Thursday, June 23, 2011

Faith Works 6-25

Faith Works 6-25-11

Jeff Gill


Let the Whole World Sing



Just to catch up anyone who is just joining us: hard though it may be to believe, but not that long ago, if you couldn't speak with enough volume & projection to be heard in the back row of a large, high-ceilinged room, you had no future as a preacher.


Or a politican, for that matter.


The flip side is that a smart, thoughtful person with a soft voice might not be heard in more ways than one, and that a buffoon with leather lungs could have a career on the stump or in the pulpit.


Public address systems didn't start getting used by national figures until 1914, Warren Harding got it really going as President in the 20's, and Aimee Semple McPherson was a pioneer woman preacher in 1923 California in no small part because she had both radio and microphones in her Angelus Temple.


For the average congregation in the Midwest, though, in a 60 by 40 foot sanctuary with a 20 foot ceiling, the bias towards "elocution" as a job skill for preachers still held through World War II. In the 1950s, small PA systems became affordable, and then they became necessary (all those returning vets who stood near 16 inch guns going off might have had something to do with it, too).


Organs, both pipe and electric, have their roots in the preamplification age, because it was the accessible technology that got notes "broadcast" enough for all to hear and occasionally join in through a vast, cavernous, stony space. Early Lutheran churches in Europe and Anglican cathedrals in England were where the technology of full-size pipe organs really took off, because that's where congregational singing and lay choirs began to be central to Christian worship (hat tip, choirmaster Johann Sebastian B.).


Now we think of pipe organs as quaint, and technology means praise bands, or worship teams, or whatever you call them. Yes, I know, some call them the Devil's spawn, others say the high point of their week.


Modern sound technology means volume is now no problem, for speakers or music alike, correct?


Ah, but no. Now our problem is: how loud should it be?


A small footnote – I have the pleasure of preaching tomorrow morning, 10:45 am, at the Church in the Mall. You don't get much more contemporary than a church in one of the frontages inside Indian Mound Mall, and they do, indeed, have a rockin' praise band with a full playlist of Christian contemporary music (often known as CCM for short).


The truth is, I'm a fairly half-hearted fan of CCM. It's OK, but left to my own devices (you can go to Pandora and click Sycamore Lodge Broadcasting if you doubt me), I'm more of a Mahler and Rachmaninoff and Carlos Nakai kind of guy, with the stray Jars of Clay or Third Day tune mixed in.


My point being that CCM is not something I welcome because of my own tastes, but because I see who is responding, and it's the younger adults who have been so long absent from Sunday worship. Unchurched or dechurched folk who don't actually hate hymnbooks, either, but find that dirge-y tunes sung slowly just accent their already alienated sense of what "church" means to them.


CCM is a tool, and will no doubt be dated and quaint (and held onto past its sell-by date) in a few more decades. As a tool today, it's working quite well in certain settings.


But how loud should it be? Some point out, with some accuracy, that the "live your life with earbuds implanted" generation may expect a volume level somewhere around Nigel's infamous "turn it up to 11 on the dial." I know I once spent a long night ten feet from a wall of speakers for Marshall Tucker Band and the Outlaws that probably took a whole range off my hearing, and would hope for younger listeners that they realize that making your ears bleed today can lead to decades of "say what? I can't hear you!" down the line.


What contemporary worship does need, in my not so humble opinion (IMNSHO for you Twitter fans out there), is actually more diversity. We need bluegrass worship services, acoustic worship services, and yes, techno-rave services even if I may not be a good choice to preach for them.


But in general, I hope worship leaders & sound techs alike keep one thing in mind: if you can't hear the person you're standing next to sing, at least a bit, it's too loud.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; yell a question to him over the music at or follow Knapsack @Twitter.

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