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The Psychology of Volume in Worship

I have noticed a shift that has taken place musically over the past 30 years, which greatly affects us as worshippers — since it affects us as worshippers, it greatly affects us as worship leaders.  I can’t speak for every church and every denomination, however I feel confident this affects most churches that have a “contemporary” style of music.

So, let me tell you my observation and then I will try to back it up with some examples.  The volume music is played at can have a direct result in how engaged a congregation is in worship.  

I’m cringing even as I type that.  Volume shouldn’t have anything to do with how engaged we are in worshipping the One who gave His life for us.  However, in my experience, for this generation it does.

My Experiences

About 8 years ago my wife and I were visiting a fairly large church (in people and building size).  We were singing the songs trying to engage in worship.  The worship leader started to lead a song I was pretty familiar with and really loved so I began to sing the song loudly.  Just then the worship leader began “making the song his own” — he zigged when I zagged.  I ending up singing the wrong notes pretty loud, embarrassing myself.  Instantly, I reduced my volume and looked around to see who noticed my wrong notes.  It was in that service I realized a few things:

  1. I, like so many, get embarrassed when I sound awful in front of people
  2. Because the volume in the church was low and everyone could hear me, I began to sing softer
  3. Because I’m not the only one who does 1 & 2, the entire congregation was singing softer
  4. As a result of singing softer, I was more passive and less engaged

Let me give you another example.  I was talking with a friend (who is in his 20s) who recently started attending a new church.  He was telling me what he enjoyed about his new church home.  One of his comments was, “I love that the music is loud enough that no one can hear me singing.”  I found that comment fascinating and began to ponder it in light of my own experiences.  

When there is no fear of embarrassment, people tend to sing louder.  When people sing louder, in many cases, they become more actively engaged in worship.

I want to be clear that I’m not saying the music has to be loud in order to worship through singing; volume is not the issue.  The bigger issue is how this generation is connecting with God. I believe there is something in us that wants to sing with all our might (no matter the volume of the music), and when we are not able to do that, we become more passive as worshippers.  

My Theory

What has happened in the last 30 years for this culture shift to take place?  

I believe we have become a less musically educated society.  My parents’ generation grew up with music in school.  Everyone had some, even if minimal, exposure to music and therefore a certain comfortableness with it.  In addition, every church had a choir.  In choir, people learn how to sing and exercise their vocal muscles.  They become more confident with their voice.  Music education and choirs can contribute to raising the overall musicality of a congregation.  As the musicality is raised, the congregation is not as self-conscious concerning their individual voices.

Another contributing factor is the number of songs a congregation has to learn and on top of that the different arrangements played from one community to another. I love that there was an explosion of new worship music in the 90’s and 2000’s.  I love that it’s accessible and there is a wider range of styles within the genre.  However, one advantage to singing out of a hymnal was the commonality of the melody and arrangement of the song, which leads to a familiarity for the worshipper to sing out confidently.

My Conclusions

I believe it’s important to change with culture, where it doesn’t contradict sound doctrine.  When I was younger, volume didn’t play the same role as it does now.  We also did not have the same kind of stage lighting (or any stage lighting) and I didn’t hear a guitar solo in church until I was in high school.  But things have changed.  And they will change again.  And again after that.  

I’m a worship leader, I don’t care about volume, lights or guitar solos.  Well, OK…I care a little, but my number one priority as a worship leader is to help my congregation engage in worship.  If turning the volume up helps them sing with all their hearts, thereby helping them engage in worship, that’s all I really care about.

This article is not intended to be the bible on this subject.  I merely want to continue the discussion of how we are loving each other across generational lines.  I recognize there are other and deeper discussions that could be had regarding this topic (and related topics, such as how have performance/concert attributes, that have snuck into to congregational worship, affected the Church).  I encourage you to start your own discussions within your community.

In addition, you’ll notice I have not mentioned specifics, such as DB levels.  What’s right for one community may not be right for another.  Do some research.  Test things out.  Pray for wisdom.  God will help you come to the right conclusion for your congregation.

 

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Comments (21)

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    Jim D'Arcy

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    The other side of the coin is that if the volume is too loud and I can’t hear myself or fellow worshipers singing, why bother? Maybe it depends on the musical ability and confidence in one’s singing. It does seem as if some of our most worshipful moments in our services are experienced when singing acappella.

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      Kevin

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      I agree with you…a cappella moments are beautiful. I think this generation would agree too. However they are also attracted to loud, passionate, and authentic moments of worship. I believe as leaders we need to find a way to lead this generation or they’ll just leave our churches for churches who give them a voice. It’s all about balance (and lots of love)!

      Reply

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    Ella

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    I’m a classically-trained singer and conductor. However, much of my church music experience and performance during the last 15 years has been mostly contemporary Christian music. I totally agree that the congregation needs to feel they can openly sing their praises to God without fearing embarrassment, especially if they are not a “singer.” They should be able to sing with all their might! (It might be interesting to note that those of us who can sing would like to be able to slightly hear ourselves so that we can blend and harmonize which enhances our praise experience.) In my opinion, the real problem is with the whole acoustical set-up of the worship space. This includes the quality of the sound system, the talent of the sound people, the room acoustics, etc. I have worshiped in huge sanctuaries where all of those things were excellent. They can have their sound very loud and one can both hear their own voice a little as they blend into a well balanced acoustical setting. On the other hand, I have worshiped in a very poor acoustical space, with very inexpensive equipment and mediocre sound people, and the music seems so loud one cannot concentrate on their connection with God. I also agree with you about worship leaders making a song “their own.” I feel the worship leader needs to sing a recognizable melody (one that is reasonably close to the one congregants are listening to on the radio) so those in the congregation won’t feel like they are making a mistake. If they start listening to the music and their own voice, all worship will stop.

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      Kevin

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      Well said…excellent point about the acoustics. And a bad mix can make a soft volume harsh to the ears.

      Reply

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    Keith

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    We have a multi-generational church and I am in my mid 50’s and I sometimes even lead worship in my church. When I am leading or participating I observe the congregation and have found the opposite true, when the worship band is too loud those who can sing (mostly older who are trained), do not and you can see the pain on their faces as the volume is painful to the ears. Also I find when you can still hear the congregation singing people sing out more because they can hear their neighbor singing. People who are not trained normally follow someone near them. Lastly if the music is concert level, it goes from worship to performance and the congregation is more of an audience. Just my observations from my local church.

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      Kevin

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      Great point. I think every church leadership needs to decide what’s right for them. I will sometimes attend a local church that is much more youthful than my own and the volume is a lot louder than what I’m used to. It works for them. That wouldn’t work at my church. At the end of the day, all I’m hoping for is inclusiveness with every generation and for my church to be engaged in worship…I’m sure you feel the same way!

      Reply

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    Kristen

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    I agree with this to a point….but I have also found that people are encouraged by hearing each other sing, and they can’t hear each other with music that is super loud. So I try to go for songs that are very singable so they feel good about what they are singing…I ask my praise team vocalists to not “zig and zag” unless it is a solo piece….so that everyone is learning the same tune. We also teach the songs to the congregation so that they are more encouraged to join in and sing boldly, and we repeat songs often to help them get engrained 🙂 All that said, I think it varies from congregation to congregation, and I think it’s great that you are in tune with your fellowship in such a way that you notice that the volume helps their engagement in worship. So much of a church’s tradition and culture plays into how the overall volume affects their singing. I have had folks say to me “I finally stopped singing because I couldn’t hear anyone else or myself.” I think each body of believers is going to respond differently, which is what makes our diversity so beautiful : )

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      Kevin

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      Sounds like you are on the right track with your church. Those are great techniques to help your church engage in worship. One of the best pieces of advice I ever receive was from an 80 year old organ player at my first church. She said, “Kevin…you should think about playing the new songs 3 Sundays in a row so we can learn them better.” It was very sweet. I took her advice and have done it that way ever since.

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    Heather

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    Kevin, I don’t agree about the loudness levels — I know, from the audiologists’ viewpoing, that there SHOULD be a level where the sound doesn’t go above. That’s because of HEARING DAMAGE. Yes. you heard me right (did you????). Hearing damage. I have it and it is NOT fun. I have tinnitus (ringing in the ears) which is nearly 100% constant, it changes but never goes completely away, there are times when I am more aware of it than not. That is coupled with a mild-to-moderate loss in the mid frequency levels, which makes it very difficult to understand in moderate noise environments — for example, a room where others are talking at normal volume.

    People bring children into church services and I agree, that they SHOULD be there, at least for the communal worship time, and not shunted off to some nursery or children’s church for the entirety of the service as is the practice in some mega churches. That’s how they learn to be part of the body, and how they should act during a service! Now, children’s hearing is much more sensitive and loudness can cause discomfort and/or pain, and parents may not recognise it! Repeated exposure can and will cause hearing loss.

    My son is involved as the music director in a church that seems to have partially recognised they are too loud. But instead of turning it down to a more reasonable level (SPL db levels peaking around 92 db), they’ve got a permanently installed Plexiglas bin at the back filled with those disposable foam ear plugs. They, like you have some sort of spiritual reasoning by this but I tell you it is too loud. (I measured roughly on an iphone app spl-db meter, ranging from 90 to 105 db consistently during the worship time.)

    If you have to raise your voice to even hear yourself singing it is TOO LOUD. If you have to raise your voice to make your neighbor understand your speech, it is TOO LOUD.

    Back in the day of the hard rockers, the managers of Grand Funk Railroad found that if they turned up the sound, the concert goers had a physical response — by the end of the concert, they were in a state of euphoria which wasn’t drug induced — it was SOUND induced. Studies since then have found this to be the case, and it’s only recently that neurologists have begun to study this effect, but make no mistake, there IS a physiological link between the loudness of the music and the state of mind of the listeners/participants. Here’s an article that discusses this: http://www.blesser.net/downloads/eContact%20Loud%20Music.pdf

    So my question to you is this: Do you want to physically induce an artificial change into your congregation by turning up the sound or do you want to have the people worship via a process of first, submission to God, through prayer, and worship God in spirit and in truth?

    Here’s an article that has spurred me to question the sound levels in many churches today: http://www.churchsoundcheck.com/how-loud-is-too-loud.html

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      Kevin

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      That’s an interesting article…thanks for sharing. I would agree would you that there is a limit to what is safe for our ears. The real point of my article is how we help shepherd the upcoming generation of leaders into their eventual leadership role in the church. They must have a voice in the church if the church will be healthy and vibrant. I’m sure on that point we agree. 🙂

      Reply

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    Tom Waldron

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    I was sure your article was about lowering volume, not raising it – worship is wonderful when you can hear the people singing. For new songs, or certain songs that are written to be loud celebrations, just hearing the band & their volcals is fine. But, on well known songs, once they are started, I often back-away from the mic & let the congregation lead themselves – not going totally silent, but worshiping as one of them. – going back to the mic just for changes & the ending. There’s a time for every volume under heaven… Thanks for starting the conversation.

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      Kevin

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      Tom,

      That’s a great technique for leading a congregation. Thanks for sharing it!

      Reply

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    Doug Edwards

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    I agree that we need to help our culture open up to God which certainly includes volume. I would add though, if our church music leaders are not helping new generations learn how to sing…we are doing them a great disservice. I am a senior pastor who has actively worked with music development in the lives of God’s people for over 25 years and will continue to do so as long as I have breath.

    Thank you for sharing your journey.

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      Kevin

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      Hey Doug,

      That’s awesome…can you give us some examples of how you help your congregations to learn how to sing?

      Reply

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    johnandes

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    I think that the familiarity of the music is very important. The worship leader needs to sing the song in such a way that makes it easy for the congregation to become familiar and follow along. The Key is important too. Fast energetic songs can be as bit louder but during the slower worship songs less instruments or accopella can bring out the congregation for a powerful & beautiful experience. I love to tone it down and hear the congregation sing. My experience has been that they sometimes sing louder in those moments! Hmm?

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      Kevin

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      Yes…well said. In all that we do as worship leaders it’s important to remember we are not leading ourselves in worship. We are leading our friends and family, the community God has assigned us to. As we remember them with love it will help us make the right decisions.

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    John Robson

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    I have played on Worship teams and have ran the sound board for 40 years. Yes the volume level has to be loud enough to keep people engaged and so people can sing with worrying about how they sound. I have found that a level of around 95 DB does the job. Also I feel that in the corporate worship setting the leader needs to keep to the song since the words are projected on a screen. If the setting was concert are the leader wanted change the song that would be OK .

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    Don Skidmore

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    I totally disagree. I have been in youth ministry for a long time and have in the past couple years seen a shift in EXACTLY the opposite direction. After years of average volume for youth ministry (which was a bit louder than typical contemporary style adult worship) I began to notice for the first time a generation of teens that seemed to be disengaging. I pondered this and felt it was possible that the teens were not singing because it felt plastic and too much like a concert. What do people often do at a concert. They feel free to simply watch. We trued an unplugged set the next week and the teens sang out a lot more. We began to experiment and what we found is that through concert style worship experience we have inadvertently killed congregational singing in some places. Ironically, while our adult service has finally caught up with teens and turned up the volume even louder than we used to have it… We in the youth ministry have begun to search for something more meaningful and are finding it in lowering the volume of the stage so that the voices of the people can be heard. IT IS AWESOME! It takes a bit of work to do this. We had been doing it loud for so many years that we found it took some real effort to find the right balance tweaked lower. Even though we were all on the same page and working together we found old habits die hard. Not only did we constantly have to FOCUS on the goal and keep dropping it in purposeful ways as sound techs and band members… at the same time we had to teach the teens that their voices were the most important voices in the room and that as we made room for their voices by stepping our full band back in volume we needed them to sing out. We taught the that the reason we even have a band and tech is for the purpose of lifting their voices up (as opposed to covering their voices over like they did not matter- at all.) We challenged them that life is a musical. Angels sing at key events in history… we humans sing at key events in out lives… God sings….. and we wanted our youth ministry to be a place we we all make this beautiful music to God together… and their voice is the most beautiful aspect of the sound coming from the room. I told them that our worship leader would begin to work with them like he has with the instruments… he will need to learn to direct them… to make room for them and then to tease them out. We decided to try a change at summer camp. We put the band in the center of the room toward the back of the crowd, put a cross on the stage, and had the teens around the band … all facing forward. We lowered the volume. It worked. I was worried about a few kids who never really engaged when the music was loud. i feared they would engage even less with lower volume. I was thrilled to hear on one them say (unsolicited) “I can sing better than i thought.” There was a time during this huge shift that i doubted myself. During a time of worship I knelt to pray, asking God if I was on the wrong path. At that very moment I heard a little middle schooler singing in the row in front of me. Her voice was beautiful. It was touching to hear her song. i realized that under the old way of doing things nobody would have heard her voice. My mind was made up. Since then I ask now and then if the teens think what we are creating together is beautiful, if they like hearing it like I do. They do. We are still struggling at times. When the band begins to drift too loud i ask them to do an acoustic set for a few nights so we can get our focus back. We have learned several things about worship environments while trying this approach. One thing I already knew was that it is false to say people will not sing if they can hear themselves. Some may be that way, but after all there are some who will not sing no matter what we do. It is a mistake to destroy the beauty of congregational singing because some will never grow into it. We do not cut sermons to 15 minutes because some people would like it. Looking back over the many years of creating worship environments for teens I have some very fond moments…. you know, those moments when a room full of teens are singing so beautifully that I did not know whether to sing along or listen to the beauty. It was like angels singing. It was hauntingly beautiful. In many of the highlight moments over decades of doing this… it occurred to me that many of the best were times when for one reason or another the volume of the band was limited but the sound of the singers were not. i think we have a misconception that it does not matter if the people can be heard because we are singing to God , not to man. I am not so such God strains out all the stage noise to hear a little blond middle schooler on the third row. the angels cannot do that. people, cannot be moved by what they do not hear. Sinner and saint alike are missing out on something so amazingly beautiful when 80% of the sound coming out of the room is only the stage, the band. I tell my team if i ever say “”The band sounded great tonight” … it is NOT a compliment. We failed. Our job is to create space where we lift up the voices of the people we lead. that does not mean we sing loud and trust they are following and mainly know it if mouths are moving. When i stand in a service and can only hear my own voice (not anyone seated around me) I feel less inclined to sing. My voice does not really matter. The band is singing for me. I may as well just listen. No one can really hear my voice…. I want to be a part of making beautiful music together… and the sound coming up from us is US. All of us… together. if we cannot do that… let us be silent. I am tired of feeling like i am singing alone, in some bubble. i LOVE singing with the teens…. it is beautiful. I think we are on to something, ahead of the game… tinkering with what is NEXT. We added a violin and make room for it to be HEARD…. adding texture as other band members make room…. Ironically, just as we are beginning to find something more organic and together, and in the round… some churches are just now finally getting their turn to have rock concert worship. A friend said he always loved the singing at a little church he visits when he cannot make the drive to our large church. He said last month they got a worship band. there…. and guess what. he can’t hear the people singing anymore.

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      Kevin West

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      Don,

      I love the way you are shepherding your group. It sounds like you are putting a lot of thought and prayer into helping your kids lean into what worship is and honoring God.

      I agree with you that we have to be very careful with the “concert” style of worship we are experience right now in many churches and conferences. I also agree that a volume that is too loud could do that opposite of what I’m proposing in this blog and could very well keep people from leaning into God. However, I do think if you swing the pendulum in the opposite direction you would end up with my experience in my first example. Engagement is really what we are after, as people who are leading groups in worship. That’s why I commend you for reading your group and making adjustments.

      One area I would caution you is when you say that if you ever tell the band you sounded great it’s not a compliment. I appreciate your sentiment, but again be careful of swinging your pendulum the other direction. “Singing worship” is not more honoring to God than “playing instrument worship”.

      Last week at our church we had a guest speaker. When she got up to welcome the congregation the first thing she mentioned was how the drummer was worshiping as he was playing and how inspiring it was to her in worship. The Bible talks a lot about praising God with instruments (Psalm 150 being a great example of this). I wouldn’t want you to inadvertently be teaching your worship team that their playing isn’t worship to God. I’m sure you know this…just want to encourage you with it as an outsider to your group.

      Keep up the good job!

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