townend), How Great is our God  (Chris Tomlin), Blessed be Your Name (Matt Redman) can be heard in churches across the nation.  Having preached in dozens of churches across the nation I have observed that contemporary worship services are almost invariably led by worship bands.  A worship band normally includes a lead singer, two or three supporting vocalists, a bass guitar, an electric guitar and a drummer.  There must be thousands of such bands across the nation.  Perhaps your church has one.  However, these bands are normally “plugged in” which means that their voices and instruments are electronically amplified.   This, in turn, makes it very difficult to even hear yourself sing, not to mention the person next to you.  The result (and I have observed this many, many times) is hundreds, if not thousands of worshippers, all standing and listening to the worship band, but not actively singing themselves.  The worshippers are, to be fair, more engaged perhaps than at a concert, but, nevertheless, we are seeing increasingly passive worshippers.  A hard fought battle of the 16th century may need to be fought all over again.

I have a proposed solution which is not all that radical, but could make the difference.

First, worship bands should emphasize acoustical sound rather than electronically amplified sound.  In other words, we need a “worship unplugged” movement.  We can increase the number of musicians and instruments if necessary and, in the case of very large sanctuaries, a modest acoustical amplification might be desirable.  But the goal would be to primarily hear people singing and worshipping God rather than hundreds of people watching the worship band worship God.  The “rule of thumb” would be this.  If you cannot hear the person next to you singing, then the worship leaders are playing too loud.

Second, the lighting in the congregation should be raised, not dimmed, during the worship service.  It is very common today for worship leaders to dim the lights of the sanctuary during the singing part of the worship service.  As a worshipper, you may not be able to see people across the room or even down the row.  However, the lights on the “stage” or “platform” are very bright which tends to focus the attention on the worship band rather than on the people.  I actually think it makes better sense to keep the lights in the sanctuary on during worship.  One of the big conceptual differences between the “chorus movement” and the earlier “hymn movement” is that the former tends to conceptualize an individual singing and worshipping God, whereas the latter tends to conceptualize the corporate people of God, singing.  I think dimming the lights has tended to send the message that this is your “personal” time before the Lord.  Since it is impossible to “compete” with the electronically amplified voices, people often either just stand and watch, or they quietly move their lips but don’t feel that “joining in” can really make a substantial difference.

Third, worship bands must reflect more on the “singability” of a proposed worship song.  In the post-Reformation period when so many new hymns were being written, they were specifically written for the church to sing.  This means that, generally speaking, they were simple rhythms set to predictable meters and were musically kept within a “normal” musical range for average voices.  Today’s worship songs are normally taken from the music industry.  These songs are far more complex, rarely have a regularized meter, were written to be “performed,” recorded and put out by professional singers.  Even highly trained worship bands spend hours learning complex rhythms, various musical bridges and irregular vamps between various parts of the song.  The goal often is to try and reproduce as close as possible how it sounded when it was professionally performed.   Musicians may not realize how exceedingly difficult this is for the average congregation.  If you add to this the fact that choruses have a much shorter “shelf life” than a typical hymn, then the turnover rate merely adds to an already challenging situation from a purely musical point of view.  Thus, contemporary worship bands must either learn to write songs specifically for public worship (Stuart Townend is already doing this), or take performance level songs and adapt them into an act of worship.

If this modest proposal is followed, we might be able to reclaim one of the great gifts of the Reformation; namely congregations actively engaged in worship through joyful, vibrant singing!

Comments

  • Clay Knick says:

    One of the most moving worship experiences I’ve ever had was at a folk mass in a Catholic church. It was a funeral for a 13-year-old boy. The worship was lead by three people playing acoustic guitars, one a 12-string, a pianist, and a couple of people playing flute. Very unplugged and very singable music. This was years ago and I’ve never forgotten it. Only one was a professional musician.

  • John Metz says:

    Thanks for this post. James K.A. Smith has two recent posts on this topic. Both are worthwhile. They are at http://forsclavigera.blogspot.com/

    There does seem to be a tendency to let others do it, whether music, worship, gospel preaching… As you point out, this results in the loss of something precious related to corporate worship.

  • Greg Smith says:

    I could not agree with you more. I have been the “sound guy” at a number of churches. I have helped praise bands with their sound systems at a number of churches. When I would call them proof romance bands they would get upset. They felt it had to be loud and I would counter with the argument you have so eloquently stated here. As a worship leader, senior pastor, it is not my job to worship for the congregation but to help them become aware of the God that is present with us. Thank you.

  • David Reimer says:

    Quoting TT: “The worshippers are, to be fair, more engaged perhaps than at a concert…”.

    Good thing you said “perhaps”! I vividly recall attending something called “Gig on the Green” in Glasgow a few years back. Queens of the Stone Age, Foo Fighters, and Red Hot Chili Peppers (among others) — and a crowd of 40,000 or so worshipping sex, drugs, and rock & roll, arms in the air, words belted out with gusto.

    The ambience was uncannily close to the sorts of Christian worship settings you described quite effectively. It raised some uncomfortable questions in my mind, some of which find some echoes here.

    • John Orr says:

      Well said. This is too funny though. Trained church musicians and thinking worship advocates have been saying this exact thing for 30 years or so and were always dismissed as being irrelevant or too academic to understand today’s worshippers. It has always been “Bring ’em in,” do whatever it takes to fill the pews. Kill the acoustics and blast people with sound, they won’t sing but they will come. So many churches today are designed with sound absorbant materials instead of hard floor and walls, so you have to use sound reinforcement. If you build a room with good acoustics for unplugged music, you can spend $15-20k for a sound system for the spoken word. Why do so many churches build deadened acoustics and then spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a sound system to make it sound “natural”, and then people can’t hear enough other people singing to feel comfortable singing themselves, or to feel like they are a part of the whole. It’s crazy. This is 30 years of “told you so” from a lot of people. Glad to see some folks finally figuring it out and thinking about true worship instead of just filling the pews and entertaining folks. I’m not knocking music style, just presentation and singability. I agree with the blog wholeheartedly.

  • Debtor Paul says:

    I agree whole-heartedly with the gist of the proposals. I would go a step further and suggest that much of the “worship” music that is produced today, with its excessive secular culture influence, has much more in reality to do with pleasing us than it does with pleasing God. So, I would not only second the above suggestions, but would also recommend a move to music that clearly recognizes that music sends a message (whether words are included or not). It should also recognize that taking the same types of music created by a secular ungodly culture to please less-than-noble sensual desires and adding more noble lyrics is not likely to produce something that honors the holy God we claim to worship. Nor is it likely to guide the “worshiper” to truly honor that God, no matter how close he “feels” to God when such activity is taking place.

    Just a thought from one who started out playing secular blues (and purposefully played in such a way as to arouse less-than-noble sensual desires – for all thoughtful secular musicians believe that music, even without lyrics, carries a strong message). Then I moved to Christian rock and CCM “worship,” only to be forced to admit that the same music arouses the same less-than-noble desires, even with more noble lyrics.

    My two cents.

    • Ana says:

      I know what you mean. I also have had a very difficult time fiinndg a church. Just like you, I want to FEEL that peaceful feeling when I find it. Out of the churches we have visited, I feel uncomfortable and vulnerable….its so hard to explain. We are still looking though. When we visit a new church, we always go two or three times just to make sure that it is not just because we dont know anyone. I know that God will direct us to the right church and we will find that ‘home’ feeling. Kim

  • Brad Murphy says:

    Tim,
    This is an interesting perspective on the passive worship environment you have observed in churches across the nation. I, however, believe you are attributing the passive nature of the congregation to the wrong thing. I have been in similar environments of music and singing where the reason we had the music so loud was because the congregation was loud. The volume of the congregation necessitated increasing the stage volume.

    In addition, I think that when the volume is too quiet, then the congregants are intimidated to sing because the person next to them might hear them singing. They are embarrassed by their own voices because they aren’t singers. Many would prefer that no one hear them singing. They’d rather join in once it gets loud enough to blend their voices into the whole.

    Just thought I’d share a different perspective that might open the conversation some more. I’ll save my thoughts on what is actually causing the passive worshippers another time.

    Blessings,
    Brad

  • Travis says:

    I don’t know if I agree or disagree- I have heard all these thoughts before and I tend to say yes and no. I love the room dimmed so I am less distracted by those around me (i.e. those talking or arriving late.) The issue with electronic guitar and sounds makes me think of those who still say we need the organ to have the real worship sound. No right or wrong with instruments – it is who you are worshiping – the sound or the Christ. The last point well I totally agree – but that is just something stupid if leaders don’t already know to do this.

  • I support much of what you are saying. I couple years ago I walked out on a Christian “Winter Jam” concert for the sake of my hearing. Between songs I could hear young children crying because of the volume. People who stayed said their ears were still ringing 24 hours later. Can you really love your neighbors, and not care about what you are doing to their hearing?

    The call for the worshiper to “make a joyful noise to the LORD” (Ps 98:4) cannot be fulfilled by a sound technician just cranking up the volume.

    On the other hand, if we totally unplugged, we would lose the musical gifts of those who play electronic keyboard and electric guitar. And the preacher would have to give up his microphone as well. And in a large auditorium, it might be hard to hear.

    I love a full range of music in the church, but I would like to get the focus off performance and back onto worship. And just as there is a place for singing a capella, there may be a place for ‘unplugged worshp.’ I would give it a try.

  • Debtor Paul says:

    (Sorry, this may be an accidental repeat post.)

    I agree whole-heartedly with the gist of the proposals. I would go a step further and suggest that much of the “worship” music that is produced today, with its excessive secular culture influence, has much more in reality to do with pleasing us than it does with pleasing God. So, I would not only second the above suggestions, but would also recommend a move to music that clearly recognizes that music sends a message (whether words are included or not). It should also recognize that taking the same types of music created by a secular ungodly culture to please less-than-noble sensual desires and adding more noble lyrics is not likely to produce something that honors the holy God we claim to worship. Nor is it likely to guide the “worshiper” to truly honor that God, no matter how close he “feels” to God when such activity is taking place.

    Just a thought from one who started out playing secular blues (and purposefully played in such a way as to arouse less-than-noble sensual desires – for all thoughtful secular musicians believe that music, even without lyrics, carries a strong message). Then I moved to Christian rock and CCM “worship,” only to be forced to admit that the same music arouses the same less-than-noble desires, even with more noble lyrics.

    My two cents.

  • I had a conversation with a friend at lunch on this same topic. We focused in the direction of the church following the world’s lead in worship. Thanks.

  • Paul D. says:

    Let me first say that the underlying concern that should be addressed with such thoughts is to remember who the audience is in worship. The congregation is not the audience- they are fellow participants in worship, and God is the audience. Music that is congregational should then be sure to be done in a way that fosters full participation from the congregation.

    I found your comments apply to music in worship in general. I have spent most of my life in hymn-centric worship, and have enjoyed both older and newer music. Hymn-centric worship can have corresponding problems to the ones you mention with worship bands. I have worshipped in services where the hymns from the organ are so loud that I can sign out and still not hear myself. I have also been where the lighting is so poor that meant one could not see the people up front, and other times where the sanctuary was so dark one could see very little at all. And singability concerns seem to be age-old. As a pastor, I have included hymns that fit the day and were from some of the greatest hymn writers, only to find that the congregation did not know it and found it hard to learn… at first. It seems that singability has more to do with familiarity than it does with when the song was written.

    Most of our hymn culture came from putting Christian themes set to the tunes of the day. “Contemporary worship” is not new- it is simply contemporary to the day in which it was written. Hymns from time gone by reflected the music of the day, as does the new music being written now, by and large.

    I say all this to caution than your blog, while written with a gracious spirit, seemed to push back from newer music when the problems you mention are not limited to newer music.

  • Amen! It helps to think about what it is about “worship music” that sometimes detracts .. even when the lyrics are pretty good…and I think you’ve hit a number of nails on the head.

  • Carol Grant says:

    I so agree with what you have said. I have more than once E-mailed the worship leader that I couldn’t even hear myself sing, to know if I was in tune or not and certainly couldn’t hear anyone else. We have 3 services, and was informed that the music was less loud at the earlier service, so I could attend that one. No. That was not the answer. The point was it was too loud. Sometimes I think that the churches with no instruments have the most wonderful sound of simply voices harmonizing to praise the Lord. I enjoy the band, but we are even ending the choir because the church doesn’t want to pay for a director. Makes no sense to me. Except not enough money in these hard times. I intend to send this on to the Worship leader.

  • Chris H. says:

    I don’t disagree with this, but I have a number of questions.

    Your main point is that electronically amplified music is too loud and drowns out the congregation. In a typical worship band, you say, “their voices and instruments are electronically amplified…which makes it very difficult to even hear yourself sing, not to mention the person next to you. ” This isn’t necessarily true. Acoustic instruments can be very loud — most pipe organs are considerably louder than any electric guitar! And lots of worship bands make efforts to keep their volume modest, for the reasons you state. Why unplug them?

    And, if volume is the issue, why suggest adding more acoustic instruments? Why not suggest turning simply the electric instruments down? It’s one thing to say that the volume is too loud, it’s another thing to say getting rid of all electric instruments (which would involve electric guitar, bass, and electronic keyboards?) is the solution.

    I suspect, then, that this article has more to do with style preferences than volume. You’re advocating unplugging instruments, which of course would immediately render the electric guitar and bass guitar useless, because they are by nature electronically amplified. Are we supposed to go back to orchestras? Acoustic guitars with no amplification at all? C’mon, this isn’t 1906.

    Worshippers should be fully engaged and the volume of the music shouldn’t interrupt that. Agreed! But that has nothing to do with the type of instruments or whether they are amplified by lots of moving air or by electricity.

    Another point: the base reality is that contemporary music, complete with (gasp!) amplification, is a key feature of most growing churches these days. I agree that volume should be modest, worship should be congregation focused, and lights should not be dimmed. But that’s irrespective of music styles.

  • Ray Propst says:

    Missing the point is how I’d categorize this article. Worship is not about music to begin with. Worship is not singing a song about or to God. Worship begins with an obedient heart and proceeds from there. Praise; singing, instruments, dancing, etc. , are all expressions of praise to God and are the naturally result of a person living lifestyle of worship. The author is right in noticing that many church worship services resemble concerts, and I’ve even been to some that aren’t much more than that. But here is why I say that they are missing the point.
    The pastor of every church has a responsibility to teach that Worship is not something we go to do, it is something we are, i.e. how we live our lives. Worship isn’t coming to God in song expecting Him to bless us, it is bowing our hearts before God, giving thanks to Him for what he’s already done, and desiring with all our hearts that HE will be blessed by our meager offerings of praise. Like Martin Luther’s day, the church has changed the style of hymns, etc, to reach those outside, to reach those who are comfortable in a concert atmosphere if you will. Martin luther used bar room songs. Please don’t take this wrong. I agree with the author on several points such as the lighting. Having the ability to control the lights does not mean you should do it all the time. Early church worship was corporate, not an individual exercise.

  • Brett Cheek says:

    I agree with some of symptoms you are describing but not all. I am surprised to hear you say that modern songs are not very singable. I would think most folks from my generation (I am an ATS grad in my 20’s) would say that the thing they that love about the modern worship movement is how singable the songs are as opposed to hymns which seem very difficult to sing (using a more diatonic melodic structure that is foreign to us as opposed to the pentatonic melodies of modern music that are easier to pick up and a very straight rhythm which feels odd and there is usually no chorus). At our college-age ministry for instance, even if we introduce a new song it is being sung loudly by the end of the congregation’s first time hearing it.

    I agree with several of the things that you are saying about the band or worship leader being the focus but maybe there are other ways to solve the issue. It might be worth noting that charismatic and Pentecostal circles (along with Passion Conferences and the like) don’t seem to have the same problems even if they use the same volume, lighting, and songs.

    Perhaps the core issues are more around consumerism than anything else. Just few thoughts and I am willing to be wrong!

  • JAy. says:

    Dr. Tennent,
    I agree in principle with your post. However, I think that the second point of your post, singable music, may be more important than the volume of the band. In a service this weekend, I witnessed the praise band vocalist step back from the mic during the most difficult line in the song, not once but twice! While the praise leader may have been trying to encourage the congregation to sing, it had the opposite effect, as most of the congregation didn’t know or couldn’t follow the melody of that particular line. Personally, I love the song, and even have a copy of it, and I still couldn’t get it right. (And it was a Chris Tomlin song, an artist/song-writer for whom I have great respect.)
    There is also a sound engineering issue that many churches must tackle. The volume of the worship service is unfortunately often driven by the need of the monitors for the band themselves. If you turn the monitors up to the point that vocalists and electric guitarists/bass players can perform well, you have to then turn up the main speakers to “cover” the monitors. Our church recently made a huge improvement in the sound of our contemporary service by requiring that all musicians and vocalists use in-ear monitors. Now the main speakers can be turned down to a reasonable level, plus the reverb that we had previously has practically vanished. Of course, this is not an inexpensive solution, but one that can make a big difference in a lot of facilities which may not have been designed primarily for use as a contemporary praise and worship facility.
    Just a couple thought.
    In His Love,
    JAy.

  • Author says:

    Amen! Let’s turn up the lights! I recently left a church partly because it was so dark and depressing. The pastor wanted it to be contemplative. He also thought that people praying up in front needed it to be dark. Even during prayer meeting he had the worship band playing loudly during prayer and while people were speaking. Now I attend a church where the lights are on, the windows are uncovered, and there is bright paint on the walls. The music is wonderful, some ampliphication, but not too much. It is very conducive to worship. Here I worship corporately.

  • Drew Causey says:

    Hey Dr. T-

    First, thank you for articulating some incredible insights into the theological purposes and history of worship in the church in your post. There are many ways that the Western “contemporary” scene can easily facilitate a certain amount of passivity in those in attendance (though probably without intending to do so). There is far too little reflection being done in the average church on what it means for us to gather, what it looks like to actively participate in worship as we gather, and how things like sound, song and space carry with them theologically charged-commentary on what we are doing as gathered worshippers.

    As I’ve thought more on our post, I’ve wrestled with the issue of contextualization with some of these suggestions. In the comments section above, David notes an interesting example of the “participation” of people in a secular concert, which while equivocating singing along at a concert with participation (which we cannot do in worship), did offer a context in which volume was not a hinderance in participation, but was either neutral towards or even a facilitator of participation. I am not here to argue the pro-plugged-in position, but I do wonder how and what roles cultural context comes into play in our decisions about encouraging and facilitating active participation in worship in the church. How culturally conditioned is sing-ability? If your congregation grew up in R&B and Hip-Hop, does that change our definition of what is accessible or singable by them? In what ways (if any) is proper volume a culturally conditioned question?

    Obviously I have a dog in this fight; I am a worship leader and strive to take the task of planning and preparation seriously. And I lead in a plugged-in setting, so I see how my reaction could be taken as just that. But I’m really asking because I’d love to hear you develop your thoughts on some of these things. I am in 100% agreement that passive participation in worship should be avoided at all cost whenever possible; the Reformation brought an active life into the worship of the church that we must recapture and grow in our churches. What I’d love to hear is a more inductive explanation as to how active participation in singing leads us to make decisions about lights, sound, and sing-ability in varying contexts, and how context does or doesn’t speak to your suggestions in your post.

    Thanks for your time and encouragement to lead worshippers to participate in every way possible.

    Drew

  • Jd walt says:

    Apt observation re the monitor issue Jay

  • Steve says:

    Really interesting and challenging article! About 2 1/2 years ago I found myself moving to the Phoenix, AZ area to plant a church. As we started to get ready to launch public worship, we were informed the worship leader that was supposed to join our team here was not going to be available, and we would have to find other “options.” For us, that meant worship via the Integrity DVD series.

    In that first year, I probably had 20 conversations about how our worship was “lacking” something – none of those conversations were from the unchurched or lost. Each one originated from persons who said they were committed Christ-followers. Often times the conversation began, “I know our worship is between us and God and music doesn’t matter, but…” One family even left after a month with us, saying they loved everything our church was involved in (missions, preaching style, small groups, etc…) but the worship time without someone leading or having a band was just too uncomfortable for them.

    It occurred to me during this time that perhaps we have swung the pendulum too far the other direction when it comes to worship. I am fully in agreement when it comes to contextualization of the message, and worship style/music definitely plays a part in that. This experience has swayed me a little however – when self-proclaimed Christ-followers move on from a place where they feel the mission of God is being carried out, simply because of the worship, it seems we have a problem, and that problem may be a generation of believers that feel entitled to lights, volume, and other contextual issues. Of course, much of this started when Christ-followers essentially made the same claims about organ/piano driven worship, so I suppose we should not be surprised.

    I will conclude by saying this – if a church has a worship pastor that is theologically studied and pastoral in heart, instead of just a front man to a band, that church can definitely do contemporary styled worship without passivity. I was blessed in Kentucky to be a part of such a church before moving to AZ, and though the worship was often loud and the room often dark, there was much activity on the part of the church largely due to the teaching and leading from the stage via the worship pastor.

    • Kari says:

      Steve,

      I have recently planted a church as well. We are 3 years in the process and one of our biggest issues has been music. If it didn’t compete with the mega church music, then people wouldn’t really give us a chance. People would say they loved everything about the church except the music.

      My husband and I have had many conversations about our concern that music is driving congregants to choose a church more than any other aspect of a service (other than maybe a social circle where they feel like they “fit”). Now, in terms of the non-church attending people who come, they couldn’t care less about the music. They want to learn about Jesus.

      That has been our experience. We are now turning the church over to a pastor who has been a music minister for years and he will pastor the church plant and be able to provide incredible music. I believe the church will really see some growth with someone who can provide excellent music.

  • Thanks for the insightful comments and interactions. This is why I raise issues like this. It is healthy for the church to be reflective about our life and practice before Him.

  • Timothy,

    Although I don’t know you, from what I know of you, you have my sincere respect … and I agree with much of the substance of what you propose.

    I’ve seen that a band, choir, etc. can be a distraction (along with musical/lyrical complexity, unfamiliarity, etc.) or even generate nothing more than an emotional thrill. Just the same, a band, choir, etc. can themselves be wholly in the Spirit and can draw a congregation into powerful, momentus worship of the Creator. But, I’ve also seen well-balanced music services that bore no other distinguishing quality than that alone … services that didn’t let instruments or musicians distract, where verses are conveniently dropped from hymns for expediency-sake, etc.

    I’ll have to offer opinion here as well regarding preaching styles. When I don’t specifically choose to open my heart to the Word and the Spirit, there are styles I find mundane, boring, distracting, irritating, etc.

    Additionally, there are other “worship elements” that are wholly unfamiliar to me in a “church” setting – some I just find weird and of no spiritual value. Yet others I respect believe otherwise. I have to remind myself that “we are the temple of the Holy Spirit” … and “church” must therefore, be literally anywhere, especially “where two or more are gathered in His name”

    Personal taste/opinion is not to be disregarded for God created us each as unique individuals for His glory; however, there is somewhat to be said for surrendering our tastes/opinions at times.

    All that being said, the Gospel of repentance, redemption, forgiveness and justification through Jesus blood, sanctification through and in the Spirit, and living out the active love of God with which he has filled us – this all has to be the measure of the church. The style of worship won’t separate the sheep from the goats – the demonstrable acts of loving God with our whole body, soul, mind, and strength as well as the demonstrable acts of loving our neighbor as ourselves – those indeed must be the evidence/fruit of our worship.

    May God mercifully chasten us if there is nothing more than fun and a show and cool stuff and community … and growing numbers of spiritually dead congregants. Contrariwise, may we indeed “worship in Spirit and Truth” as we “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly” with our God!

  • Very well said. I have been thinking along the same lines.

  • Actually this is in some ways a replay of the debates of the 1850s, when organs and professional musicians were coming into vogue in urban Methodist churches in the East, often supplanting enthusiastic congregational singing. (A major reason for the formation of the Free Methodist Church.)

  • To begin, I must start with the question, why the emphasis upon the 19th Century? The theologian Karl Barth brings to attention that even though the 19th Century’s theology was great, that is past theology and we must learn to move on to the new theology. Now this is me thinking, if we ought to move back in time and try and recreate an era, why just go back to the 19th Century when we could go back and try to recreate 1st Century Church from Acts?
    Not that I disagree with the proposal here, I do agree with comments about the lethargic attitude of the people. But I must bring to attention some of the deficiency I have found in this argument, for starters the fact that two things appear together does not imply that one leads to the other. These are some aspects of the article that caught my attention with some of my responses:
    1.) “The result (and I have observed this many, many times) is hundreds, if not thousands of worshippers, all standing and listening to the worship band, but not actively singing themselves.”
    I disagree with this observation, perhaps in your experience this has been the case, but in mine, it has been the complete opposite. In my experience, with a Catholic background, I have seen that hymn singing and ‘unplugged’ music has led the congregation to be highly lethargic in their own worship. Also, why is listening to the band being passive? Could it be that those people are actively pursuing God in inward adoration or reflection?

    2.) “The worshippers are, to be fair, more engaged perhaps than at a concert, but, nevertheless, we are seeing increasingly passive worshippers. A hard fought battle of the 16th century may need to be fought all over again.”
    I would argue that the passivity of the people during worship is not due to the music, but rather to their own spiritual lives. Should we expect, in this day and age, people to actively pursue God with everything they have, when their personal lives in God is not at its best?

    3.) “If you cannot hear the person next to you singing, then the worship leaders are playing too loud.”
    Why must we hear the person next to us? I understand that worship is a community activity and we are to worship alongside other believers; but, does that necessarily mean that we ought to hear them? What if the person next to us have a HORRIBLE voice, to the point of distraction? (Not that I believe this, but it’s worth bringing up the point)

    4.) “As a worshipper, you may not be able to see people across the room or even down the row. However, the lights on the “stage” or “platform” are very bright which tends to focus the attention on the worship band rather than on the people.”
    Where the people focus their attention is based on the people’s understanding of worship. Perhaps the lights would help with this, and it would, but should be control the environment in order that they may be persuaded the way we want them to be persuaded? What then makes a difference between the two of them, if both use persuasion to direct attention? If anything, the focus of worship should not be on the congregation nor the band, but on God. And to be honest, as people are now, everybody gets distracted by the smallest things: outfits, people, paintings, etc.

    5.)”The goal often is to try and reproduce as close as possible how it sounded when it was professionally performed. Musicians may not realize how exceedingly difficult this is for the average congregation.”
    If anything, the ones at fault are the people who try and reproduce as close as possible to the professionals. I agree that it is a difficult task to reproduce this, but every congregation should, if they do not, have somebody musically gifted. The Scriptures show us that the Church has different members of the body, and the local church must reproduce, or try to reproduce, as close as possible, the wholeness of the Church by having at least one person representing each gift. If this is the case, this one person should be able to follow pretty close to the professionals, if that is what they desire.

    I do think that this movement may spark something, not necessarily from going away from those things, but rather because of the impact it would cause, it would bring attention to the lethargic attitude. But the same would happen, I think, if something else would be changed.

  • Debby says:

    I also wholeheartedly agree with your viewpoints. I attend a wonderful God centered church where the message is strong and true, but I absolutely HATE the music. It is incredibly loud and I very much feel like the “worship leaders” are conducting a concert. Further I think the “worship” songs of today are too watered down. I miss the doctrine that is the heart of so many of the “old” gospel hymns. They are far more moving. If only churches would heed your suggestion!

  • […] me recommend an article written last year by Dr. Timothy Tennett where he advocates we learn to unplug worship, turn down the electronic sound, and turn up the […]

  • Andy Hague says:

    I went to a new church this morning; the lead music was enthusiastic, loud and not well mixed and yes, I could barely hear myself. There was little point in my singing and I love singing. There was a really good sax player there, whom I could hear sometimes and a good viola there whom I couldn’t. The bottom line is usually the volume of the drums. To be fair they had put screens round the kit, but it was still loud. It doesn’t seem to occur to the music/PA team to sometimes lose the kit, go for hand percussion etc. Or to use brushes or canes. But most importantly it seems a shame to me when there are such good musicians available that no on seems to take the initiative of making musical arrangements. If someone did they might work a bit harder to ensure a good balance. I don’t know where I stand regarding the idea of ‘worldly music’. I tend to go along with the idea, expressed I think by Orcar peterson that there are two kinds of music; good and bad. But I resent being asked to sing ‘Na na na na’ etc.

  • Author says:

    For me the problem with really loud music is that it can be difficult to hear God.

  • Don says:

    I think we are at a place where people of all ages long for something more authentic, participatory, and creative. I predict concert style worship with loud volume is passe to the point that people in touch with the here and now are already finding ways to lower the stage persona and make worship about the most important instrument in the room… the people’s voices. Young adults do not seemingly crave a show on Sunday. they want to be part of the mix like their voices matter… they want to create along with the band what comes from the room… they want to hear the people around them… not have their voices and their friends voices drowned out. We began dropping stage volume and teasing out the congregations voice at youth group and it works… is beautiful, inspiring, participatory, and can soar in ways that a few mic-ed people NEVER can. I fought for years to have the concert style worship … and we enjoyed it, but we inadvertently killed congregational singing…. The upcoming generation does not need or want loud…. they want to be in the mix… they want their place to be heard and be part of something that feels real and creates a communal experience. Ironically, it was the youth groups that led us into this current popular style… and it may well be the youth groups that get sick of it and revert back to singing together in a way that has an ancient precedent… It may be a priesthood of the believer thing… LET US PLAY TOO! Our voices matter! PLEASE tell me examples of where mega churches are moving back toward a style of worship where the worship leaders serve the congregation by helpiing their voices be heard uppermost in the room rather than being so loud the team drowns them out.