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.