I visited a dead church the other night.
Not spiritually dead, but dead nonetheless.
The church had a large worship space, but with a low, dropped ceiling covered with some kind of soft, sound-absorbing material. Every square inch of floor was covered in wall-to-wall carpet. The seats and backrests of the pews were padded. Even the actual backs of the pews (you know, the part with the little pockets for the hymnals and the little holey things for the Communion cups) were covered in carpet.
As I said before, a dead church.
What was truly sad was that we were there for a choral concert. Our children’s spring choral concert. Since the room was absolutely dead, they miked the choirs. They miked the grand piano. They miked the violinist. We didn’t get to hear the choirs the way they really sounded: we only heard them as they were artificially amplified (complete with artificial reverberation) by the sound equipment. We didn’t get to hear the music as it was intended to be heard, with variations of soft and loud, because the sound guy would boost the soft parts, evening everything out (and sometimes creating uncomfortable feedback when the music got louder or higher than he was ready for).
Why, why, oh why do we build churches this way? Why do we guarantee artifice in our singing by making it absolutely dependent on artificial amplification? It’s not only disastrous for choral singing: it’s even more disastrous for congregational singing. Remember, the congregation doesn’t get microphones. Most congregants just give up and listen instead.
I was discussing this on Twitter (yes, I was tweeting about the appalling acoustics during the concert) and someone said something like “Don’t you have to have amplification if you have a church that holds more than 25 people? Um, no. I’ve sat in the really, really cheap seats in really, really large concert halls (mostly as a college student) and heard orchestras, choruses, solo singers, pianists, and others perfectly well, from pianissimo to fortissimo. I’ve been in very, very large churches, with pitched wooden ceilings, wood or stone floors, and brick, wood, or stone walls, and heard the choir, the organ, the piano, and the pastor perfectly from the back pew. And I’ve sung along from the congregation and not felt like my throat was closing up from trying to sing in a dead room. Instead, the music rang. It reverberated with no help from artificial means. I’ve sung in monasteries and cathedrals where the music wanted to go on and on long after I’ve stopped singing. It sounded as it were climbing heavenward, like our prayers arising as incence.
And we wonder why so many people feel as if their prayers never get past the ceiling.
Artifice in worship should be avoided at all costs. Sure, the pastor may like a little amplification, especially if it’s a large room and he doesn’t want to go full throttle the whole time. (I’m not a pulpit-pounder myself.) But why build a worship space in such a way that makes us depend on artificial amplification to hear anything? Especially the music? I think God wants our praise to come from us, to be truly from us, to sound like us. Does everything have to be carpeted, even the back of the pew where the hymnal racks are?
Even if we are in less-than desirable spaces acoustically, what’s wrong with turning the amps down a bit (even if they do go to 11)? What? Make people listen? Cause them to stop chatting? To “be still and know that I am God?” You’ve got to be kidding.
We need more live churches and fewer dead ones, no matter how you define it.