I’m a firm believer in setting big picture goals and then structuring daily activities around these goals. By putting in the heavy lifting early, all of the little decisions become much easier, because they are effectively made. As worship leaders, we have to make a lot of small decisions relating to liturgy, aesthetics, presentation, etc. It’s helpful to know what you’re going for when you make these small decisions. I only bring this up because the aesthetic decisions that we have made at Valley Life won’t square with everybody, and it’s most likely due to the fact that the underlying goals are different. That’s fine. This is more the story of how our goals have made some of the decisions for us and set the right tone for worship for our congregation.
The last couple of years have seen a lot of criticism for the rock star worship leader culture, and for the inertia toward a performance driven worship setting. I am super not a fan of either of these ideas, but reading all of the articles that criticize these trends, I’ve realized that there’s a tendency to throw everything out, without any real analysis of why they should or should not be done. But really, to stop doing a thing because X megachurch is doing it wouldn’t be different from doing it to imitate them; I would still be letting their behaviors affect our ministry goals at Valley Life. So I set out to define what we want in our church worship experience on Sundays. It’s not popular with everyone, but it fits our local congregation well.
People don’t like to sing publicly
That’s not a statement about church, it’s a general idea in a modern consumerist culture. We, as people, are more accustomed to watching a thing than participating in it (there’s a reason Karaoke is only found where hard liquor is flowing). There are lots of potential reasons for this: reduced music education and literacy, fear that this might end up on the internet, an increased idea of any artistic endeavor as a specialization. I can analyze it all I want, but the reality on the ground is that people aren’t naturally comfortable singing.
On top of this, we have been blessed with a large percentage (at least 30 percent) of our congregation who are unchurched, unsaved, and unaccustomed to the idea of congregational singing. The closest they have ever come is We are the championsafter a big win at a college game, and that didn’t last more than one chorus. They are learning what church is about, and in congregational singing we tap into something that is both innate, but also uncomfortable. In our teaching, we work very hard to give people a reason to sing, but they also need a safe way to do it.
Louder, deeper darker
Here’s how this has worked out in all the small decisions. I’ve given my tech team the mantra of, “louder, deeper, darker,” to use in their A/V decisions. It’s all aimed around creating a safe environment in which to participate. Louder is not meant to be deafening, but we do run 90-100db in order to ensure that a person that is singing in the congregation isn’t worried that the people around them can pick them out. They’ll sing a lot harder with a little anonymity. Deeper refers to how we eq. – not that chest-crushing subwoofer throw that kills the definition of the mix, though. I’m referring more to pushing audible mids and less of the ear-splitting highs. The reason that we can stay at 95db is because we’ve cut the frequencies that would get harsh and painful, opting for a sound that feels full and is intelligible, but without the ice pick in the ear. Darker is our lighting control during worship. Our lights are sitting at about 15 percent during worship, so that people aren’t worried about who might be watching them.
How it works out
Traditionalists will hate this setup on paper. I’ve read many a treatise on how the voices of the congregation should be the loudest thing in the room, and the low lights will raise the ire of anyone shying away from the look of a concert. I agree with both of those sentiments, and in a different setting they would be right. But let me tell you, our people sing loud. When we fall off for a vocally led chorus, I can hear them through my in-ears. By providing the right conditions, we have allowed for a room of high-participation worshippers.
Last year I was able to send my team a photo of a dude raising his hands in worship during our second service worship time (see, it’s not that dark). This guy had been saved for a few months, and was the last person you would expect to see worshipping in a physically expressive way. He’s a hulking combination of CrossFitter and motorcycle cop, and when he’s wearing a security team shirt on Sunday morning, I am confident that nobody is stupid enough to try anything. He’s the very definition of a man that you would not expect to participate, but in this environment, he joyfully expresses worship to the God that has saved him, and adds his voice to a hundred others, creating a joyful expression that both loud and heartfelt.
Know your mission
So here I am, not liking a rock star worship culture, but running a dark room and a loud mix. I’m not saying this solution is for everyone. I’m saying know your community, and learn the best way to facilitate worship with them. Let your mission define your activites, not the other way around.