Recently, my beloved Seattle Seahawks beat the San Fransisco 49’ers on Sunday Night Football. But not only did they win the game, but Seattle now holds the official Guiness records for loudest fans in the World. They first set the record early in the game when San Fransisco QB Colin Kaepernick was sacked with a crowd noise registering 133.3 dB’s. Later on their broke their own record by reaching a level of 133.6 dB’s. So the fans in Seattle went home soaking wet (it’s Seattle after all) with a win, a record, and hearing loss. 133.6 dB’s is 48.6 dB’s over the OHSA safe limit.
Dustin Kensrue and Andy Girton over at Mars Hill Church have put together a very intersting piece on volume and safety in the church HERE. But it’s not just rock music, the Oregon Symphony Players Association (bet you didn’t know that existed) has a very informative piece on hearing safty on their website. So it’s not just a crancked amplifier… the oboe and the flute are also clear and present dangers to your hearing.
There is always going to be a contingent of people in your church who will complain that the music is too loud. They will quickly be followed by the contingent of people in your church who complain that the music is too quite. What do you do? How do you handle it? Can we really worship God below 85dB’s?
GO WITH THE SCIENCE
There are going to be people who have opinions based on personal experiance. “I worked for 40 years with chainsaws” etc. In that case, it’s not really a surprise that they have some hearing loss. But for people who espouse personal opinions like “anything over 85 dB’s, even for a few minutes, will cause hearing loss” the science is just not with them. If the noise levels spiked to 100 dB’s for a few seconds or even a few minutes, that will NOT cause hearing loss. Someone who has “personal experiance” probably isn’t accounting for genentics, eviroment, and other elements that may have effected them. They are also probably not accounting for all of the scientific research that has been factored into the OSHA safety standards. The science is pretty clear that the church is not a major (or minor) cause of hearing loss.
DECIBELS ARE JUST THE START
Decibel levels (dB’s) are how we measure how loud something is, but it’s just the start. There are other factors like the size of the room, and the vibrations from lower frequencies. Proximity to speakers, and personal musical preference all are part of the equaztion. It’s been my experience that people won’t comment on a flute at 110 dB or a ‘church instrument’ like a piano or acoustic guitar at 95dB, but they’ll be up in arms about a drum or electric guitar at 90 dB. Recently we had a concert with a youth oriented band where the dB’s spiked up around 105. The complaint wasn’t the volume (I had handed out ear plugs for those who wanted them). The issue was vibrations from the bass. Decibels are just the start.
Volume is only part of the equation, and part of the job of the worship and tech teams will be to determine what is a valid sound complaint, and what is a personal preference being expressed as a noise issue. If Grandma Wilson is sitting right next to the speakers every Sunday morning, that may have more to do with her complaints than the actual music. If Mr. Stevens has a preference for an older style of music, you might find that the younger worship band, even clocked at the same volume levels as the older team will get noise complaints from him and his friends.
THE BIBLE HAS SOMETHINGS TO SAY ON THE SUBJECT
The Bible says sing to the Lord a new song (Ps 96:1). The Bible says shout to the Lord (Ps 98:4). The Bible says to make a joyful noise (Ps 98 & 100) The Bible says to praise the Lord on the drums and guitars (a paraphrase of Ps 150:4). This will cause issues for people who liked things the way they were, or who think silence or a mellow expression of worship is better or more holy. How can you raise a joyful noise or shout to the Lord at a subdued volume level?
But the Bible also tells us to submit to each other (Eph. 5: 21) and to love one another (John 13:34). In fact, James tells us that quarrels in the church come from evil desires within us (James 4:1). Worship and tech teams need to find a way to balance raising joyful shouts to the Lord with serving the church in loving submission.
LEAD IN LOVE
As a leader, I’m going to lead. I’m going to do new songs, I’m going to raise a shout from time to time (literally). I’m not going to loose sleep if the dB meter spikes over 85 from time to time. But I also want to lead in love. I want to submit one to another an keep the spikes down, and do everything possible to keep things at a level that will serve the broadest range of people. So we try to find the balance.
If I lean, I’m always going to lean towards the youth, the next generation of the church. But there is a BIG difference between leaning towards the younger generation and outright ignorning or dispising the older generation.
WHAT TO DO NOW?
EMPOWER YOUR SOUND TEAM
People think that they can go back to the sound desk and make complaints to the folks there. Let the sound team know to send those complainers your way. The worship leader, music director and pastoral staff should be an empowerment and a shield for the sound team. Free them up to do their job.
FIND THE BALANCE
The balance at your church will look different than the balance at mine. The balance at both of our churches will shift over time. If your church is still stuck in 80’s Maranatha or 90’s Vineyard, then shifting to a sound and volume like the bands from Mars Hill Music or Hillsong probably won’t be the balanced way to do things. If you’re church is looking for the future but being hamstrung by your past, then that also is out of balance.
Things won’t change overnight. This is a process that could take a while. The key is finding the right trajectory for your church to be on in conjuction with your leadership. But a few things can be address right away.
If most of your complaints are coming from folks in the 1st two rows, in a church with a long sanctuary, then explain to them that you have to make it loud enough for the folks in the back. Then encourage them to move back 5 or 6 rows.
If the complaint is a preference complaint thats being represented as a noise complaint then realize that there may be nothing you can say at that point but encourage them to see the next generation or those who connect to another style of worship expression the way Jesus sees them.
This whole thing is a moving target and will look different for each church, but hopefully this can help give you some structure for conversations between leadership, worship, and sound teams.
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