Is It Too Loud? Worship Accompaniment Vs. Worship Immersion Culture

A few years ago, after our worship gathering one Sunday morning, two very different people came to me. One was a young man in his late 20s, and the other was an older woman in her late 50s. After they spoke to me, I realized that there are two profoundly distinct “worship experience cultures” gathering in our churches today – and their diverse perspectives on worship are making the creation of effective gatherings a tremendous challenge.

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The astute young man came to me first. “I hope you don’t mind me saying this. The music is too soft. We can all hear each other singing, yes, but the energy has left the room. You guys are up there giving everything you’ve got, and the sound is at a level that sucks the life out of the music you’re making. If you notice around the room, many people aren’t engaging. When the volume is up, and the energy is high, the room rises. And that matters because people are inspired and stirred in their faith. Truth is, you guys seem like you’re hearing something different through your monitors than we are, which makes you act like there’s energy in the room that isn’t actually there. Your passion leads us, but the soft music is distracting. It actually separates us rather than bringing us together.”

The second older woman said, “Can I talk to you? The sound is too loud during the worship set. I can’t hear those around me singing, and sometimes I feel like you’re trying to be louder than the voices in the room. I find it difficult to connect when the music is louder than us singing. Could you please turn it down?”

Who is right? Do these different responses simply have to do with the volume of the music in the room?

The truth is, over 25 years of worship leading, I think they both are. These two people represent two ends of a spectrum emerging over the last 40+ years of contemporary worship culture. One is Worship Accompaniment Culture, and the other is Worship Immersion Culture. Still other subcultures fall in between these two, but they represent the ends of the spectrum when it comes to the music of worship.

Worship Accompaniment Culture – Support Us With The Music

The first subculture within our congregations is what I call the Worship Accompaniment Culture. When the musical portion of worship is happening, either on a Sunday morning or at an event (everyone is more forgiving, it seems, at non-Sunday am events), they want to be accompanied and supported by the band. For them, hearing the voices of others around them, mingling in harmony or shared enthusiasm, is their ideal worship environment. Sure, they may have listened to the music “loud” when they were younger, but “loud” had a different meaning than it does today.

I’ve also noticed that this culture is often more “melody” driven – in other words, the more melodic, straightforward, and singable the song is, the better. It’s all about us, singing together. A president of a respected seminary in Canada is a friend of mine. One time we were sitting across from each other at a table at an award ceremony. He leaned in, and with passionate curiosity said, “Dan, please explain to us why so much worship music today lacks a memorable melody. I can’t stand it, but many of my students love it. Why? I can barely sing it with them!”

My friend represents the Worship Accompaniment Culture, in many ways. He wants us to sing together, and to hear each other singing as we do it. In some cases, this group can handle high performance moments, such as choirs, instrumentals, or other expressions that are less explicitly corporate in nature. But make a performance out of the 15-30 minute worship set, and even have some of it be inaccessible melodically? Then we have a problem.

Imagine this worship subculture in our churches gathered around a piano. This is their vision of what feels “right” in worship.

To some degree, I can identify with this worship subculture. I get it. I am drawn to very acoustic environments where our shared sense of comradery in worship is very high.

A good friend of mine, Jeremiah Carlson of the band The Neverclaim suggests that there is a significant transition going on between generations in worship environments, and it complicates how we think about worship leadership. There was a time when people were singing about God, and the great shift in congregations and individuals was that they began to sing directly to God in their songs. Enter the contemporary worship movement of the 70s (almost 50 years ago), 80s, and even 90s. While that was a precious and important shift, he suggested that something else is emerging with the younger set raised in the environs of the 90s, 2000s, 2010s, and 2020s (we’re almost there).

These people represent what I will call Worship Immersion Culture, and I strongly identify with this group as well.

Worship Immersion Culture – Surround Us With The Music

Worship Immersion Culture is not primarily drawn to sing about God, nor even do they always feel a need to sing to God. Rather, they are a generation that wants to sing with God. They want to participate in God’s life, and be propelled by worship encounters into a world that is begging them to live out their worship incarnationally – manifesting Christ’s presence in all aspects of life.

Raised to listen to their music in headphones and concerts, they want to be surrounded by the music in a corporate environment. In many cases, they don’t feel as though they must sing in order to engage individually – or even corporately. They are content to experience the beauty happening in the room – they want to feel the music and the lyrics in their bones. They feel close to others in the room when we are all sharing the same experience – when we are all surrounded by, and participating in/with, the music filling our shared space. (I might suggest that while many of my friends are critiquing this idea as malforming, even as they read this, I would suggest this subculture may ultimately be less “churchy” in their approach to Life Worship than preceding worship cultures.)

They appreciate melody it seems, but appreciate ambience, environment, groove, and texture just as much. Like standing under Michelangelo’s dome in St. Peter’s Cathedral or listening to a magnificent choir, they are content to be a part of something that requires reflection as much as it does an internal participation. They are content to be moved, as well as to move with the music.

Imagine this worship subculture, in contrast to the first, surrounded by the band. This is their vision of what feels “right” in worship. Us, together, in a room, having a shared experience with God.

We Are Formed By Our Worship Habits

Now, for this post, I am speaking to churches engaged primarily in contemporary worship practices. I am a fan of Jamie Smith’s Cultural Liturgies Series (some of my favorite worship work to date), and I understand the formation/malformation that is occurring when our service orders are minimally participatory, and not critically thought through in how they are forming us as real disciples. I am for patterns, for liturgies, for the “expected” and for the “extemporaneous” within the expected. One of my dearest friends is the Chaplain for Robert Webber’s Institute For Worship Studies, and many of my dearest friends have studied/are studying the riches of the four-fold service and more. In fact, I’ve taught courses on the historic four-fold service through Indiana Wesleyan and St. Stephen’s University.

But I’m also a contemporary worship leader in the Vineyard movement of churches, and I know the transformation that can occur in people when they are given a long time to sing to God, about God, and with God in a thoughtful worship environment. I’m also not averse to the music playing a larger role in a worship gathering, and to it being loud enough to move feet and hearts that welcome being surrounded by the music. And while the medium is the message, yes, I think sometimes our Worship Cultural paradigms are a lens through which we are seeing as we eschew another’s approach to worship.

The problem is not just our volume or song selection – it is also our approach to participation in our services.

Fixing The Problem Of Participation – When The Music Is The Only Opportunity

I’m going to contend that both worship cultures I’ve mentioned have a different vision of participation in worship, and neither is perfect.

Because many more contemporary church movements have removed highly participatory, few thousand-year-old worship elements from their weekly gatherings (Eucharist/communion, responsive readings, corporate prayers, passing of the peace, fellowship), the music must be everything when it comes to corporate participation in worship. The pastor will speak for 30-45 minutes, and people are starving to participate (in a non-personally intrusive way) when the dominant part of their gatherings is teaching – and long teachings at that.

Today, however, many of the Worship Immersion Culture ilk are excited to re-integrate a variety of more participatory worship experiences, from singing together, to experiencing beauty together, to weekly communion, to responsive prayers, to the passing of the peace, and much more.

They don’t need the music to accomplish all things participatory in the conventional sense of the word. They can be surrounded by the music in one moment, and breaking the bread together with a few shared words in the next. In fact, the aesthetics of the building, the type of art adorning the building, the fellowship spaces (cafe areas, etc.), and the missional spaces (food distribution areas, etc.) matter to them as much as the music. Buildings, for the Worship Immersion Culture, matter beyond their function. They are a part of the message being communicated about how we live, as friend James Bryant Smith and Renovare call it, the With-God Life.

We should all be asking the question: What are our opportunities for deep community participation on a Sunday morning, and are we discipling our entire congregation by our planning?

When we name our target group according to age or demographic, we must embrace that it means something for the way we handle the music – from the volume, to the presentation, to the way we host worship gatherings.

Getting Our Worship Cultures Out Of A Rut

I’ll shoot straight. When it comes to planning a Sunday morning, in my experience many pastors are not thinking much beyond the worship conventions with which they grew up or in which had their first encounters with God. I include myself in this; it’s not easy.

But if we’ll recognize various worship cultures exist in our churches (over time it does get more homogenous), care about how people are being formed by our worship habits, and tend to who God has called us to uniquely be as a community, we’ll find our local stride in leading people into worship places that are truly forming them in Christ-likeness.

If forming people in Christ is the business of the Church, then worship is the business of the Church. Let’s be about our business.

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Question: How can we better handle, in our churches, the tension of serving both worship cultures mentioned above in our planning? Where do you fall between these two approaches?

Suggested Resources: On teaching our congregation about our approach to worship, Worship Teaching Bombs. On righting our vision of worship, Worship White Noise. On worship volume, Winning The Volume War by Mike O’Brien.

Worship Team Tip #1 | Stack The Set

Make the majority of your worship set out of songs the congregation knows and loves. Familiarity, when tastefully applied, can fan into flame the expression of peoples’ hearts. You’ll be amazed at the results.

Question: How does this tip connect with you? Leave a comment to help others.

Get All Tips Here: 3 Word Lessons: 52 Weeks Of Pre-Rehearsal Tips (PDF)

The Nashville Number System Chart For Bands | PDF Download

You’ve probably had the experience – you’re in the middle of a rehearsal, and you need to change the key of that song.  “Should I or shouldn’t I?” you silently ask yourself. You must. You simply must.  So, sheepishly you suggest that the song must be put into a different key. You brace yourself for you band’s reaction – and you really wish you had this chart to give them.

NNS Chart

When a band is asked to change keys on the fly, 3 things inevitably happen:

  1. Smiling – The professional musicians smile, and turn their chart over. No biggie. They think they can just play it by ear. But you changed some of the chords from what they might “intuit” should happen next in the verse. You’ll have to shout them out as they play. Can you say, “train wreck?”
  2. Jaw-Dropping – The able musicians, who are not professionals, drop their jaws, grab their pens and frantically begin to scratch out the old chords in the old key to replace them with the new chords. They use their fingers to count out loud in order to figure out which chord comes next.
  3. Crying – The inexperienced musicians just sit down, cry, and occasionally glare up at you with a menacing look.

The Nashville Number System: A Basic Approach

There is a better way, and it’s called The Nashville Number System (NNS). I’ve created a very basic version of it for handing out to your teams to get you started– here is the PDF Download of the NNS Chart. Musicians all over my city use the NNS in the studio and in live settings to communicate musical changes quickly.

The basic principle is this. Each chord in a key has a number assigned to it. Many songs are fairly simple in their chord structure. In my world of worship music, this is often the case.

The I chord (1), IV chord (4), V chord (5), and vi (6m) chord are the most common. I won’t get into all the details here, but if you know these chords for one key, in your head, you are ready to go.

Example In The Key Of G

Study the chart above as you read this next part.

First if a song is in the key of G, and you see the G (I), the C (IV), the D (V), and the Em (vi), you have your chords. Now, as an exercise, print out the chart and use white out to change the G chord to the number 1 (which is the same thing as the Roman numeral I), the C chord to the number 4 (IV), D to the number 5 (V), and Em to 6m (vi – lower case means the chord is minor rather than major).

Done? Now play the song, memorizing the numbers rather than the chords. Now, you are ready to transpose.

Look at the chart. Go to the key of D. The D is the 1, the G is the 4, the A is the 5, and the Bm is the 6m. Simply play the chords as numbers, in the same spots as the others. Then, start trying to play the song, just based on the numbers in a few other keys.

Now, take a few songs that are very familiar to you and change the chords to the numbers in the chart below. Practice until the numbers for each key start to get in your craw.

After a few weeks,, this will start to be a huge game changer.

Start Talking In Numbers In Rehearsal

Get your musicians familiar with hearing you say numbers instead of chords. If you’re in the key of G, and you want the team to go to the C chord, say “to the 4″ rather than “go to C.” Do this over months, and the band will start to get it. If they memorize their I, IV, V, and vi chords for each key, you’re most of the way there.

Once you all learn the Nashville Number System, changing keys (and playing better by ear) will seem infinitely easier.

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Recommended Resource: Nashville Number System Chart (NNS) PDF Tool. A free download. WorshipTraining hosts my 7-minute Video and PDF Nashville Number System Tool also. This was designed so my video can teach them how to use the tool.

For over 20 years I have had the privilege of walking side by side in ministry with fellow worship leaders, artists, and creative influencers around the world. Over the course of these decades, I have watched many leaders’ souls expand to a place of great spiritual depth and breadth. Others, however, have seemed to shrink in spirit-barely maintaining a semblance of spiritual vitality as they grow older.

The Four Key Elements For A Passionate Spiritual Life
Spiritual formation is about allowing Christ to develop our whole person, our interior and exterior life, as he shapes us into his likeness through the unique stories of our lifetime. It is our approach to spiritual formation that determines how we will age as disciples, expanding in spiritual richness or shrinking in spiritual stagnation.

We will look at four unique elements in the spiritual life, using creational imagery in the best traditions of ancient Celtic Christian spirituality. Each element is intended to be a lens through which we can evaluate our overall spiritual progress toward the likeness of Christ-and a robust devotional future.

1. The Element Of Earth: A Grounded Life
While it was still night, way before dawn, he got up and went out to a secluded spot and prayed. Simon and those with him went looking for him.”
Mark 1:35-37a (The Message)

When I was a young boy growing up in a small town in Pennsylvania, I first learned the lesson of gravity. I jumped off the very top of a set of monkey bars like a superhero launching from a skyscraper-all to impress a little neighbor girl. When I landed on my chest with a horrid “thud,” wheezing and crying for Lois Lane’s help, I understood the unyielding nature of the earth.

Earth speaks of the grounded life. This is a life deeply rooted in nurturing, stabilizing values that do not change-values like faith, family, and character.

Earth speaks of life elements like faith, and a spirituality fueled by the regular study of the Scriptures and habitual conversation with God in prayer.

Earth speaks of life elements like family, and our need to tend to our immediate flesh and blood relationships with generosity in attentiveness, time, and tenderness.

Earth speaks of life elements like character, and welcoming the blossoming of our soul through events that evoke integrity, honesty, perseverance, courage, faithfulness, goodness, and love.

Are you living in the element of earth-tending to those arenas of life that ground you?

2. The Element Of Wind: An Inspired Life
… Jesus intervened: ‘Let the children alone; don’t prevent them from coming to me. God’s kingdom is made up of people like these.’”
Matthew 19:13-14 (The Message)

One of my most treasured mentors and friends, the late Bob Horvath, was passionate about sailing. I would watch him thrust the thick canvas of his beloved boat into the sky to catch the slightest breezes God might send his way. Through years of working with his equipment, Bob knew just how to maneuver his sails to go in exactly the direction he wanted to go.

Wind speaks of the inspired life. This is a life that raises its sails with the sole intent of catching every joyful wind sent our way.

Wind speaks of life elements like finding heroes and allowing them to call us forward in skill, in passion, in faith-to stimulate our desire to be better at what we do than we already are.

Wind speaks of life elements like dreams, and giving ample room for the hopes and desires within us to be tested, matured, and reshaped along our life journey.

Wind speaks of life elements like art and beauty, gardening, concerts, inspiring books, good food, energizing conversations and passionate vocational (or avocational) work.

Are you living in the element of wind-tending to those arenas of life that inspire you?

3. The Element Of Fire: An Empowered Life
Jesus’ refusal was curt: ‘Beat it, Satan!’ He backed his rebuke with a third quotation from Deuteronomy: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and only him. Serve him with absolute single-heartedness.’”
Matthew 4:8-10 (The Message)

I have interacted with many friends around the world who, like me, have endured lifelong battles with severe depression. On occasion I have had the privilege of watching some lives, in a season of prayer, mission or encouragement, come back from the dead. They have burst through their next chrysalis to embrace a colorful, resurrected life on the other side.

Fire speaks of the empowered life. This is a life that is spiritually motivated, prayerfully covered, and actively engaged with God’s new creation mission in the world he so loves.

Fire speaks of life elements like ongoing personal development in areas of our passion and skills. It speaks of study, risk, and placing ourselves in situations where a wild adventure with God is our only option.

Fire speaks of life elements like a prayer circle of committed friends who we have asked to pray for us with consistency and a burning desire for our highest impact to be felt in the world.

Fire speaks of life elements like missional community activities that put us in a position to be someone’s humble hero, someone’s louder voice, or someone’s undying supporter.

Are you living in the element of fire-tending to those arenas of life that empower you?

4. The Element Of Water: A Communal Life
“You are my friends when you do the things I command you. I’m no longer calling you servants because servants don’t understand what their master is thinking and planning. No, I’ve named you friends because I’ve let you in on everything I’ve heard from the Father.”
John 15:11 (The Message)

I, like you, love fly fishing. One of my favorite summer pastimes is to stand in a river with a friend far downstream, casting my line into placid pools where fish are resting. In the river and its pools, one sees the playful nature of water. This unruly combination of hydrogen and oxygen not only hydrates and cools-it also runs to the lowest places in need of its revitalizing touch.

Water speaks of the communal life. This is a life that is invested in authentic friendships, accountable communities, and key life-to-life mentoring partnerships.

Water speaks of life elements like connecting with others in intentional, mutually encouraging, interdependent community gatherings.

Water speaks of life elements like spiritual friendships, painstakingly maintained over the course of decades and nurtured on a daily, weekly or monthly basis.

Water speaks of life elements like mutual service, in which we share the labor in the lives of those around us, running to their lowest places in times of need and allowing them to run to the lowest places in ours.

Are you living in the element of water-tending to those arenas of life that establish you in community?

Are You Living In Your Element?
Walking with Christ as grounded, inspired, empowered, and communal people, we begin to find ourselves living “in our element,” serving the common good of others from the center of who God so artfully designed us to be (1 Cor. 12:7).

Move in the elements with grace, and know that he will complete the new creation work he began in you.

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Question: How are you caring for the earth, wind, fire, and water parts of your own life? About which of these areas has God recently been speaking to you?

Recommended Resource: The Elemental Life: The Earth, Wind, Fire, And Water Of The Passionate Spiritual Life

3 Lessons I’ve Learned About Worship From The World Cup

I love watching World Cup Soccer. With friends around the world in many of the countries represented, my heart rises and falls with every win, loss, and “Holy @#$%* did that just happen?” that comes with the game. So what does it have to do with worship?

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photo from England World Cup Group Adidas

Well, worship is for me the most expansive idea in human vocabulary, especially for understanding the ordering of human life – from its divine origins to they mystery of death.

Yeah. It’s a big idea. A very big idea.

The fervor with which the World Cup games are approached, by both players and fans, serves as a profound metaphor for the epic lives we are meant to lead.

1. Worship Is Like A Soccer Game, And Everyone Plays It Whether They Want To Or Not

Designed for worship, we play out rhythms of life like a World Cup Soccer game, with the agony of defeat and the thrill of victory running like a through story in our daily lives. There is no person on planet earth who does not, day in and day out, live and breathe the game of worship.

They just don’t know they are doing it.

And if you are on a soccer field, and don’t know what you’re doing… someone is sure to see you wandering and they will tell you what to do. Often, it will benefit them and their system (and possibly their cash-flow).

At other times, an altruistic soul will point you a direction they think you should go. Still other times, one of the wisest voices will suggest we stop, sit on the sidelines, get our bearings, and pursue a fast lesson on life from the Coach of all coaches.

We may as well get some input; it’s a long few periods.

2. Sometimes We Must Meet The Coach Mid-Field, Mid-Game, For A Lesson

Many people meet the Coach on the field mid-game, lying on the ground in pain (the real kind, not the World Cup Soccer kind) and writhing with regret.

There, He speaks to them, ministers healing to them, and gives them a taste of what the game has to do with them – and what they have to do with the game.

Meeting the Coach mid-field takes courage. We have to humble ourselves to receive some counsel, even while our public looks on. But if we’ll take it, and take it to heart, it will be a game-changing moment.

3. We May As Well Play Our Hearts Out; We Only Get One Shot At This

Life is a game where are meant to “Leave it on the field.” We give ourselves, hook, line, and love to those God has given us to encourage and serve. The World Cup reminds me that our best is our all.

When people talk about worship as if it is to be understand and valued in the small way that a World Cup game is to be valued, I have been known to respond with an edge. Worship that has been shrunk to the size of our music and services is not a game in which I would play my heart out, nor is it a game for which I would die.

But understanding worship in its widest terms, that week after week a person is living out their Life Worship, and then they meet with God in Gathered Worship to fuel their fight to live, to win, and to show up with others in their life in the World Cup Worship Game?

That I would die for, that I would play my heart out for, and that I would say is World Cup Worship. Generations to come will feel its effects through one life committed to play well.

So, we may as well play our hearts out. In the end, let’s leave it on the field.

The World Cup Of Worship

As for the World Cup we’re currently in, I’ve gotten quite excited. I even yelled at the TV, for the first time in, well, my life (my wife was in shock). I may not afford soccer the high value that many do – resulting in screaming in the stands, biting opponents, or game outcomes that ruin your whole year – but I do like it.

Well, I love it to be exact, and the metaphor it provides for our Life Worship. Besides, yelling “Holy @#$%* did that just happen?” every now and again is cathartic – and probably keeps me a little more pumped for the next epic match ahead in my own World Cup of Worship.

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Question: What metaphors for Life Worship do you see in the World Cup Soccer experience, on the field or off?

Recommended Resources: Worship White Noise: Tuning In The 7 Worship Culture Shapers In The Chaos Of The Contemporary Worship Experience