January 16, 2014

in defense of quietness

or, thoughts on singing, a.k.a. "worship"

{For the sake of simplicity, I will be referring in this essay to the extroverted believers as "foot-stompers" and the introverted believers as "contemplatives". You'd think with the entire Internet at my disposal I could have come up with something wittier, but alas! it was not to be. Feel free to make suggestions. And of course there is a spectrum, and of course I mean no disrespect to any part of it.}

So that you know where I'm coming from, our church uses a worship band, but no smoke machine.

The church I grew up in had a more humble music ministry: We had a piano and two songleaders (one of whom occasionally, to my excited anticipation, used the platform to air his political opinions as well as directing us in song. In my youth, I liked the possibility of conflict. Needless to say, life has since handed me enough of that to cure my taste for it.)

My husband grew up at the church we currently attend, and when we first started going there as a couple, some fifteen years ago, we chose it for the preaching, not the music, which even then seemed loud to us after two and a half years teaching English in the quiet backwaters of Japan.

Recently, the music's gotten louder. Sunday mornings are probably no louder than many churches, although my children occasionally complain of headaches after the service. It's the new Saturday night service that is known for its volume. When they were gearing up to start the new service, our church's regular-issue speakers were deemed insufficient; special speakers had to be procured so that the sound could reach volumes high enough to attract the under-40 crowd. (Up until a few days ago, I was under forty myself. I attended once, with earplugs. It was still uncomfortably loud).

Although I prefer classical music and cathedrals to praise bands and church gyms, I am well aware that this is a mere preference. It's hard for me to understand why someone would want to incur hearing loss in the name of worshiping God, but it's okay with me that they do. I don't try to tell them that they're less spiritual for it.

Unfortunately, they don't always return the favor.

I've kept my opinions about this to myself for a long time (well, not entirely to myself - my longsuffering Farmer has had an earful from time to time), but a few things have happened here of late to make me decide to share them.

First was the memorial service for a dear uncle. The church was packed, and when it came time to sing, the very roof must have lifted to make room for the music from all those voices. If anything could make angels jealous, this would be it. Four part harmony, strong and heartfelt, unmarred by instrumentation of any kind, swelled and soared and with it all our spirits.

I had forgotten the power of voices raised in unified glory to God, how it soothed spirit, soul and body, sweeping clean, energizing all for love, for action.

I was instantly ravenous for more.

Months later, on Sunday, an impassioned Christian brother of mine encouraged folks to come out to support the Saturday night service. The organizers have pulled in people from two other churches, who now work together to produce the evening. Since churches haven't always been known for their ability to work together, I think this is great, and I want to publicly commend them.

But we won't be attending. The time of the service is not family-friendly, at least not for our family, and honestly, it's just too loud.

My brother in Christ, anticipating this problem, offered to turn the music down suggested that we wear earplugs if we don't like the noise levels. He reminded us that worship isn't about the style of the music being played.

The music that morning was unusually loud and my head hurt, so I took Lil' Snip and me out to the foyer to sit it out till the preaching started. While we were out there, a friend stopped to chat and it turned out that she, too, suffered from the sound levels Sunday mornings. She knew someone who used to help with the sound booth, and he'd tried to keep the volumes down, but was instructed to turn them back up. Not very thoughtful, I mused to myself. And hmmm, so I'm not the only one....

Still, it might have ended there, if I hadn't happened – the very next day - upon a friend's link to an articleabout men not singing in church, written by a man, for men, but as a woman, I can testify that the issue is not limited to gender. This article and several others like it, sparked a discussion on facebook which in turn begat my desire to put my thoughts down in a single location, in order to offer fresh perspective to the foot-stompers, consolation to the contemplatives, and ultimately, I hope, a solution for us all.
The most frequent arguments I've heard offered by the foot-stompers in favor of louder, more emotional music are that "It's relevant" and "It's not about the style, it's about the heart." (For what it's worth, I don't hear any arguments from the contemplatives on why their style should be preferred by anyone but themselves.)

"It's relevant" seems to mean that people like it, and we want people to come hear about Jesus, and so we need to use what they like in order to get them to come. This is faulty logic on several levels. First, not all people do like it - in fact, many don't - so you're limiting yourself to drawing people who do. You might be surprised at how many people come in spite of the music rather than because of the music.

Second, and more importantly, it is God who is relevant, and the love of his people (for each other, not just for "the lost") is what attracts, not the music.

"It's not about the style; it's about the heart" has just enough truth in it to sound true. Worship is about the heart, yes. But music - one expression of worship - definitely isabout the style. If it weren't, the foot-stompers would never have rejected the hymns in favor of rowdier or more emotional fare. If it were just about the heart, worshipful hearts would still be happily singing the music of our forefathers instead of forming separate services with extra-loud music.

Having said that, I don't see anything inherently wrong with rowdy, emotional, extra-loud music, or with having a separate service to showcase it. It just isn't everyone's cup of tea. If it's yours, enjoy it, but it doesn't make you any more or less spiritual than those who prefer their music orchestral, or choral, or quiet, any more than carrying a fat Bible makes you more like Jesus than carrying a digital one.

Christianity is about the heart, but music is most assuredly about the style.

Although there are a surprising number of young exceptions, the hymn-singers in the church traditionally are older folks, and seem mostly quiet and tolerant about their preferences, allowing the young folk to have their way with the musical part of the church service. Maybe I'm projecting optimistically, but they seem to graciously and generously assume that young folks can't be expected to appreciate what older folks like ... or graciously give way to the young in order to allow them to find their own way toward God. Maybe it hasn't always been this way, but I haven't heard or read about contemplatives insisting that the foot-stompers should make the effort to learn the old songs, or that "true" worship is dignified and doesn't involve all that emotional gesturing.

[Side note: I want to raise my children to be respectful of the older generation. They've lived longer than we have, and they have a lot to teach us - tolerance being the virtue obvious to this discussion. I would love for my children to be part of a generation that chooses to defer to the older members and their preferences rather than pushing them into being something that they're not.]

In Quiet Faith, Judson Edwards writes, “For all of the fine qualities we introverts bring to the table, the truth remains that we are typically viewed as people in need of a personality upgrade. Those of us who are active in the church find that to be especially true in the community of faith. We are consistently, though subtly and indirectly, reminded that we need to be bolder, louder, and more certain in our faith. If we ever really got filled with the Spirit, the church seems to suggest, we would become extroverts.”

Most people, whether familiar with the term "extrovert" or not, are familiar with extroversion: it looks like the stereotypical popular kid in high school - chatty, cheerful, surrounded by followers, eternally bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.

Introversion is, quite literally, not as familiar. Introverts enjoy a slower pace to life, fewer and deeper friendships, greater powers of observation and time alone to process their thoughts; a sort of inside-out version of the extrovert, who can enjoy solitude, but prefers the company of others.

American culture, including church culture, is heavily biased in favor of extroversion. Judson Edwards states "If a person happens to be either introverted or intellectual, that person is destined to find church an especially inhospitable place."

The local county library system currently has two dozencopies of Susan Cain's ground-breaking book on introverts, Quiet, and they are all checked out. In fact, there is a waiting list. (Another great book on the subject is Introverts in the Churchby Adam S. McHugh). If you are interested in learning more about these quieter people with whom you fellowship, and why they act differently than you do, these two books are a fine place to start.

Why bring up introversion and extroversion in a discussion about musical preferences in church?  I think these two ways of being play a role in how we show our love for God in public. (And also because I'm an incurable personality analyst.)

We are brothers and sisters in Christ, many making up a single Body. Some express themselves extravagantly and emotionally; others express themselves quietly and with deep thought. Some are more private; others have never heard of inhibitions.   Some are more like Peter; some are more like John - they both hung out with Jesus, and he used them both, dramatically, but differently.

We've got to love each other and allow each other to function in the different ways in which God designed us. I want to affirm my hand-clappin' foot-stompin' Hallelujah-yellin' brother, and I want to be affirmed in my desire for classical beauty and contemplation.

Believers who feel particularly comfortable with exuberant expression may be a blessing and an inspiration to those who are naturally more reserved, but not if they neglect gentleness. Either style can be a sincere expression of worship (and either can also be insincere). We can't read hearts, and we don't have to change each other into ourselves.

To quote an Irish saying I found in Edwards' book: "To live above with saints we love, O that will be the glory! To live below with saints we know, well, that's another story...." No one pretends it's easy; we also cannot pretend that its implausibility excuses us from trying.

I am certain that in heaven there will be all the boisterous praising going on that a soul could want. And since Jesus himself valued quiet time, alone with the Father, I am equally confident that there will be quiet spaces in heaven as well, where the quiet-lovers can contemplate the exquisite beauty of the Father and commune with him as was never fully possible in the clamor of earth's distractions.

Yes, David sang and danced before the Lord, but "Be still, and know that I am God" is also in the Bible.

So how do we live this out, these two different ways of honoring God?

"I have never liked crowds," says Judson Edwards, and I agree. "I seem to have trouble hearing the still, small voice of God when the crowd numbers more than one."

I've beaten myself up for a long time over "having the fear of man rather than God" when all it is, mostly, is that I am acutely observant. I see and hear everything. Solitude is where I hear God best. Yes, now that Lil' Snip knows how to whisper, I could sit in the front pews, but I am a back-row girl at heart.

Worship is a private thing for me, and in the front I feel painfully on display.

With all the different styles of music – the loud contemporary music, the endless dreamy songs, ancient hymns, and 70's-style choruses - it's a legitimate and practical difficulty to meld disparate genres into a single service, so each church often ends up specializing in one type of music.

This might sound like a fair compromise, except that it can feel like a judgment: Ourmusic is the “right” one. If a church sings mostly hymns, there can be a sense that contemporary music is carnal. And if a church sings mostly emotional songs, they can give off vibes of spiritual superiority because of their freedom of expression.

To further complicate matters, many contemporary songs are created with a soloist and a band in mind, not a group of worshipers. The timing is irregular, the repetition is unpredictable, and the song leader feels free to ad lib changes according to the mood of the morning. This is difficult to participate in, and for some of us, the group expression is a powerful part of the experience. Most hymns, besides having the virtue of sound theological and literary value, were easy to sing along with, and fostered a sense of belonging together.

Can we manage it, somehow – to united bring an offering of praise to God? Maybe it will be impossible until heaven; I don't know. Could the contemplative sometimes be blessed by emotional display? Absolutely, as could the foot-stompin' Christian sometimes be blessed by classical beauty. But maybe it doesn't have to be either/or.

I'm only a song leader in the privacy of my own living room, to my own family, and I won't claim that organizing a service for six qualifies me to suggest an order of service for hundreds. All the same, I have an idea (no surprise there, my Farmer might say) that might work for some church, somewhere:

What if the service started with the concert-type experience (a band onstage, drums and bass guitars, lead singer and harmony) while people entered the sanctuary (hmmm ... maybe we should call it an auditorium here, and save "sanctuary" for later ...). The early arrivals could praise as loudly and energetically as desired, while the quieter folk linger in the lobby, far from the speakers, or sit at the back and gather their wits, or perhaps join the front lines if they feel daring.

Then, after the lights are raised and a welcome offered, a single song-leader could come to lead the congregation to "lift their glad voices in triumph on high". Maybe a piano could play, or a guitar. We could hear each other, and be united by the sound of our voices raised toward God.

And maybe, after the sermon, we could have more of one, or the other.

Maybe, it would work.

And whatever happens up front on Sunday mornings, let's let all our lives be worship, not just the parts set to music.


  1. I feel like I need to add some postscripts:

    1) First, this was crazy long. I apologize if the fonts come out wonky for you - blogger seems a little overwhelmed with it, and I am working to fix it.

    2) Despite the crazy-long-ness, this essay is only the tip of the iceberg. There is so much to be said on the subject of worship, and if we can say it in love, both "sides" will begin to understand each other, which will lay a foundation for a solution. Segregation has never been ideal.

    3) If you read all the way to the bottom, I thank you, and take heart from your willingness to hear me out, especially if you're a foot-stomper!! ;)

    4) Which brings me to my last P.S. - since labels seemed necessary, I would really love to use ones that are both more accurate and more amusing, and your suggestions are so welcome!

  2. Wow. Yes, I read to the bottom. And yes, so much to be said! So many things entered my mind, that I can't keep track of them all. First of all, very well thought out; very well written. I need to read Quiet. I remember when we were last there, they sang at least one blessed hymn. Do they still? Our family has had quite a few discussions about this. Interestingly enough, Mom recently wrote to us about how impressed she was hearing your children sing hymns from memory so well. She encouraged us to continue teaching our kids. A good reminder indeed, because we had such a rich musical heritage, we need to pass it on. God heard my hazy prayer/note-to-self about singing more hymns with my kids, and, through a new friend, provided two cds full of the good old meaty hymns. We are really enjoying them! Ok, I'll stop there for now. Thank you for writing this!

    1. Dear KLJAL - how did I never reply to you?! Thank you for reading all the way to the bottom, and for passing on your mom's kind words about my children. I would love to hear your thoughts on the matter, and I would especially love to know what cds you are enjoying!! We like the ones put out by Joni Eareckson Tada and Bobbi Wolgemuth that use children's voices with orchestra and come with lovely, lovely books! Chris Rice's Hymn Project is another favorite, but I am always on the lookout for more. :)


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