Loud Music in Anchorage Churches: The Problem

I’m seeing a disturbing trend in some Anchorage churches. They dish out sound at potentially ear damaging levels. In most cases the music in question is contemporary Christian or Christian Rock. Some musicians even quote scripture in defense of this practice, and put down worshipers who object.

At one recent service I attended, the worship leader stated that their sound levels were consciously set loud, exactly where they wanted them. He further bluntly suggested that if you didn’t like it, you should choose another congregation. What a charitable statement to any seeker after truth – Our way or the hiway!

At another church visit, toddlers were seen dancing around in the front of the auditorium holding their fingers to their ears to stop the harshness of the sound, while their parents sat feet away not seeming to know their children’s hearing was being damaged in front of their eyes.

During my church visits, I have electronically measured music levels, and found startlingly high levels of 105-110 decibels during worship services, for extended periods. Professional sound engineers note that music at these levels can damage sensitive ears in minutes. Some churches defend this practice as they are seeker-oriented, i.e. attracting newbie’s who, they say, demand a more contemporary sound like they get on the radios in their cars. Others say it is more in step with the times than the boring old hymns, choirs, and organs of the past. Regardless of the argument, professional sound engineers state that 80 decibels should be the maximum music volume during the service and that the remainder of the service should ideally be at 65-70 decibels.

In addition to the potentially permanent ear damaging sound levels being heard in some churches, studies show that these high sound levels introduce unhealthy effects. Professional sound engineer Leon Sievers recommends the following sound levels for churches.

“I recommend operating your church sound system at no more than 80dB peak during worship and averaging 65-70dB during the service. Sound Pressure Levels, which exceed these parameters, will cause ear fatigue, loss of concentration and potential hearing damage.” Sievers further observed “The National Association for Hearing and Speech Action (NAHSA) also reports that exposure to 85 dB or more for any length of time is potentially dangerous.“ Click HERE to read his entire report HOW LOUD IS YOUR CHURCH?

If people come to church to worship and learn more about spiritual matters, why would a church encourage a practice which actually lessens concentration? Studies are beginning to emerge regarding people’s inability to concentrate after being exposed to loud music, even in church.

John Stackhouse, a theology professor at Regent University – Vancouver, BC offers some great advice in a Christianity Today article titled “Memo to Worship Bands: Five sound reasons to lower the volume”.

First, I know it’s breaking the performer’s code to say so (the way magicians are never supposed to reveal a secret), but cranking up the volume is just a cheap trick to add energy to a room.

Second, when your intonation is not very good—and let’s face it, most singers and instrumentalists are not anywhere close to being in perfect tune—turning it up only makes it hurt worse.

Third, the speakers in most church PA systems cannot take that much energy through their small, old magnets and cones, especially from piano, bass, and kick drum. So we are being pounded with high-powered fluffing and sputtering—which do not induce praise.

Fourth, consider that you might be marginalizing older people, most of whom probably do not like Guns N’ Roses volumes at church.

Fifth, let me drop some church history and theology on you. By the time church music matured into Palestrina and Co. in the 16th century, it had become too demanding and ornate for ordinary singers. So Christians went to church to listen to a priest and a choir.

The Protestant Reformation yanked musical worship away from the professionals and put it back in the pews. Luther composed hymns based on popular melodies, including drinking songs. Calvin insisted on taking lyrics from the Psalms. This was music in which almost anyone could participate. The problem today, to be sure, is rarely elaborate music. We could use a little more artistry, in fact, than we usually get with the simplistic and repetitive musical figures of many contemporary worship songs. No, the contrast with the Reformation is the modern-day insistence that a few people at the front be the center of attention. We do it by making six band members louder than a room full of people. But a church service isn’t a concert at which an audience sings along with the real performers. Musicians—every one of them, including the singers—are accompanists to the congregation’s praise. They should be mixed loudly enough only to do their job of leading and supporting the congregation.

Now, I like Palestrina and I like good Christian rock. So, church musicians, if you want to perform a fine song that requires advanced musicianship, by all means do it. We will listen and pray and enjoy it to the glory of God.

But when you are leading us in singing, then lead us in singing. And turn it down so we are not listening to you—or, even worse, merely enduring you. I know that is not what you want to happen. But I am telling you that’s what is happening.

It’s not my intent to point out or embarrass any church in Anchorage, but I’m firmly convinced many “loud music church” members have allowed their leaders and musicians to make decisions about musical loudness that potentially fosters hearing loss and impairs concentration. I can’t believe either of these exemplifies Christian virtues. If lawsuits for hearing damage begin cropping up, it’s possible church leaders finally might start taking this issue seriously.

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