Series: Observations about the conduct of meetings in the so-called ‘new churches’, from an older person’s perspective — 5 (and last).
Not far from where I live is Gwennap Pit. It’s a hollow in the ground, believed to be the result of mining subsidence, and is famous for being a place where John Wesley preached on 18 occasions in the second half of the 18th century. It has good acoustic qualities and, today, has been tiered to take over 2,000 people sitting down.
Wesley first preached to a standing audience there in 1762. Afterwards, he wrote, ‘The wind was so high that I could not stand at the usual place at Gwennap village; but at a small distance was a hollow capable of containing many thousands of people. I stood on one side of this ampitheatre towards the top and with people beneath on all sides, I enlarged on those words in the gospel for the day, “Blessed are the eyes which see the things that ye see….hear the things that ye hear.”‘ We don’t know how many listeners he had, but eleven years later he addressed, at the same spot, his biggest ever audience there: 32,000 people, spilling way out of the confines of the hollow.
Now think about this: microphones and PA systems hadn’t yet been invented! Instead, preachers like Wesley were used to projecting their voices, and were skilled at using the contours of the ground to give the sound maximum spread. Most preachers today would be novices at both those skills. They don’t need them, because we have sound systems—which, in themselves, are not a bad thing at all.
But surely the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction now? You go to a church service with a mere 50 people present and there’s a sound system in operation! The speaker can mumble, and his mumbling is magnified to a mega-mumble. The guitars and drums are all mic’d and the volume too often cranked up enough to demolish the walls. Why on earth is that necessary?
I know, it is in vogue for sound-systems everywhere to be set at ridiculously high levels. But in church we should surely not be slaves to that fashion? By all means have a sound-system, but ensure that it is set to enhance the speaking and listening experience in church, not to ape an auditorium where a rock band is performing.
An audiologist of my acquaintance points out the huge increase in young people of the current generation with hearing problems caused partly by ear-buds pumping music from devices whose volume is set too high, and partly from the ear-splitting decibels at discos, night clubs and concerts. That’s bad in itself, and is a worrying trend. But the church is supposed to be where things are done to a better standard, setting the measure for, rather than aping, what goes on outside.
The abuse of sound-systems in church meetings leads to the following problems:
- High volumes in the music create an invisible barrier separating the singers/musicians from the congregation.
- The congregation ease up on singing because they can hardly hear themselves above the cranked-up volume coming from the speakers. They thus become spectators rather than participants.
- People with hearing aids (like me) find the volume oppressive and are tempted to stay away until the ‘worship’ is finished or, resisting that extreme, they switch their hearing aids off and, as a result, feel no longer part of what’s going on.
- People who want to contribute spontaneously by praying, or whatever, from ‘the floor’ are disinclined to do so, fearing their voice won’t be heard. And they feel embarrassed about coming forward to take a microphone, because it makes them the centre of attention, which they don’t want to be. Might as well just not bother.
Some would argue that a cranked-up sound system is a necessary concession to youth culture. If we are to reach the young generation with the message of Jesus, they say, we have to meet them halfway on issues like this.
My feeling is that we are going way beyond halfway. Nobdody expects young people to warm instantly to the traditional hymn/prayer sandwich and the music of a pipe organ. But they can surely be won by a musical approach, and a volume level, that demonstrates a winsome skill and sensitivity to the importance of the Person we represent?
And they are not the only generation to be considered. The primary New Testament metaphor for the church is ‘family’, and a family quickly goes to pot if the kids rule the roost. There are two generations older than them who have learnt a thing or two about living, about what matters, and about standards of family behaviour. If there is genuine love at the heart of it all, the youngsters will cope with everything else.
‘Church’ as a whole, I suspect, needs some rethinking. Certainly the three current models in the UK suffer from grave deficiencies for young people:
- Typical churches of the liturgical variety—Church of England, Roman Catholic etc.—appear too set in their ways to appeal to the young, who see little life or attractive spontaneity there.
- Churches of the hymn/prayer/sermon kind—Methodist, Baptist etc.—also fail to attract the young, who feel the services are a couple of centuries out of date.
- Auditorium-style churches, with big screens, smoke machines, coloured lights and a sound system that threatens the ear-drums may attract the young, but too often at the expense of providing any real spiritual substance or pastoral care.
It’s easier to spot the problems than to come up with satisfying answers. Maybe you have some light to share? In the meantime, please turn the volume down.
[For other blogs on this theme, click Music and Worship under CATEGORIES at the top-right of this post]