What Volume Level is Right?

Before I was in pastoral ministry, I was a touring musician.  I traveled with a large concert PA system and a “stadium worthy” 1200 watt amp of my own.  I love to play music so loud that it rattles the windows and shakes the platform.

There is a raw energy that comes with high volume levels that is really addicting to many contemporary musicians.  Players love it.  Young audiences at concerts love it.  When I began working at a church, I just assumed that churches would love it too.  Maybe if they got a taste of a high energy rock band, they would be hooked just like I was.

It didn’t take very long in church ministry to discover that music volume levels can be used by the enemy to create division.  I was serving in a contemporary church and we brought in a local rock band to lead worship one morning.  Our AV team tried their best to get the volume levels down to normal, but the band’s stage volume was simply too much.  The congregation, who was used to singing modern worship songs, was suddenly divided over the sheer volume of this group.

The younger people didn’t seem to mind much, but the older saints (who rarely complained about the music) were not served well.  They were far from being hooked on loud music.  Instead, they were alienated from participating in worship by the high volume level of the band.  This began a long journey of discovery for our church.  What decibel level is right for us? Your story may be different, but here’s what we found.

The fellowship that I serve is intentionally multi-generational.  It is highly valuable to us to have 65-year-olds and 16-year-olds in relationship with one another and worshiping together.  Some people believe that it is impossible to have a multi-generational church in our culture.  We have found that controlling the volume at the church is one key element of reaching people in multiple age groups.

We acquired a sound pressure meter for our sound board.  (I would recommend the Phonic PAA3 for this task).  We began surveying trusted people across many different groups in our fellowship about the volume levels at our church services.  Here is what we found:

When we targeted a sound level between 86-92 dB we found it was the right balance of energy in the room and participation across various age groups.  Churches with a large number of people singing may be able to push it to 95 dB – especially if the singing is louder than the band instruments.  At our church, we might have an occasional cymbal crash or crescendo at 96 dB or so, but “as a rule, no more than 92.”

It is also good to note that a poorly equalized system may also appear to be louder than it really is – especially if the mid-range is piercing.  Using a PAA3 (or a similar audio tool with a spectrum analyzer) is a good way to see if there is a frequency that needs to adjusted.  

Concert musicians are often feel like 92 isn’t enough volume.  These kind of comments give the worship leader an opportunity for discipling his/her team.  As a worship leader, you can remind the worship team that the Sunday morning music is not a concert.  The main job of a worship team member is to accompany the congregation’s praise to our King!

Some people may still complain the 92 is too loud.  Bob Kauflin published a very helpful document on sound pressure levels shows what volume levels cause hearing damage based on OSHA data. Keep in mind that people with hearing loss often perceive music being louder than it really is.  Always consider the source.

Worship is all about handing God’s people the right tools to worship their King.  Let’s serve our congregation well by putting together Christ-exalting songs at volume levels that serve God’s people well.

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