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

Zac HicksSound and Audio, Worship and Pastoral Ministry, Worship Technology, Worship Theology & Thought3 Comments

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. 

3 Comments on “What if Volume in Worship Became Less About Preference and More About Discipleship?”

  1. Hi Zach, I love this post and I agree with it in a broad sense. I wonder, though, if it's dangerous to talk about being engulfed and immersed in the presence of God when we're talking about being immersed in volume, synth pads, guitar lines, and bass. Certainly those musicians are worshipping as they play and the lyrics are probably God/Gospel glorifying. But, what we're immersed in is not worship or God's presence. . . . but volume (not necessarily a bad thing at times). Rich Mullins famously told a story about a concert-goer telling him they "really felt the Holy Spirit on that song". . .he replied "nope, that was the kick drum".

  2. Aaron: Right. One is not the other. And I'm not advocating for that. BUT…what I am encouraging is the idea that music can shepherd emotions. I'm a firm believer that music, volume, dynamics cause us to FEEL. Feeling is not bad. The question is, "To what end are our feelings aimed?" If our feelings are aimed toward the ends the liturgy aims towards–namely, apprehending more deeply who Christ is and who we are in Him (i.e. the gospel)–then the dynamics of music can serve to us more fully understanding those ends as whole persons. No, the kick drum is not the presence of God, but God uses those means to stir us to more fully apprehend that He is there. There is a difference.

    In the light of that, my answer to Rich Mullins and the man (and I think I knew where he was coming from…and I have ultimate respect for the man) is, "perhaps you felt both." 🙂 I think we could be too fearful of emotions and emotional shepherding because of all the abuse that has happened, that we miss out on how music is God's good gift to help us rightly orient our emotions in the context of worship to more deeply feel and understand (in the full-orbed sense). A lot of my thoughts on this jump off James K. A. Smith's concepts in Desiring the Kingdom…we are primarily, at our core, feeling, not thinking creatures. We are formed by environments and habits within those environments.

    What's more dangerous, in my mind, is worship leaders who simply don't grasp the emotional power present in music or who have no concept of how to orient the emotional arc of music to match the narrative arc of the liturgy. It's not a question of whether or not what we do or the music we play will manipulate. It will. The question is, Toward what end does it point?

    Thanks for taking the time to interact. You ARE raising an important issue.

  3. Absolutely, the stewardship and pastoring of emotions is crucial. Bob Kauflin has written alot of good stuff about that. The problem is. . . different folks in the congregation can be hit in different ways by the same musical technique or "moment". It is a risk worth taking at times, but I think we have to be more careful on that end, then on the end of the congregation singing it's guts out, heard by all, with biblical truth. Could that produce dryness and a lack of mystery? yes, it could.

    I served at a very large seeker church for a few years, and we would do secular music to tell stories, . . do big worship productions to produce emotions, etc. . .and frequently we would hear "the band was awesome" more so than any sermon or community feel. I think it went over the line into being hurtful towards discipleship.

    God does use means, but since our cultural ethos is such that a kick drum (we should stop hatin' on the kick drum!! 🙂 ) fill brings to mind a concert, perhaps, more than God's generous and huge love for us. Just an example. So, I think the verbage here matters.

    However, I agree that we should have big musical moments that are less "congregational" to communicate a truth. We should do that. I think the size of church/congregation also enters into the discussion here as far as DB level and techniques employed, etc. . . . . Some churches can blow it out really loud but still hear each other sing because there's so many people in the house singing.

    great discussion,

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