Ambient Sound & Musical Flow (pt. 1)

textured sound waves How important is it in our worship services to keep sound or music going in between songs and other service elements? The idea of continuous sound is a topic a number of worship pastors are discussing these days. It might be as simple as a synth holding down a chord in between songs. There are apps available now that will keep looping synth audio playing while you transition between songs. For some, song selection may be largely driven by how easily and effectively the songs can be connected via direct musical segues. Continuous sound is something that can be an expectation in some churches, and unimportant or even potentially unwelcome in others.

How should we think about the question? Is it strictly a matter of taste? Or are there reasoned principles that can guide our decision-making no matter what our tastes may be?

I’ll answer these questions by laying out some reasons why your church might choose intentionally to embrace the ambient flow of sound in the service. Second, we’ll look at some lines of thought that may have some popular traction generally, but probably are not wise, all things considered. Finally, in part 2 of this post, I’ll make a brief case for viewing flow in your service planning through the lens of thematic content first and foremost.

Some Good Reasons

Positive association. It may be that worshipers in your tradition find a sense of settledness from hearing the music continue in some way throughout most of the service. For some, continual sound may create an interior psychological association; it “feels like church.” For music or sound of some kind not to keep flowing underneath prayers, Scripture readings, and in between songs simply “wouldn’t feel right.” (Others might say that such a reason is negative in and of itself: there’s been an unhealthy sense of dependence created and it should be broken for that very reason. But I don’t believe that.)

An analogy is the sense of settledness I feel whenever I travel back to the town where I grew up. There’s a slightly nostalgic sense for me of “coming home.” It creates an emotion of settledness for me. In the same way, continuously flowing musical or ambient sound in church may be for some worshiping traditions in roughly a similar category; it just feels right. And I think that’s fine, in and of itself.

Prevent People from Being Distracted. If worshipers are in-the-moment, and you’re afraid that minds may start wandering if the music might stop, that may be a case for keeping one or more instruments playing between songs or underneath a reading or prayer.

Some Not-So-Good Reasons

Sound as a Sacrament. The music itself is not a sacrament. Musical sounds in themselves do not transmit or communicate the grace or presence of God to us. Maybe that strikes you as totally obvious, but not everyone agrees. There are church traditions where keeping sound or music going is considered crucial precisely because the sensory experience is so strongly associated with divine presence. Matthew Sigler and Gene Veith both offer helpful views on how this perspective has crept up on us, while Adam McIntosh argues that viewing music sacramentally may actually be consistently beneficial, in the sense of helping us view all things in the created order as prompts to worship. To be sure, God has used and will continue to use music as a profound tool in facilitating the worship of God’s people. There are all kinds of beautiful things music (and other art forms) can do in the world, and of course we do use them for kingdom purposes, but whatever your perspective on sacramental theology might be on the whole, sound is not sacrament. C.S. Lewis views the question from God’s angle, and along the way colors our thinking on the matter: “We must beware of the naive idea that our music can ‘please’ God as it would please a cultivated human hearer. That is like thinking, under the old Law, that He really needed the blood of bulls and goats. . . . For all our offerings, whether of music or martyrdom, are like the intrinsically worthless present of a child, which a father values indeed, but values only for the intention.”

Emotional Manipulation. Influence is one thing, but manipulation is quite another. Yes, our emotions are in play when we gather for worship, they must be! But beware of trying to evoke one certain emotional sense from the gathered worshipers. Let it be God Himself they are responding to. The Spirit’s work in the hearts of individual worshipers tends to be more varied than we can ever predict. If the motive behind our ambient aural sounds is that worshipers should feel a certain emotion at a certain time, I would encourage you instead to leave that to the Spirit.

No one would positively assert, of course, that we should try to manipulate people. But it can creep up on us unawares, and yield disastrous results. This week I had breakfast with a friend from church. We were chatting about his experience growing up playing music in church, and how he processes that experience now after moving away. “My father was leading for a charismatic church, planning the worship. One thing we realized—too late—was that so much of what we were doing was emotionally manipulative.” he told me. “We weren’t trying to do it. We just didn’t realize it was happening.” Watch out for emotional manipulation. It can be so hard to detect.

Because We Can. As technology continues marching forward, more and more things become simpler to do. But raising our discretion to keep pace is a challenge unto itself. On one recent Facebook discussion focused on the question of flow and ambient sound, Greg Scheer, worship pastor in western Michigan and proprietor of the outstanding Hymnary.org web resource, commented that seamless sound feels to him like the aural equivalent of environmental projection. (What's environmental projection?) Scheer wonders whether the majority of adopters have more of a “hey, this is cool we can do this now” mentality, rather than being driven first by careful pastoral reasoning that considers spiritual impact, cultural associations, and the like.

It's What People Want. This isn’t a huge point, but it’s worth adding anyway. We humans are funny creatures. Sometimes we want what we should want. Sometimes we want what we really shouldn't want. Society and culture all around are working to form us and teach us lessons that don’t always square up with the life of the Kingdom. One message we’re continually bombarded with is that we should always get whatever we feel like we want. Coming into the church, then, our Christian brothers and sisters may not always be careful to check that attitude at the door (or weed it out of our lives altogether).

This one’s tricky. All I mean is: people asking for something is not in and of itself a good enough reason. We know this intuitively, but it’s worth the reminder. Our role in church leadership is to give people, the whole congregation, what will actually be best for them, whether they know they want it or not. It may be fine for people to want continual musical sound, but then again it may not be. It is up to the pastoral leadership of the church to think clearly together about the reasoning—making the best choice on behalf of the whole congregation. This reason is the half-brother of another inadequate, yet somehow still influential, reason, “because other churches in town are doing it.” The other church may not have thought well enough about it themselves. Are people excited by the ‘wow factor’? Pastoral reasoning should not be driven by ‘wow factor.’

Click to read my next post, where I’ll propose a better way of thinking about flow in our services…