We recently made two changes to our 8:30am service on Sundays. We lowered the volume level, and we changed our song repertoire to include mostly classic songs. “Classic” songs are songs from previous generations including traditional hymns and worship choruses from the ’80s and ’90s. We did this for two reasons that resulted from a series of conversations between individuals who normally attend this service and the senior pastor. First, the people were saying that the volume was too loud. Second, the people were saying that the songs were mostly unfamiliar. The result, according to the pastor, was that the people were not entering into, or engaging in, authentic worship because of these hindrances.
The first of these issues (volume level too loud) reminded me that as people age, some experience a measure of hearing loss, that, in spite of hearing aids, results in what sounds like an increased level of background noise and less distinction in individual sounds. So, even though people may be losing their hearing, some sounds feel louder (and more irritating) to them than others. We decided, as a result, to remove instruments like the electric guitar, bass guitar and drums from this service to lower the overall volume level. We’ve discovered from past experience that it’s difficult to use these instruments and keep it quiet at the same time. When we’ve tried to do so, the instrumentalists often felt they were wasting their time and efforts because they weren’t being heard.
In response to the second issue (too many unfamiliar songs) we decided to begin using mostly classic songs from past generations with which most of the participants were already familiar and to introduce newer songs at a slower rate of speed.
Both of these issues reminded me of the passage in First Corinthians 14 in which the Apostle Paul instructed the church that when worship participants cannot understand what is being said or sung, they are not edified and therefore, have not fully participated in worship. To Paul, edification is an important aspect of corporate worship. In verse 12 he writes, “So also you, since you are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek to abound for the edification of the church.” Later, writing specifically about tongues without an interpretation, he writes in verse 17, “For you are giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not edified.” He makes a distinction here between private and corporate worship. In verses 18 and 19 he writes, “I thank God, I speak in tongues more than you all (privately); however, in the church (corporately) I desire to speak five words with my mind so that I may instruct others also, rather than ten thousand words in a tongue.” Summarizing in verse 26 his teaching on corporate worship he writes, “Let all things be done for edification.” To Paul, edification is imperative in corporate worship.
The implication here is that believers should observe different practices in corporate worship than we do in private worship. In private worship, we can do most anything within the bounds of Scripture that edifies the individual, according to his or her personality and giftedness. See many other verses in chapter 14. In corporate worship, however, we must do the things that edify the greatest number of people and/or seek to edify those who are the least gifted among us. That is not to say that we should “dumb down” our worship, but that we should seek to use language, songs, actions and forms that communicate in understandable and edifying ways to as many participants as possible without compromising the gospel.
I agree with RTS professor John Frame when he said in our worship class, “According to 1 Cor 14, worship is about communication.” Therefore, I have concluded that not only is it appropriate to adjust our communications in worship from private to corporate settings, but also according to who is attending a given corporate worship service. If there is a significant difference in those who attend a particular service, it is appropriate to adust our communications accordingly. I believe when there’s greater understanding, whether through appropriate volume levels, through appropriate song selection, or through other means, there’s greater edification, participation and worship among the believers in our church. Our hope and prayer is that through effective communication, all will be edified so that even an unbeliever joining us will experience God’s presence through us, and in the words of Paul in verse 25, “So he will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, ‘God is really among you.'”