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Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Elephant in the Room in Worship: Sinning While We Worship?

Recently, I was listening to some worship music while driving on the highway and was truly in an spirit of worship. Unfortunately, it was enough to distract my eye on the speedometer. When I did look down, I noticed that I was above the speed limit. Well I foot went off the accelerator and returned to the legal speed, but the incident really initiated thinking through what had happened and if what I had done was "sin." If breaking the speed limit is wrong, that is, "sin," then regardless of the fact that I thought I was worshiping, I was really breaking the law.  The question to raise is was I really worshiping God, while I was speeding? Ignorance of the law does not take away from the fact that I was speeding. Obviously, the solution is not to drive and do things that are distracting and I now do take steps to watch things. But, in the eyes of my heavenly Father, do all the warm feelings of worship that I had translate into worship, even though I was violating the very laws He has commanded that I obey?  Think about Paul's admonition in I Cor. 14:15: "I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind."  There is a conscious act of the will in worship that must be acknowledged. I realize that there may be those that might not agree with the conclusion, but I really believe that my experience cannot be called "worship."   This leads me to the next issue.                       

I hesitate to mention the following, but I really believe that it is an issue that worship leaders need to deal with on an honest level.  It is an "elephant in the room," and because it is a very emotional one, with would rather not mention it because it involves personal opinion as well as scientific fact. To what am I referring? — The volume of some worship services. "Loud" is a totally subjective term, because what may be loud to one  person, might not be to another. For this reason, I will talk in terms of decibels and decibel levels, or "dbs," which is the measure of sound pressure. {I would encourage those interested to Google "causes of hearing loss" or go to to get more information.} Basically, exposure to 85 dbs for an hour can cause hearing impairment; just if the sound level peaks at 120 dbs, damage is caused to a child's hearing and above that can cause impairment to hearing in an adult. Hearing loss is insidious, acting almost secretly, generally doing its damage without any major "red flags" to call attention to itself. None the less, the damage is done and the process of hearing loss has begun.   

Because of the nature of the sound equipment and amplification systems used in many worship services, the level of sound pressure exceeds the “safe” limit for hearers. I was recently in one service that the level in the hallway outside the service was above the limit, not to mention what was going on inside. There were people from all ages there and my question was, “Are those leading worship aware of the damage they are causing to those who have gathered to worship?” “Are the parents of those children aware that their children’s hearing is being seriously affected by continual exposure to these levels of sound?” Unfortunately the cochlea [The cochlea is a hollow tube inside the inner ear that is coiled to resemble a snail's shell. It is to the cochlea that sound vibrations picked up by the middle ear are carried. ] really doesn’t know the difference between a praise song and a jet taking off, all it knows is that it is now damaged.

As worship leaders, we need to step up to the plate and face the issue honestly. Many people love the “loud” music, and some even say it gives them a “rush” to listen to it. The “rush” they feel is the endorphins the body is releasing to deal with the pain it is experiencing. It is normal chemical reaction. Until we can face this honestly and take some pro-active steps to curtail the negative effects, we are leading others in worship and causing them physical harm at the same time. Lawsuits could follow. [I know of a major university that already has to have students sign a waiver saying that to enroll in a particular instrumental ensemble so that the university is exempt from any liability of their hearing loss for fear of legal action against them.]

I know that many will say, "Look, it's been that way since the first portable cassette players and headphones. Some will be listening to stuff in their cars louder than what they hear in church." And I certainly agree, basically. Let's look at it from another angle. For decades smoking was considered a social norm and the worst problem was the smoke that stained walls or clothes. Then the links came to light that it was really harmful; not only harmful, but addictive and deadly. The difference was that although the activity itself had not changed, research had shown some things that were not know previously. Or take for example a coach who does things that are actually  injuring the players during workouts. Would parents still want to send their children to that kind of coach?  Doubtful. As far as the volume and hearing injury goes, we now know some things that we didn't know before and we don't want to be like the coach that would sacrifice the health of his players just to win a game.

What can be done? Get a decibel meter and check things out. [I have one on my Iphone and it works great.] Learn to use it to check levels, and if its too high, turn things down. [By the way, this can happen just as well with a pipe organ as it can with an electric guitar and bass.] We are accountable to God for the stewardship of what we do. The pressure of the culture is great and many will want to play like it’s always been like this. [Part of the problem is that the real damage doesn’t always show up until about 10 years later, and the exposure has been long term.]

I pray that this will be received in the spirit in which it was given. I long for all generation to be able to hear the praises of God for years to come, to be able to hear their children and grandchildren praising God. But, to do this, we need to face the “elephant in the room.”

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