Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Noise and Discipleship, Part 2: Mid-Level and Conversational Sound in Worship


We begin again with the quote from Garret Keizer:

"[Sound amplification destroys intimacy] by drowning out conversation, or else it counterfeits intimacy by making physical proximity irrelevant to social intercourse. This is glaringly at odds with the classic, nearly universal religious tradition of a teacher imparting wisdom to pupils who sit, literally, at his or her feet. Yeshivas can be noisy places, but I have not encountered any anecdotes of rabbis teaching Talmud with megaphones. A religion of microphones and loudspeakers is a religion of leaders and followers, which is not the same thing as a religion of teachers and disciples. The goal of the latter is to raise the disciple to the level of the teacher; the goal of the former is to keep the followers ‘informed,’ and in formation." -- Garret Keizer, The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book about Noise as quoted here

Keizer's major concern appears to be that if sound gets too loud, face to face intimacy is destroyed, and without such intimacy, true religion that transforms people to become like their teachers cannot exist. What will happen in its place is counterfeit community as a shill for uniformity and possibly violent action under despotism.

What we saw in the last post was that such a concern about "Thunderhead Sound," however produced (with or without megaphones!) may be somewhat misplaced. There is a role for it at times, especially if the space is large and the people are numerous. "Thunderhead Sound" can call a genuine community together for good action, warn them decisively against bad action, call particular attention to what is most important at a particular time, and send people forth united in purpose to live as bold and faithful servants of God to their neighbors.

But what about midrange sound-- sound that is neither very loud nor so quiet as to be nearly silent? How does that play out is the historic patterns of Christian worship? And how does it play out in worship where you are?

Let me first make a general observation about worship I have observed over the years in many places and cultures in The United Methodist Church. By and large, with a few notable exceptions (discussed later), worship in our churches and in the church historically only rarely hits an actual conversational volume, tone or cadence. The sound level at worship generally isn't like that of talking with your neighbor. It's almost always pitched at least a level or two louder than that. 

When we lead a call to worship, the sound may not be Thunderhead, but it is acclamatory. Something is being announced to everyone and everyone responds. A similar level of voice is (or probably should be!) used for the reading of the scriptures. If one tries to read them at a conversational tone or volume in a large enough space with enough people, even with amplification, it will be nearly impossible for the congregation to make out what is being read. The same can be said for leading prayer, including the prayers at Holy Communion and Baptism. All of these call for a kind of raised level of voice, perhaps not booming, but not really conversational, either.

And despite what some may say to the contrary, even much contemporary preaching, even if it has taken on a more conversational or informal kind of vocabulary, is still performed at a higher volume than one would expect to find in any actual conversation. And the same can be said for interactive preaching-- both the preacher and those who respond individually still tend to speak more loudly than if they were talking with one or a few people around a table or in the parking lot. (But of course, parking lot conversations can sometimes get loud, too!).

Bring in a decibel meter sometime and measure it. I'm pretty sure you'll find that, again in most (if not all) instances, worship is not conversational in volume

But there are two places, historically, where it may be: the peace and the giving of the body and blood of Christ at communion.

At the peace, we say to those with whom we seek reconciliation, and to others around us, "The peace of Christ be always with you," or, more simply, "The Peace of Christ" or even "Peace." We reach hands to shake, or arms to hug. This is person to person intimacy in the body. Perhaps this is one of the most significant ways in which we embody the teaching of Christ as his disciples. So maybe this is why, across many cultures and centuries, the peace has persisted as conversational. 

And as we receive the body and the blood, someone says to us, again most often in a conversational tone and volume of voice, or maybe just a bit quieter, "The body of Christ, given for you", "The blood of Christ, poured out for you." And we reply, matching tone and volume, "Amen" or "Thanks be to God." As before we shared Christ's peace with one another, speaking conversationally, here we recognize that Christ shares himself with us, speaking conversationally. 

These are about the only times we actually speak conversationally in worship. 

Perhaps that is because these two moments are the conversations in worship that matter most!

For Further Discussion

How does the mid-range of sound play out in worship where you are? 

What is conversational, and what is pitched just above the conversational level? 

And what do these perhaps small, but significant, variances of the mid-range of sound in worship mean and enact where you are?

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards

Image Credit: The Lord's Prayer by James Tissot, late 19th century. Public Domain.



  1. I believe sound is a critical aspect of our corporate worship experience. Churches settle for poorly trained, unattentive volunteers or staff. My worst worship experiences relate to poor sound (and not so much a volume issue).

    I was on a retreat where the worship leader was leading a guided prayer from the back of the room. A single light focusing on the cross up ahead, We'd all been brought into a meditative moment, some eyes closed, some focused on the cross, all of us lost in the moment...when suddenly a loud pop occurred with lots of crackling noises to follow for what seemed like minutes as someone was trying to place a lapel mic on the next speaker. That to me is more distracting than a little too much volume.

    The other distracting things aside from poorly EQ'd boards that cause annoying echos or liturgists who couldn't be understood. There are mic's that fail or aren't un-muted when the pastor or speaker begins to speak. Was the sound tech not wise enough to change a battery between services or alert enough to see what was happening. I've missed many moments (were they significant? who knows) in worship because I was distracted by the mic that wasn't working.

    Sound whether loud or conversational needs to be appropriately set so nothing is lost in the translation of the most important message and sometimes that message is in a song, a skit, and even silence.

    And the key to all this is an adequately trained, high-performing sound tech. Someone who cares about the quality of sound.

    So instead of guessing whether a battery can last two services, change the battery and be sure the second service receives the same quality message as the first. Rehearse/plan mic exchanges, sound check each person speaking so they are comfortable with the sound person controlling the volume instead of them trying to control it themselves by backing off and not being heard at all, instructing scripture readers, etc. appropriate mic placement so the mic isn't pointed at their forehead or neck, etc.

    But again, this would take time, planning, and commitment not just on the part of the sound tech but anyone involved with worship. We can't ask more of people can we??

    Let's just say sound is more than a discussion about volume levels. This should be more about noise (any sound that is undesired or interferes with one's hearing of something, an unwanted signal or a disturbance.)

  2. Dear anonymous...

    Interested in turning this into an article on the blog?

    I think your concern and advice are both spot on.

    Thanks for sharing!

    Peace in Christ,