In our attempts to modernize our sanctuaries we may be muffling the sounds of worship.
"And I will stop the music of your songs." (Ezek. 26:13)
Both the sixteenth - century Protestant Reformation and the twentieth-century Vatican II, it is widely observed, set God's people free to sing their praises in psalms and hymns. Through the ages, a variety of spiritual canticles has constituted the people's unique liturgy of song. In our time, the sound of singing congregations has traditionally characterized much of both Protestant and Catholic worship.
But today, congregational song is in serious trouble. It is being strangled by the good— though often ill-informed—intentions of some architects, pastors, church building committees, and church musicians who simply haven't done their homework.
Having literally been sold a bill of goods by church furnishing houses, architects, and others who should know better, many parishes have allowed their church buildings to become surrogate living rooms with wall-to-wall carpet, cushioned seats, and an aura of comfy coziness. Worshiping at the altar of "dry" (i.e., dead) sound, architects and church interior designers continue building and furnishing monuments to lackluster liturgy and stifled song. The symbol of the movement: the padded pew.
Its marching song: "Sit Down, O People of God."
The result, of course, is an abominable acoustical environment. In church after church, the song of the faithful—in fact, the total sound of worship—is muffled and hushed, the victim of an environment that inhibits and represses, that stifles and suppresses the best efforts of congregations to lift up their voices as one in praise and adoration.
The designers' goal seems to be the creation of a hushed funeral-parlor atmosphere in which no sound can be allowed to disturb the private meditation of the people. If not the funeral parlor, the model must be the radio studio. The watchword concerning sound is "Absorb! Absorb!" Where the voices of worshipers should be buoyed up, reinforced, and made ever more vital as they "do their liturgy," they are more likely to be smothered by ubiquitous carpet, omnipresent acoustical tile, porous brick walls, and thick drapes.
How Acoustics Affect Worship
In recent months I visited several middle-western churches. I had the opportunity to experience again the agony and the ecstasy of both good and bad acoustical environments and their effect on the vitality of worship. Two examples stand out. They are undoubtedly typical of hundreds of other similar churches throughout the nation. Both church buildings were small- to medium-sized, seating perhaps 200 to 300. Both were comfortably full when I attended, though not jammed to capacity. The people reflected what I suppose to be a fairly normal mixture of children, teen-agers, young couples with children, the middle-aged, and the elderly. The hymns sung were familiar to the people. But there, at least as far as the singing and general participation in worship were concerned, the similarity ended. The two churches were as different as night and day.
In the first church—a modest-sized, suburban St. Louis A-frame with tile floor, plaster walls, and wooden ceiling-—the participation in worship and song was thrilling. Full-throated and exuberant, the singing was led by a modest-sized pipe organ which sounded fuller and larger than its twenty-five ranks of pipes suggested it could. Young and old joined together in songs of praise that almost raised the roof. The resonance of the building encouraged even the recalcitrant and those who could only drone along an octave below the prescribed pitch to join in. It didn't matter. When we sang "Hallelujah! Let Praises Ring!" to Philipp Nicolai's majestic tune, the praises really rang. Even those songs of a more subdued and quietly reverent nature were haloed and made vibrant by the rich reverberation of the building.
The song was the voice of God's people at prayer. The building was the instrument upon which that song was played. And the sound of the building reinforced, amplified, and unified our individual contributions, enabling us to sound as one. The congregation that morning hardly seemed to notice the special sound of their building. They were used to it and what it meant for their common prayer. To this visitor, however, it was evident that it was the physical character of the building that facilitated such a vital and lively response of the people in word and song.
The second church building—in another city—was depressing indeed. It was as though we were singing into a giant sponge that sopped up the sound as soon as it was out of our mouths. I could hear only myself and the two people closest by. Others were singing, but our song was a gray mumble. The organ which accompanied us was larger than the first church's—a relatively new instrument designed and built, I was told, especially with congregational singing in mind. But strangled by the oppressive deadness of the building, it was forced to play full out most of the time simply to be heard.
We sang the Venerable Bede's great Ascension text "A hymn of glory let us sing, new songs throughout the world shall ring," but the ringing was largely in my mind. As I sang what passes for my own full-throated sound, I realized that people were staring, wondering who this stranger was who presumed to lead the singing all by himself. I tempered my voice, retreating to a more subdued sound. The listless and lifeless sound of worship spread like a contagious infection, effectively muting every other aspect of the church's gathering that morning.
It was the building that prevented us from actualizing all that we knew was true: we were the people of God gathered together for common prayer. Instead we were forced to fight the depressing acoustics. The building won.
The prodigal use of sound-deadening material has been aided and abetted by several basic misconceptions about what corporate worship is and how it is most effectively done.
A renewed understanding of the church as the people of God and liturgy as their work suggests that not only is the arrangement of the worship space important but an acoustical environment that enables the people to do their work is crucial.
For much of American Protestantism, the Sunday gathering for worship has become primarily the time for a private moment with God. It is too often a time that is personalistic and without reference to those about us. But if we have been listening at all to the shapers of liturgical renewal, worship is first of all the corporate response of God's people. Together we offer our common prayer, praise, and supplication. For many Roman Catholics, the realization following Vatican II that the people were to participate actively and corporately came as a shock. The mass had been something that others did while the people simultaneously carried on their private devotional exercises. Protestants have their own parallels to that privatistic tradition.
A bright, lively, and reinforcing acoustical environment is important, therefore, primarily for the sake of the congregation. Certainly a live acoustical situation has much to do with the success or failure of much choral and organ music, particularly where the resources are modest, the singers few, and the organ weak. Church musicians will be the first to affirm that fact. The building itself is an instrument that must be designed so that the praise of God-—whether spoken or sung, whether with voices or instruments—is a thing of beauty, lifting the spirits, bringing God's people together in a unified whole, encouraging and reinforcing their song, rather than draining their vocal energy as they attempt their praise and prayer.
A second misconception is the idea that live acoustics are possible only in large, cavernous interiors. Even the most cursory visits will reveal that some of the finest acoustical environments for congregational song are to be found in church buildings of modest size where care has been taken to ensure that hard, reflecting surfaces of walls, ceilings, and floors predominate. Ironically, a whole new industry has developed that attempts to introduce—through elaborate and expensive sound systems—artificial reverberation into a building whose natural resonance has been destroyed.
A third misconception mistakenly pits the spoken word against congregational song. Such alternatives are often set against each other, as though one must win, the other lose. There are, of course, parishes in which the sermon is the single focus. Where that is so, congregational participation in worship is largely ancillary and subordinate.
What is often overlooked where choices between singing and speaking are suggested, however, is that worship space sufficiently reverberant for spirited singing can easily be made suitable for public speaking. But a worship space designed only with the speaking voice in mind has effectively been ruined for the music-making of congregation, choir, and organ. Since the people's song—whether hymns, psalms, or liturgy—is such an important and vital ingredient in worship, it is not only natural but imperative that the public speaking voice accommodate itself to an environment that is sufficiently live for effective congregational song.
Rediscovering the Sound of Worship
Recapturing a vital sound for congregational song will mean, among other things, the recovery of the congregation's awareness of its role as chief "actor" in worship, a refusal by parishes with smaller buildings to acquiesce to a cathedral complex that suggests that good acoustics are possible only in large interior spaces, and a realization that vibrant acoustics are not incompatible with the needs of public speech.
All this may mean ridding buildings of all those sound-deadening furnishings with which so many are burdened. It may mean a return to the simple integrity of slate or tile instead of carpet, and wooden ceilings uncluttered and unencumbered with acoustical tile. It may mean installing or uncovering hard surfaces for walls and ceilings.
If congregations ever become seriously exercised about the "sound of worship" and its importance for their corporate praise and prayer, there is no telling what might happen. Worship spaces might once again come to life with the canticles of the faithful. Organs might once again speak out bright and clear. Churches might once again become halls of resounding praise. Even heretofore recalcitrant singers might be enticed into joining the song.
Such a joyful noise would certainly make glad the heart of Isaac Watts, were he here to enjoy it. His paraphrase of Psalm 100 said it well:
We'll crowd thy gates with
High as the heav'ns our
And earth, with all its thousand
Shall fill thy courts with
The only honest—though not very attractive—alternative seems to be a respectful silence.
This article is reprinted from The Christian Century, March 23—30, 1983. Used by permission.