Not too long ago, a fellow sound guy and fellow Christian confronted me with this statement: “While it is important that the congregation hears and understands the spoken word, our job really isn’t critical to the worship experience,” he said. “If we are really worshipping, then our musicians perform only for an audience of one. And He can hear the music even without a sound system at all.” He went on to say that elaborate sound systems could actually be an obstacle to worship, transforming our pure gift of worship into a concert – a performance for the entertainment of a human audience. The church sound man’s job, he concluded, was to make sure that the lyrics of the songs and the pastor’s message could be clearly understood, and to prevent annoying feedback during the worship services. This could be accomplished without ever exceeding 75 dB SPL, he said.
In a sense, he was right, I suppose. I never thought of this before, but God doesn’t need a P.A. system to be worshipped. David, one of the greatest worshippers in history, a man after God’s own heart, didn’t have the aid of any electronics. His songs were a very personal interaction with God. If David didn’t need it, do we?
Now I’ve been behind sound boards for a long time. I mixed my first band when I was 11. I’ve spent a great deal of time and energy studying the art of audio engineering, so the suggestion that all I really needed to know how to do was turn the gear on was downright insulting to me. Surely he must be missing something. Is the church audio engineer’s job an unimportant one? The answer is a definitive no.
I got to thinking about his statement. If God doesn’t need a P.A., what other non-essentials could we throw out? If the lyrics are the only important thing, we could get rid of all of the instruments. Maybe we could get rid of the video screens (or hymnals). Surely God knows the words to all of the songs. Come to think of it, there is really no need for musicians, either. We could just “think” the music and God would hear it just the same. You can see where this logic leads when taken to its absurd extremes.
It seems that a great many of us, consciously or not, agree with the fellow above. We show up minutes before the service starts, quickly check the wireless mics, and “zone out” for the rest of the morning, throwing the fundamentals of audio out the window. Others take it to the opposite extreme. They are very meticulous about their mixes. They consider themselves “experts” in the realm of sound and eventually, church becomes a “gig.” The mixes sound great, the dB levels soar, and they leave each week feeling like they’ve just mixed Aerosmith.
Both scenarios point out a very fundamental problem; our calling is not mundane. The “techie” mentality is one of the biggest problems facing worship engineers today. It is our privilege to come before the God of creation week after week and make music to Him. That calling is one that demands our attention and trumps any mixing experience. What’s more, we are called to excellence. Is it acceptable for drummers to play out of time or for guitarists to play out of tune? What about a singer who never bothered to learn the lyrics of the song he or she is singing? Why then, is it acceptable for our mixes to be muddy or uninteresting?
God calls his artists to “play skillfully, and with a loud noise (Ps 33:3).” If you run the sound board, it is your responsibility to study your craft. This magazine is one great resource for that. Another is Curt Taipale’s web site (http://www.churchsoundcheck.com). Seek those who have been at it longer than you have, and ask questions. Most of all, practice every chance you get. When your musicians rehearse, ask if you can be there with them. Volunteer your time with the youth band or at the local civic theater. Do whatever you can to get your hands on the faders as often as possible.
Don’t be a lone ranger. Every church should have at least two people on the sound team, if for no other reason than to allow one to worship in the congregation while the other worships at the board. Be sensitive to each other during worship. Whoever runs sound is essentially tied to the board. Tag-teaming during the service allows both of you can take communion, give in the offering, etc. without ever leaving the console unmanned.
We are called to be worshippers FIRST, and audio engineers second. The greatest tragedy for any worshipper is to forget why we worship, to lose sight of who the songs were written for. You can greatly enhance the worship experience, or be a distraction. Nothing pulls the congregation out of worship faster than unexpected feedback or a mixed cue. We have to be attentive, but we can’t be oblivious to what God is doing around us.
Just like the worship leader, drummer, or guitarist, we are called to be a critical (albeit “behind-the-scenes”) part of the worship team. Our instrument is the console; the faders are our strings. We minister through our craft. We simply can’t afford to treat it lightly. Before the service, bathe your work in prayer. Make it a regular part of your sound check. During the service, don’t disengage from what God is doing. Remain active in worship even when you are mixing. We are called to excellence, and we are called to worship. Be a worshipper, and don’t be surprised if the sound improves, too.