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A Brief Theology of Volume Levels in Worship

Regardless of your tradition, volume may be one of the top three perennial “unsolvable” problems in worship planning and leading. No matter which way you go, someone is unhappy. Too loud? People feel discouraged from singing because they can’t hear themselves. Too soft? People feel discouraged from singing because they can hear themselves! And this isn’t merely a problem for churches with million-dollar sound systems and rock aesthetics. It’s a problem I’ve heard articulated by folks who feel the organ is too loud (or too soft) in a traditional service. There are people with hearing problems or hearing sensitivities that complain about how worship can be literally painful to endure. Yet others don’t have a formulated reason beyond “I don’t like it.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve received a prayer card disguised as a complaint about volume: “Please pray for the drummer who feels it’s his job to make us all deaf” is a paraphrase of one “prayer card” I received years ago on a Monday morning. So, yes, volume is a hot issue.

No Resolution?

And it also seems like it’s not a resolvable issue. Inevitably, if you make a decision which sides with one group’s persuasion, you are deciding directly and actively against another group’s persuasion. For those of us in charge of making these decisions, it feels lose-lose. My general opinion about volume levels has been a kind of happy medium: loud enough that the music fills the space, encouraging the people to sing out without feeling exposed, yet in the quieter moments offers key times where the congregation can clearly hear themselves singing mightily. For me, when I have strived for that, it seems that the complaints have gone down to a minimum (not completely gone!) and musical worship has been most strengthened. However, I think there’s something slightly more nuanced—more pastoral—at play here.

If you’ve read my book, you know it’s my belief that every decision we make in worship is a pastoral one, whether we know it or not. In other words, nothing in worship—not even decibel level—is outside the governance of faithful, biblical reflection. I’d like to offer some brief biblical and pastoral reflections on volume level in hopes that worship leaders, sound technicians, and congregants alike can see that they are all participating in real, biblical, pastoral work as they process and facilitate the “sound environment” of their worship spaces. And to do this, we turn once again to worship’s great biblical barometer—the Psalms.

1. The Bible tells us worship should be LOUD.

Listen to these commands: “Sing to him a new song; play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts” (Psalm 33:3); “Clap your hands, all peoples! Shout to God with loud songs of joy!” (Psalm 47:1); “Praise him with loud clashing cymbals!” (Psalm 150:5). Joy, again and again in the Psalms, seems to be associated with pushing the faders up, pressing the organ volume pedal to the floor, and turning the amps up to eleven. The joy of salvation and deliverance is expressed in shouts (Psalm 20:5; 27:6; 32:7, 11; 33:1; 35:27; 42:4; 47:5; 65:8; 66:1; 81:1; 89:15; 126:2; 132:9). Trumpets (no mutes in the ancient Near East) were blasted (Ps 47:5; 98:6; 150:3). So it seems that the loud end of the dynamic spectrum is appropriate for worship music. 

2. The Bible tells us worship should be SOFT.

Equally present in the Psalms is the expression on the other end of the sonic spectrum. “I have calmed and quieted my soul” is what one worship song sings (Psalm 131:2). Psalm 95 provides that contrast. Verses 1-5 express loud, thankful, jubilant worship. But Verses 6-7 encourage a different posture: bowed, quiet, reverent. Alongside the admonitions to leap, clap, and shout are the edifying words that whisper “be still” (Ps 37:7; 46:10) and “wait” (Ps 25:5, 21; 33:20; 37:7; 130:5). As one desperate worship song puts it, “For God alone my soul waits in silence” (Ps 62:1,5). In the Psalms, therefore, we hear that low decibels, even a zero reading, are appropriate for worship music.

Pastoral Choices That Lead to “Faithful Feelings”

So if we look to the Scriptures for a “biblical theology of volume in worship,” we hear something that defies almost all our categories. We hear a word that tells us that God wants it all—the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. It’s not so much, then, of whether worship should be loud or soft, but at what moments. How might we navigate this wide spectrum as faithful pastors? Well, it might start by recognizing our job as emotional shepherds. We have a role in faithfully guiding the people of God through a holistic experience (emotions included) of worship’s rhythms and story. What if we began to see volume not as something that needed to be solved with a one-size-fits-all level that works for the most people? What if we understood that volume was an affective tool to faithfully and pastorally wield in the art and craft of disciple making? What if we got our musicians, sound technicians, and congregants on board with a mode of thinking that worship is a journey though a story, and that story has ups and downs, highs and lows, louds and softs? What if our congregation learned how to be more faithfully Christian “feelers” of the loud and raucous joy of God’s glory and salvation, of the quiet contrition of confession and repentance, of the piercing moans and groans of lamentation, of the weary sighs of mourning? What if our noise trained us to be more faithful Davids who were loud in their gladness to enter the house of the Lord (Ps 122:1)? What if our silence trained us to be more faithful “watchmen” who quietly waited for the morning (Ps 130:6)?

And now we can see how our aesthetic choices about dynamics are really opportunities for pastoring. We see now that from the electric guitarist’s amp level, to the organist’s use of their antiphonal division, to the sound tech’s fingers on the main faders—these are all moments where every believer can take up their call as a “priest” in ministering to their sister and their brother. Hopefully a post like this can open up fresh dialogue on a topic that in many churches feels weary, old, or hardened.


What if Volume in Worship Became Less About Preference and More About Discipleship?

Refreshing Old Dialogues

I'm always grateful for articles, thoughts, posts, and insights that reopen dialogues that feel simultaneously over-worn and under-productive. The volume-level-in-worship dialogue feels like one of those to me. It all too often gets downgraded into an issue of pure preference, sounding like this:

The old people can't stand how loud it is and just want it turned down.
The young people can't stand how soft it is and just want it turned up.

I have also heard the ecclesiastically-oriented axiom, "If people can't hear themselves sing, it's too loud." People who say this (and I'm one of them) prize the reality that congregational worship is congregational and that worship music is not a performance of a select few but a corporate act. In other words, ecclesiology and doxology (one's theology of the church and worship) drive the volume question. And they should. 

But I think that Dan Wilt's helpful post, "Is it Too Loud? Worship Accompaniment vs. Worship Immersion Culture," exposes that the issue of volume level is more complex than our axiomatic answers sometimes allow. I've had countless conversations over the years with (young and old) brothers and sisters who have hinted at the dynamics that Dan is bringing to our attention.

Worship Accompaniment vs. Worship Immersion

Wilt talks about two different views on how worship music functions to facilitate the singing of God's people. The first is "Worship Accompaniment"--congregants are looking to be supported and accompanied by the musicians. This is where many thoughtful worship leaders I know land, and I'd generally say that this is my perspective on the function of music for the people of God in corporate singing. The second view is "Worship Immersion"--congregants are looking to be surrounded and enveloped by the music. Wilt's description of "worship immersion" is interesting, hitting at an aspect of the theology of worship that is often lost on us or the people: 

Worship Immersion Culture is not primarily drawn to sing about God, nor even do they always feel a need to sing to God. Rather, they are a generation that wants to sing with God. They want to participate in God’s life.

This idea of participating in God's singing is an important one--that in our singing, we are enveloped into Christ's own song (Heb 2:12) and experiencing at least part of what it means to be "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Pet 1:4), caught up in the rapture of the Trinity's own enjoyment of Their glory.

All Accompaniment / Might There Be Room for Both?

I have some open-ended thoughts about all of this. First, though Wilt is putting his finger on something untouched (or less-touched), perhaps his titles are confusing. The way I perceive it, his constructions of "Worship Accompaniment" and "Worship Immersion" are actually two different philosophies of accompaniment. And those philosophies do have a lot to do with the function of volume (and mix, as well). The question is, Should our accompaniment support singing by providing a foundation underneath it or by creating an environment around it?  

Second, I have been in many worship services where one or the other philosophy is employed, and, frankly, when they've been done well I've seen the impact and merits of both. They both provide a formative experience in the act of congregational singing. "Worship Accompaniment" does shape the people of God to view their experience as corporate and communal rather than singular and individualistic. It helps people understand and feel that they are part of the body of Christ and that worship is joining in the singing of the "communion of saints." I often find, though, that in pure "accompaniment" worship cultures it tends to be the case (I know there are lots of counterexamples) that people have an under-developed sense of God's real and special presence among them as they worship. Worship in these environments has felt more like a wonderful, communal experience about God, rather than an immersive experience in God.* 

Conversely, "immersion" experiences, at their best, do give worshipers a sense of being enveloped in the Trinity's own eternal, ongoing delight, and they do provide contexts for us to understand what God's overwhelming, surrounding presence might feel like (because the music mirrors that reality and engages our senses in that way). But, we can see how in these environments there can be a slippery slope, devolving toward an everyone-having-their-own-private-devotional-experience-with-God-in-one-room kind of vibe. 

Maybe it is that, for the thoughtful, intentional worship leader, there's room for both. Maybe it is that volume can over time become less of a polarizing, preferential issue and more of an opportunity to shape in people's minds and hearts a full-orbed vision of what worship is and does. What if volume could be part of our artist's toolbox or color palette to help form senses and sensibilities in worship?

If we start asking these kinds of questions, all of a sudden our musicians and our sound crew move from being specialists to ministers. They become agents in the disciple-making process. Maybe, then, we should worry less about finding some one-size-fits-all volume level and instead think about how volume (within a single service or over a series of weeks) serves the narrative of the gospel.

Volume in the Gospel Narrative

Let me give just one closing example to flesh out what I mean. Perhaps it is at the beginning of a service where you want the people of God to "get" that we are entering into an already moving stream of praise happening in the heavenlies. So, while the music may be energetic, there's headroom for congregational voices so that everyone is subconsciously tuned in to the communal nature of worship. But, perhaps later, you may be singing of the gospel and God's great love for us...and you really hope that it hits home, not only to everyone coprorately but to each individually. So you crank up the volume and intensity as you sing of God's love, creating an environment where the people of God feel like they're receiving a big, sonic hug, which says, "O love that will not let me go!" The highs begin to shimmer, the mids blossom, and the lows deepen, moving the accompaniment from something heard to somethign felt, from something "out there" to something "underneath me, all around me." In that moment, it's probably less important that people hear each other and more important that they know, "God loves you...yes, even YOU!"  Music, art, volume...they can all help facilitate those moments in ways that are well-rounded and fully human, engaging our whole selves. (By the way, this doesn't have to just be a "modern worship" consideration. I've known great organists who intuitively get this reality in traditional contexts. They know when to, quite literally, pull out all of the stops and overwhelm a congregation with a wall of sound, and when to be minimalistic under the congregational voice.)

Volume concerns then get moved into the realm of the pastoral rather than the purely preferential, and the conversation gets elevated. Thank you, Dan Wilt, for elevating that conversation. 

*I'll briefly mention here that I'm aware of the sacramental nature of the language I am employing with "real presence." I'm also aware that many sacramentally-minded churches tend to fall in the accompaniment category (though this tide is turning), and they would be more uncomfortable with the sacramental overtones of my language blurring into the singing portion of the service. I'm of the persuasion that while the sacraments are indeed special and even climatic parts of the worship service where God choses to offer a unique presence to His people, He still is present in our singing as well.