Last week I was standing around chatting with some friends (after wrapping up our community group meeting), and we began discussing the volume of the worship music at most evangelical churches. Loud is the general rule, of course – rock-band loud. The topic had been on my mind ever since I read Matt Anderson's solid book on physical theology, Earthen Vessels.As he said there,
…the volume of the worship band is inversely proportional to the volume and vitality of the congregational worship.
Both a friend from our community group and PJ (playing devil's advocate; see some of his real thoughts here) made precisely the same point in response:Some people simply feel more comfortable singing when they can't hear their own voices. I think Matt's response in our interview with him was on target:
It's true that loud music might make some people feel more free to sing loudly, but you know what else might make them feel free that way? A congregation around them that is singing really loudly. Especially if a few of those voices are not as perfect as the ones on stage. That sort of congregational singing communicates that this is a place where people sing and are welcome to sing, but I'm not sure that loud music communicates that as well (in fact, it often communicates the opposite--this is a place where the band sings and people watch and nod their head). So to presume that the technological solution is the only one to engage all the members of the congregation is, I think, wrong. And if people are judgmental about the quality of people's singing in the congregation, well, that's a spiritual problem that an amp isn't going to solve either.
He hit a lot of right notes in that response, but I think there is more to be said.
Loners in a crowd
I am convinced the real reason many of us want the music to be loud is so that we can get lost in our own private, personal experiences. We want to sense the presence of God, to enjoy the engagement of singing our emotions to God, to come away having been moved by our time with.
The problem with this is that the experience we seek is so individualistic. The last thing we want is to be distracted by a crowd. We feel that ur neighbor's sniffles, a crying baby, and our own poor singing will only keep us from that experience. We gather not to be a gathering, but rather to increase the decibel level and, accordingly, our heart rates.
The desire for experiential worship is not inherently bad, however much it may run amok when unrestrained. We ought to hunger for the experience of God's presence, to enjoy pouring our hearts out in worship and to be moved by the act of praise. Just as importantly, though, we ought to want to worship God in community, not as loners in a crowd.
Corporate worship, you see, is not primarily about any one individual's experience – it's about the corporate experience. We gather to worship God together. God's people have always made times to worship him as a group, and make no mistake: a group singing together is vastly different from a mere conglomeration of individuals.
Another friend of mine recalled a large men's conference he had attended in the 1990's. During the conference, the men often sung a cappella, thundering out the great hymns and choruses of the church. Tens of thousands of men raising their voices to God in unison was different than those same men each raising his own voice in practical solitude, drowned out by a band. No doubt there were many imperfect voices raised, many notes missed, and many words flubbed, but they were united in their worship, and my friend remembers those times of worship to this day.
Not as mere individuals
When we cannot hear one another sing – worse, when we do not want to hear one another sing – we make it clear that we don't see the value of the gathered church praising God together. We demonstrate that we are concerned with ourselves first and foremost, and that's backward.
There is a place and time for individual experiences of worship, and each of us should actively participate in worship at every level ndash; emotional, intellectual, and physical – during corporate gatherings. But your experience of worship and mine are secondary. We come to worship together.
The church has many purposes – and none of them are about us as individuals. Obviously, discipleship, community, and worship all involve individuals, but each aims at something broader and deeper: the good of the whole church, and the unity of the whole church in glorifying God. Just as we cannot build community with a group of men and women seeking only their own gratification, we cannot worship God as we are meant to when we approach worship individualistically.
We need to remember: we come together to worship as a church – a community – not as mere individuals.
Worshiping God together
We don't have to go a cappella to make a meaningful shift in this direction. We don't even have to drop the rock band. For most evangelical churches, three simple changes would make a world of difference:
Drop the volume a few notches: It doesn't have to be a lot, just enough that we can hear one another.
Teach the congregation: Most congregations have no concept of the importance of the church – not to mention how God's dealings in history focus on his people, not simply on individual persons.
Lead by example: pastors, if your voice is terrible, you probably shouldn't lead the singing… but maybe you should sing with all your heart nonetheless, and help your congregation recognize that it's okay not to be a studio professional. Back that up with some exhortation from the pulpit, and your congregation might grow into singing together.
However you get there, I implore you: stop making corporate worship about individual experiences. Make it about the people of God worshiping Him together.
What do you think? Leave a comment and let us know.