A Response to Jamie K.A. Smith’s “Open Letter”

Dr. Smith,

I recently received your open letter, and I must say that I have benefitted greatly from it. No surprise, since you’ve written many other things which have similarly helped my thinking, and (you’ll like this) formed me into a more thoughtful practitioner of contemporary worship.

Since you wrote a letter, and not a diatribe or rant, I hope you won’t mind a response. One difficulty from an ‘open letter’ must be this: no one feels qualified to answer.  But after a third person sent me the link, I began to take it (in the best sense) personally. For whatever else anything is, as Meg Ryan said in You’ve Got Mail, it ought to begin by being personal.

This post summarizes your letter with its basic two-point argument, and then respond to your points briefly and in my own order. I take the essence of your letter to mean:

Point One: The musical goal of a local, gathered church is participatory singing;

Point Two: Overpowering stage volume reduces (and sometimes eliminates) congregational participation;

Conclusion: Loud volumes (and other thoughtlessly borrowed secular concert stagecraft forms), have no place in our worship services.

I reply, “sort of,” “sometimes,” and “kinda.”

To point two, I would answer with a hearty “sometimes.” Your concern is fair, and has been sounded by thinkers in the contemporary church movement, though perhaps not [irony] loudly enough [/irony] to be heeded. Bob Kauflin’s gem, WorshipMatters, says “the sound of the musicians shouldn’t dominate or overpower the congregation. . . . They are the real worship team.” I consider regular doses of sensory overload a ‘steroid’ which enables consumer Christians to feel strong in their faith. When regularly consumed, this ultimately masks the weakness of their faith.

To your point one, I offer a weak “sort of.” I wonder, as did other readers, if your concerns conflate ‘singing’ with ‘worship.’ (“If we, the congregation, can’t hear ourselves, it’s not worship.”) We would all agree that deaf, mute, and quadriplegic believers in Christ worship Him. This points us to the truth that worship is primarily an inward event of faith that externally manifests itself among various believers in various ways. Our church services should allow latitude for those external manifestations.

Calvin wrote that Christ “did not will in outward discipline and ceremonies to prescribe in detail what we ought to do” since “he did not deem one form suitable for all ages.” This allows local churches “to change and abrogate traditional practices and to establish new ones” so that their practices may “be variously accommodated to the customs of each nation and age” (4.10.30). Would Calvin grant that ‘loud music’ is a custom of our nation and age that churches could accommodate? Could, in some congregations, occasional stunned “aural vertigo” (neatly coined, btw) be a suitably worshipful response to the loud proclamation of God’s greatness? Or is it an immediate defeater of worship?

Further, I wonder if ‘participation’ is the chief end of Christian gatherings. You rightly warn ministers like me against the dangers of creating individualized, emotionally driven “God-experiences” for consumer Christians. Here [hear] Here [hear]!

But I might nuance your point differently. Of course, individualism is a common culprit, but Heidelberg reminds us that faith must be personalized (“not only to others, but to me also”). Is there room for Heidelberg’s warning in your concerns?

Because it is offered in Spirit and truth, Christian worship transcends location and renders cultus obsolete. So, Christian worship is like breathing—believers do it all the time. To paraphrase Vaughn Roberts, Saying you are going to church to worship is like saying you are going to bed to breathe. However, going to bed without breathing—that’s a nap from which you’ll never awake. My point is that worship of God is essential to a believer’s life, while mutual edification is particular to our gathering together.

As to your conclusion, I offer a “kinda.” My perspective may seem backward. While you warn church musicians against poor-man’s presenting of a concert, I view secular concerts as fallen man’s aping of the transcendent. Sensory overload may not promote learning, but a worship service serves a primarily doxological, rather than pedagogical, purpose.

Practically, I propose the following.

  • All churches using contemporary music should own and use a decibel meter.  This is a sure way to progressively move volume discussions  from subjective preferences to objective intentionality.
  • The [music and media ministries – ED.] should, under the direction and approval of its elders, create a volume policy.  My suggestion would be to nuance that policy to usually create space for the congregation’s singing to be well heard, but also allow for moments of exuberant celebration.

Christ’s bride is celebrating her risen Lord. I say, “Let’s all turn it up.”

Since the point of your blog post was to champion thoughtful reflection over uncritical practice, I hope this post makes you successful. I’d welcome a response, but you are probably challenging a whole new subset of church practitioners to thoughtful reflection. I can’t wait to read it.

Best wishes, Matthew Westerholm.


9 thoughts on “A Response to Jamie K.A. Smith’s “Open Letter”

  1. I agree with all points mentioned, but would like to add some further meat to the discussion. As a sound engineer and audio system designer for nearly 20 years and musician on a worship team, the issue of volume and adherence to certain standards can easily become over simplified by the church, and result in bizarre “rule following” that hurts ministry.

    A volume policy and dB meter are helpful tools in monitoring levels, and providing a general guideline for accountability. However, much like the application of law, (the “spirit of the law” versus “letter of the law”) how a volume policy is policed can make vast differences in the quality of the sound. As you briefly mentioned, the policy should “create space”.

    To further clarify why that’s crucial; generally speaking, standard “Joe Congregant” does not have experience attending live musical events, and an expectation that audio at church will sound like audio at home or in the car runs rampant. A live church environment carries several challenges.

    – There is the band, and their level of skill, which can cause vast swings in dynamics and overall blending of the instrumentation into a cohesive presentation to the sound engineer. – There is the quality of the sound system.
    – There is the sound of the room (reverberation/acoustics).
    – There is the overall volume level of the acoustic instrumentation on stage (choir, drums, amplifiers, etc).
    – Lastly, there is the volume of the congregation in response to the worship. All of these factors (and more) impact the volume levels required from the system.

    Each of the above may require substantial swings in how a mix is approached, and the level that ultimately is required to present the band/vocals accurately.

    Placing a hard “rule” for volume level leaves the sound engineer at a substantial disadvantage. If the church decides that 92dBspl (C-weighted) is an appropriate level, for instance; what happens when the music pastor decides that he wants a 9-piece horn section on stage, and they produce 92dB at the mix location with the system turned off? This may sound ridiculous, but I’ve measured that in 2000+ seat auditoriums repeatedly. Does that mean we leave the system off? Does that mean that we squeak a little bit of the system in without completely breaking the rules? Do you tell the trumpet player not to blow that horn so hard (vastly changing his tone)? The answer to all should be “heck no”. The result of enforcing this arbitrary rule invariably and consistently results in poor sound…Typically thin, harsh, and incomplete. This is also often when 90% of the complaints about the volume level crop up. Bad sound to average Joe equals harsh sound, which gets communicated as LOUD sound.

    I’ve heard many mixes that are done poorly, sound incredibly loud, but conform to a 92dB “rule”. This is a result of the human ear, and its God designed sensitivity to certain frequencies. I’ve also heard many mixes at 100dB that do NOT sound loud because they were mixed well, and were warm and pleasing to the ear. Shockingly, these services are often those that engage the congregation with greater (louder) participation.

    The issue isn’t necessarily volume. It’s quality. It’s well-trained musicians and well-trained sound engineers who understand the dynamic of worship, and who understand the fundamental challenges inherent within a worship environment. Much as a pastor must understand his congregation and guide them Biblically through spiritual challenges within the community; the worship pastor/sound engineers must be cognizant of factors that contribute to or inhibit effective worship.

  2. Hey Mat, though I am not Dr. Smith I would love to dialogue a bit with you on this. Seeing that I am forced [ 😉 ] to participate in the worship gatherings you orchestrate.

    To begin, I would like to suggest an adjustment to your summarizing of Dr. Smith’s main points:

    Point #1: Worship is participatory and communal.

    Point #2: The concert “form” of CCM worship causes passivity and privation in three ways: (1)”aural vertigo”; (2) improvisation and “being creative”; (3) placement.

    Conclusion: CCM Worship, by dominating the congregation with sound, inserting un-followable musical improvisations, and inadvertently being the center of attention encourages passivity and privation in what is supposed to be a participatory, communal, and formative activity.

    When you limit Dr. Smith’s letter to “Loud volumes (and other thoughtlessly borrowed secular concert stagecraft forms)” you replace the main opposition in the letter(participation vs. passivity encouraged by worship form) with a minor opposition (loud vs. soft in noise levels).

    This misstep causes the rest of your post to derail from the intended purposes of the original letter.

    For example, both your “sometimes” and “sort of” responses fall flat because you mistake Dr. Smith for asserting “worship=singing.” Rather, Dr. Smith makes the point quite clear: “Christian worship is a collective, communal, congregational practice–and the gathered sound and harmony of a congregation singing as one is integral to the practice of worship. It is a way of “performing” the reality that, in Christ, we are one body.” Singing is not the point. Rather, it’s communal participation. The beauty in this is that not everybody can sing. And as you have pointed out, not everybody can hear, see, or move freely. But, rather than work against Dr. Smith’s appeal, I find it makes the point all the more urgent. What is one to do in a CCM worship concert if one cannot sing? All other forms of reverence have been omitted from the order of events. If Dr. Smith’s point is that (Congregational) worship must be participatory and communal, than such blessings of diversity would be taken into consideration.

    In regards to your concerns about what you (and “others readers”) see as Dr. Smith labeling what worship “is,” that is, “conflating singing with worship.” Again, Dr. Smith main point is missed in favor of a minor point. Maybe it would be better if it was phrased like this: If worship is participatory and communal, and the act of singing is supposed to demonstrate our unity as a worshiping community, than the praise band cannot be a hindrance to this fundamental role – no matter how good the music is. (Man, that was a mouthful, maybe it was better the way Dr. Smith said it) So the point here again is not style (which pertains to your Calvin quote) or determining an inward/outward expression (which pertains to your Heidelberg quote), rather its about participation. Participation permeates the boundary between “private/public”, “individual/communal”, and “inward/outward” because in participation you cannot have one without the other.

    This, in conclusion, brings us back to the main point of Dr. Smith’s letter: that the CCM praise band “form” hinders participation in the communal act of the worship gathering

    Thanks for your time. See you in a couple of days!


  3. Thanks, Jazz. Because you attend 25 of my 50 chapels, I will address only half of your concerns (jk).

    I think you’ve done a really good job of fleshing out several fruitful areas of discussion that this missive uncovers. You are right that my summary of the letter ‘tweaked’ some of his language, but that was not an attempt to weaken his argument, but rather to defend it from ways that he was being (mis)read elsewhere.

    Let me briefly try to clarify my concerns,else I create another blog post.

    No one in this discussion is arguing that uncritically accepted concert-mentality is helpful for a gathering of believers (what hath Nashville to do with Jerusalem?). I think discussions regarding ‘aural vertigo,’ instrumental improvisation, and leader placement are valuable. And needed. And overdue. Last week in chapel (if you went :-)), we unplugged the band from all amplification, got them off the stage and circled the community together.

    So, I think the letter’s concerns aren’t so much wrong as they are . . . grounded in the peripheral and misordered. You’ve highlighted ways that I’ve shaded Smith’s article, but I stand by my ‘shading’ as better referencing the essential nature of Christian worship and pointing toward a more helpful solution for the problems Smith diagnoses.

    Congregational worship is an *occasional* aspect of the Christian life. In contrast, Christian worship is the continuous, glad, Spirit-empowered, and proper response of the redeemed being to the worth of its delightful Creator. To define it by its gathered manifestation is reductionist.

    Thus, by grounding ‘worship’ by its manifested sense, the letter overstates the effect/influence/efficacy which forms possess. Again, no one says that forms have *no* effect, but placing the definitive nature of Christian worship upon its external participatory and communal aspects gives the ‘fruit’ of worship a burden which only the ‘root’ should bear.

    An analogy: Just as ‘faith’ is the essence of the Christian life, and ‘good works’ are the overflowing and needed manifestations of faith, ‘community and participation’ are the overflowing and needed manifestations of the inner event of worship that happens inside a born-again heart. Now maybe I’m arguing Paul’s perspective while you’re arguing James’. But reversing that order-or proposing mutuality between them-is deleterious, and betrays ‘ex opere operato’ underpinnings.

    We all agree that passivity in worship is a problem. But I don’t see the ultimate solution as ‘better external forms.’ Or more ‘diversity’ (that noblest weasel of words). That starting point pushes us farther down hallways of aesthetic preference where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

    Instead, I propose that hearty faith manifests itself in the type of worship which overflows into observable externals. Grounded there, relieved of the burden of efficacy, our discussion of forms can properly occur.

  4. Hey Mat, back again. Sorry for the delay in response. I will engage in the order comment is presented.

    A quick thing to preface before I engage in dialogue is that Dr. Smith has posted a “Postscript” to his letter on his blog. As he watched his little letter “go viral” and its various responses, collectively he saw a common theme: “not all Christians share the same theology of worship” After reading this and reflecting upon our current conversation here on your letter it too might be the case that we have differing views on *what worship is*. But, rather than see this a an impasse I rather see it as a chance to learn something new. And…onward.

    (1)”Congregational worship is an *occasional* aspect of the Christian life. In contrast, Christian worship is the continuous, glad, Spirit-empowered, and proper response of the redeemed being to the worth of its delightful Creator. To define it by its gathered manifestation is reductionist.”

    This dichotomy between congregational worship and Christian worship *as such* is something of concern for me. While you critique Dr. Smith for being too reductionistic, it seems you yourself have ended up a little too dualistic. While you critique Dr. Smith’s conception of congregational worship as formative as too narrow, it seems your conception of congregational worship as *occasional* ends up being too auxiliary.

    In the schema you set up here one cannot help but wonder how *the how* of worship (thus being the “proper response of the redeemed being”) is to be conveyed. Surely if we are following Paul it cannot simply be a spontaneous response of the Spirit. For, is it not Paul who says “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” and “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. And finally “If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.” (I bring the Bible in here not to get into a “Bible Battle” but rather to show that I am not favoring James or Paul. I am not arguing that this is the “biblical” way to view worship.) Now, following Paul here on the Spirit, it seems one can both “live by the Spirit” and “walk by the Spirit.” I take it to be the case that the alternative would be plausible for Paul also, that is, that one could “live by the Spirit” but *not* “walk by the Spirit”. If that is the case, if there is a distance between (a)”living” and (b)”walking,” how is one to connect “a” and “b”?

    It is in this *between* that the congregational meetings come into play. Congregational worship is the place from which we learn/foster the fruits of the Spirit. This learning occurs through the regular practices of prayer (both individual and corporate), fellowship (passing the peace, sharing the holy meal, communal provision [tithe]), and doxology (Advent: expectant waiting, Lent: penitential preparation, and Easter: celebrate resurrection). All of these of course overlap and ultimately come under what you have nicely defined as “Christian Worship.”

    Now, this could be interpreted as being tendentious in regards to Dr. Smith’s argument, but I would argue that it becomes hard to articulate what the worship gathering *is for* if it is not articulated as the place we learn to live and act in the world. This leads to your definition of worship. It seems that in positioning yourself outside of the “congregational worship as formation” you are struggling to give it a role whatsoever. It seems to be reduced to an appendix upon which one * occasionally* glances for inspiration.

    Sorry that I don’t have a good ending to this response. My plan was to address a few of your comments but I have already written too much. I am guessing this is the blog version of “overstaying your welcome.” So I will end it here and maybe post again another time. Thanks again Matthew for the good conversation.

  5. I agree talking about a decibel meter is ridiculous and way off base. No wonder non-christians laugh at us. Quoting Ps. 150 is laughable. They definitely didn’t have or need a decibel meter back then.

  6. Janice and David,

    A decibel meter is one idea to help a church move beyond subjective proclamations about volume and taste. Declarations such as “OMgosh” and “way off base” and “laughable” are precisely what I have in mind.

    A decibel meter, when coupled with concerns from Keith’s insightful comments, could provide a church with objective and quantifiable data to help them create a specific volume policy.

    Contemporary musicians in our churches deserve better than the dismissive tone they often receive.

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