Hard on the ears

16 March 2018

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.

sound high volumeWesley 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]

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The nature of music

5 March 2018

Series: Observations about the conduct of meetings in the so-called ‘new churches’, from an older person’s perspective — 4.

Music, by common consent, has three elements: melody, harmony and rhythm.

  1. Melody is what we normally call the ‘tune’—what you can whistle.
  2. Harmony is the pleasing combination of sounds, where the melody is enhanced by harmonising notes sung or played at the same time as it. This is the essence of part-singing.
  3. Rhythm is the beat.

music natureGood music, of whatever genre, combines these three elements in balanced proportion. Sometimes one element will be in the limelight, sometimes another. No one element should consistently dominate the other two.

Here’s where the guitar can be a dangerous instrument. When played in strumming-style—as it tends to be in church band settings (as distinct from, say, classical Spanish-guitar music)—the rhythm element tends to dominate all the time.

Some Christians have lined up the three elements with the three aspects of our personhood: body, soul and spirit. Rhythm is the ‘body’ bit; it gets you clapping your hands and tapping your foot. Harmony is the ‘soul’ bit, stirring the emotions by its beauty in a way nothing else can. And melody is the ‘spirit’ bit, reflecting our response to the Holy Spirit of God, who witnesses with our own spirit as we worship.

While it would not be wise to push this correlation too far, it does provide a helpful insight into the way we might better play our music in a worship context.

Is rhythm the dominating feature? If so, how can we moderate it? Is there sufficient melody (tune) for people to be able to grasp it fairly readily and so enter into the song with enthusiasm? Is the song structured in such a way that people with a natural gift for harmonising can add depth and beauty to the singing by doing so in a congregational setting?

Speaking from my experience in churches over many years, I would like to see the domination of rhythm-based instruments reduced. It is lovely, for instance, when someone plays a violin or flute. And it’s great to have a competent, play-by-ear keyboard-player, too, who will do more than simply ape the guitar chords. This is particularly helpful when we sing more traditional hymns and carols, for which guitars are eminently unsuitable.

All this is relevant to singing in tongues or, as it is sometimes called, ‘singing in the Spirit’. In my judgment, and on past experience, guitars should never accompany singing in tongues. By its very nature it is a ‘spirit’ activity—the very last setting where dominant rhythm is appropriate. A sensitive background from a keyboard can be helpful, but more often than not it is far better if all the instruments fall silent and just let the best instruments of all, the voices of God’s people, range free.

[For other blogs on this theme, click Music and Worship under CATEGORIES at the top-right of this post]


Repetition and repertoire

26 February 2018

Series: Observations about the conduct of meetings in the so-called ‘new churches’, from an older person’s perspective — 3.

In the days of hymns, people sang a hymn through once, and that was it. Fair enough, as many hymns had five or six verses, often with a chorus between. Modern Christian songs tend to be shorter, and thus lend themselves to having sections repeated several times. That’s fine, as repetition can drive a point home like nothing else.

worship bandBut repetition, if overdone, has the very opposite effect. It becomes mind-numbing, so that, far from entering more fully into the sentiment being expressed, the congregation is pushed towards either a semi-hypnotic state where meaning goes out of the window, or into crashing boredom. With me it’s always the latter.

Few aspects of music, therefore, need more careful handling than this if we are to get it right. How can we get it right? One obvious step is for the worship-leaders to look and see if the people are actually singing. There has been quite a bit on the web recently about Christian meetings where the congregation have virtually given up singing altogether. Why would that happen?

  1. Because the music has entered ‘performance mode’. This is especially true of mega-church congregations, where the scenario is ‘rock concert’ rather than ‘people at worship’. May we never allow that to happen!
  2. Because even if they sang as loud as they possibly could, they still wouldn’t be able to hear themselves above the high-volume sound pumped out from the sound-system. So they stop competing. The sound system should serve the congregation, not browbeat them into silence.
  3. Because the guitarist-singer is singing in the style of a performer, playing about with timing, cutting bits short, bending notes etc. They are singing, in other words, as if they were on stage, or singing in private. A congregation is made to feel insecure by this and tends to opt out rather than risk singing out ‘wrongly’.
  4. Because some of the songs are virtually unsingable.

This last point leads on to the issue of the repertoire. Speaking for myself, I am increasingly uncomfortable with many of the songs presented for us to sing. The words of some are at best lightweight, and in a few cases dubious in both their theological content and their standard of English. But here I will address a couple of the musical aspects.

  1. A competent songwriter knows the range within which a typical congregation is comfortable. In broad terms that will be within an octave from the D just above Middle C to the D or E above it. It’s possible to include the odd note outside that range, but this should be the exception rather than the rule. Some songs, alas, go so low that many people stop singing. Let’s ditch them.
  2. Many recent songs were originally composed for solo or group singing by Christian musicians and bands that tour around performing. They are fine for that context, and for listening to on mobile devices etc., but most don’t transfer at all well into a public setting. They often include non-intuitive modulations that throw a congregation completely and put them off trying to master the tune, as they quickly come to believe that there isn’t really a tune there to master.

In all this are we, perhaps, neglecting our rich heritage of older hymns and songs? I believe we are. Why, I wonder, is that?

One young Christian who was preparing to speak at a Bible study at his church was asked, ‘What commentaries are you using?’ He replied, ‘Oh, I don’t touch commentaries. I think it’s important to hear what the Holy Spirit is saying to me today about the passage.’ To which another Christian, who had overheard the conversation, commented, ‘Strange, isn’t it, how those who make much of what the Holy Spirit is saying to them have little time for what the same Holy Spirit said about the passage to others?’

The same applies to songs in worship. We have a rich heritage of 2000 years-worth of Christian music and song, and we rob the congregation if we fail to include some of that heritage regularly in our times of singing and worship.

In particular, from the 18th century on there have been some superb examples of Christian songs. True, many of them will have the ‘thees and thous’ typical of that generation, but Christians today are surely robust enough not to let that put them off?

To me it’s very sad that, at some churches, they have two separate services, one ‘traditional’ (with the organ and hymn-books) and the other ‘contemporary’ (with a worship-band and projected words). This is unnecessarily divisive, in my view. Let’s have a good, rich mix.

There’s more to say on all this…in a future post.

[For other blogs on this theme, click Music and Worship under CATEGORIES at the top-right of this post]


Accompanying, leading or driving?

14 February 2018

Series: Observations about the conduct of meetings in the so-called ‘new churches’, from an older person’s perspective — 2.

There’s nothing more embarrassing to the congregation than seeing a worship leader strumming away with their eyes tight closed and thus unaware of someone who has come forward to contribute, or of one of the church leaders who wishes to say something, or is signalling them to stop playing.

guitarIt’s not good enough to say, ‘Sorry, I was lost in worship.’ The answer to that is, ‘Well, you shouldn’t be. Your business is not to ‘lost’ but to be sensitive to the Lord and to other people, not to drive things, but to lead sensitively, and for that you need to be aware of what’s going on around you.’

And, please, leave us some pauses. People who typeset books know the vital importance of ‘white space’. A solid, long paragraph of type puts people off reading, whereas well-spaced, shorter paragraphs with a few millimetres of white space between them enhance readability. It’s the same with music. Constant output wearies people and inhibits their involvement. They tend to shut their eyes, or stop singing, or sit down and adopt an attitude of prayer. What they are really saying by their actions is, ‘Please, let’s have a bit of let-up.’

We need frequent quiet pauses — audible ‘white space’ — where the Holy Spirit can speak in the silence.

Then think, please, whether you are accompanying, leading or driving the ‘worship’. Guitars, by their very nature, have a driving effect; the rhythm impels things along. That’s OK in itself, but it does mean that the musician needs to back off, or at least break the rhythm, from time to time, otherwise ‘drivenness’ becomes the main feature of the music.

Ideally, I believe, musicians and front-singers should fit somewhere between ‘leading’ and ‘accompanying’. As for the first, they are there to set the pace of the song and decide when to move from verse to chorus etc., so that the congregation all know where the song is going. As for the second, the congregation’s singing is just as important as what the musicians are producing, and sometimes it will be appropriate for the musicians to let the flow of a song come from there and fall back into more of an ‘accompaniment’ mode for a while.

Or even to fall silent! We love it when, from time to time in an appropriate song, the musicians stop playing altogether so that we have just the sound of everybody’s voices. And don’t be too quick to come charging back in again with a driving rhythm!

The name of the game? Sensitivity. To God and to the congregation.

[For other blogs on this theme, click Music and Worship under CATEGORIES at the top-right of this post]


Music without ceasing?

12 February 2018

Series: Observations about the conduct of meetings in the so-called ‘new churches’, from an older person’s perspective—1.

Hearing deteriorates as folk get older—as I know from experience: my hearing aids are very powerful ones. One feature of this deterioration is losing the capacity to ‘filter out’ one sound from other, competing sounds, and focus on it .

This means that, if someone is speaking in church—praying, perhaps, or making some connecting comment—and a guitar or keyboard is playing at the same time, it is virtually impossible for many of us to make out what the speaker is saying, as the frequency of the music almost always overrides that of the speaker’s voice.

Worship-teamThat’s why it is immensely off-putting to older folk when music is played in the background all the time during the open time of worship. This has, sadly, become the norm in some churches, but I regard it as an undesirable practice. Not only does it prevent some of us from hearing any simultaneous oral contributions. It also inhibits such contributions from the congregation. Few people are confident enough to chip in while music is being played, especially when they feel they will have to raise their voice higher than is natural for them if they are to be heard above the music. So they keep quiet—and we are the poorer for it.

Music and song do not equal ‘worship’; they are simply one of many expressions of it. When we gather as a church family, our corporate worship consists in, not just the singing, but the prayers, testimonies, prophecies, tongues and interpretation, relevant Scripture passages etc.

Musicians and stage-singers have an unfair advantage here, in that they are in position at the front, with microphones, and can thus inhibit or face down contributions from the floor. For this reason, they need to be mega-sensitive to the presence of the congregation and ideally should stop playing immediately if someone in the congregation begins to pray out loud or whatever.

Some would discourage ‘from the floor’ contributions anyway, favouring the ‘front-led’ approach to meetings. The congregation then become, not participants, but observers. It’s a negative trend, I believe, possibly reflecting an unhealthy desire for control on the part of the leaders. Certainly, it’s hardly ‘family’ anymore; it’s a performance. And, to be honest, I often find it boring—though I always try to keep a positive attitude. You never get bored when there are contributions from the floor. Some of them may be a bit messy but, to me, that’s part of what ‘family’ is all about. It’s real, and I think the Lord loves it!

I know from experience that it’s possible to welcome contributions from the floor with congregations up to about 150 in number, provided the musicians are sensitive and know when to keep quiet. After that, the dynamics change. But I’d argue that, once numbers reach 150, it’s time to split the congregation into two of 75 each anyway, to keep the ‘family’ atmosphere that the New Testament presents as central to the church’s very nature. Small is beautiful!

What do you think?

[For other blogs on this theme, click Music and Worship under CATEGORIES at the top-right of this post]


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