Sunday, June 26, 2011

"Sensible" Worship - Now Hear This

This is the second installment in a series on worship that is sensible, which, according to the dictionary means “perceptible to the senses or to reason or understanding.” When applied to worship, both meanings work.

Not only should worship make sense, be logical in order to be theological, it is also sensible in the other meaning: “perceptible to the senses.”


When we enter the place of worship, assuming no audial disability to the contrary, our sense of hearing is alert and in play, and what and how we hear is of great importance.

The primary audial impact on worship comes in the form of music. Nothing establishes or maintains the quality of worship more than the instrumental and vocal music. It is not an overstatement to suggest that the one directing the music in a given service, organist and/or choir director, is “presiding” when music is sounding.

There’s nothing like music to set the mood for any occasion, and it’s as true as can be for a service of worship. The prelude communicates at an emotional level, sometimes very subtly, but it always establishes the tone for the service. What people hear on first entering the worship space has a considerable effect on how they embrace what is to come.

All the more reason for leaders and planners to give a close listen to “praise music” so often used as a preamble to worship. Thin theological content and simplistic tune of music in this category do not compare to the content and memorable melodies of hymns of the church which have stood the test of time. If a “sing-along” prelude is required, rehearsing new hymns works much better.

A major purpose of the instrumental and vocal music presented by organist, other instrumentalists and choir, is to support the music created by the congregation. There have been those times, however, when I’ve known organists to get carried away with the power of their instruments and overwhelm the people in the pews. Bands with drums can be just as aurally dominating. The folks in the congregation ought to be able to hear their own voices singing, and those of their immediate neighbors, at the very least. Best of all, they should be conscious of being parts of a singing assembly.

The matter of electronic amplification systems prompts a similar concern. Folks in the pews have a wide range of hearing ability, and care should be given to keep tone and volume within acceptable ranges. Those who have difficulty hearing should be provided with special seating or some electronic system to reinforce spoken and musical sound.

Many of our churches, especially the older ones, were designed and built in the days before electronic amplification was a possibility. It was expected, for example, that the preacher would bellow sufficiently to be heard by everyone. The architecture of the room was shaped to accentuate the volume. I have preached in a number of churches where someone failed to flip on the PA system, or it crackled and was turned off, and I felt relieved that I didn’t have to adjust myself to the amplifier, but could give the sermon in full voice. If you’re ever in Boston, make a visit to the Trinity Episcopal Church on Copley Square—the great preacher Phillips Brooks held forth there without benefit of microphone, and, according to church records, was heard by those standing out on the front steps. Difficult to imagine, but it was done. It can still be done in many places.

Worship services come with other unintended sounds: the rustle of people settling in their places, whispered conversations, the fidgeting of children, the crinkling of worship aids, and so forth. They may be unintended, but they are unavoidable, and are accepted and recognized as signs of the gathering of God’s people.

What is important for you to hear in worship? Does your church have a PA system that enhances and supports sound? Do you ever worship without electronic sound enhancement?

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