The Wall of Sound in Worship – Part 2 – Are There Benefits To A Concert Volume In Church?
Pasadena, California was the perfect place for an outdoor concert in October. It had been hot during the day with summer temperatures, so when the sun set, the thermometer dropped just far enough to cool us from the heat but not freeze us. With this wonderful T-shirt weather, a clear sky showing off its brightest stars not blocked by city lights, and a nice breeze that added a feathery touch to the night, we were set for the concert of our lives.
The band we had come to see walked out to the song Space Oddity by David Bowie, a slow, dream-like acoustic soundscape that tells the story of an astronaut’s fantastical, surreal journey into space.
We were in for a surreal journey of our own. The screen above the stage, the biggest one I had ever seen, was a curved LCD screen that looked like a two-story mirror melted into a wide cylinder. Everyone in the stadium had a clear view of the curved HD display. As the Bowie song played, a cartoon of a stick-figure head in an astronaut helmet floated and bounced around the screen. All 97,000 fans were screaming at the top of their lungs. We shook the Rose Bowl. Pasadena residents could probably hear our cheering from miles away. We were ecstatic.
There they were! I caught a glimpse of The Edge’s classic knit cap. Larry Mullen Jr. walked to his drums with his usual no-nonsense demeanor. Adam Clayton dutifully manned his post at the bass with his patented laid back half-smile. A few moments later, the famous shades appeared. Bono—with microphone in hand—paced back and forth on the stage like a hungry lion. A second later, the legendary band U2 ripped into the booming power chords of their opening song, Breathe, and Bono’s hyperactive tenor voice reverberated to the highest seats of the Rose Bowl.
For two hours, a beautifully woven, rehearsed Wall of Sound crashed on our heads like the most breathtaking emerald blue ocean wave you’ve ever seen. It was a Wall of Sound that you didn’t want to end. And it was the Wall of Sound that has inspired countless Christian artists and worship leaders since U2 started playing in 1980.
In Part 1 of “Scaling the Wall of Sound in Worship,” we traced the history of the Wall of Sound technique and connected the dots from producer Phil Spector in the 1960s to the larger-than-life rock group U2, the band that perfected the method in their sound recordings and live shows. Before exploring some of the downsides of the Wall of Sound in worship, we’ll look at three of its benefits
.Benefit #1: Art’s Depiction of the Power of God
Johann Sebastian Bach said this about music: “The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.” The Wall of Sound, especially when experienced in a live setting, glorifies God in the same way that all art does: it provides a parable for our senses. It depicts the mighty power of God. The same God who created lightning and thunder and gave it the capacity to explode with deafening volume has given music similar capabilities. The Bible, especially in Job and the Psalms, tells us that the loud elements of nature depict God’s awesome power and might. In the same way, He gave sound waves in music the ability to shake the earth with incredible amplitudes. When a band raises the Wall of Sound in a concert, they’re tapping into this inherent nature in God’s creation. They’re depicting the glory of God in a palpable way that awakens our senses to His nature. Yes, secular bands with no conscious thought of God use the Wall of Sound too, but they’re missing out on the purpose of it. When a Christian group consciously uses the Wall of Sound at the right moment to express God’s breathtaking power and majesty, it turns the music of worship into poetry. It’s not unlike encountering Mt. Everest or some other mountain for the first time. It’s sublime, humbling, and it reminds us how small we are compared to God.
Benefit #2: Praising God with a Shout!
If you study the Psalms and read the history of King David’s tabernacle on Mount Zion, you will know that physically expressive forms of worship were far more than mere emotional experiences. They didn’t dance, shout, clap, and raise their hands simply because they were in a good mood and were really getting into the worship. In David’s day, those things were disciplines. They were weapons—sometimes literally. King Jehoshaphat, who maintained the same tabernacle of worship that David created, sent his worship team to the front lines of a battle because he saw worship as a more potent weapon than any sword or chariot. In other words, they were incredibly serious about incorporating all of their strength—physical, mental, and emotional—to glorify God. New Testament powerhouses understood these same principles. When the Apostle Paul was in prison, he and Silas didn’t sing loudly because they were listening to a recording of Chris Tomlin and were really getting into the song and “feelin’ it.” They brought their songs of worship to God as an offering of their wills—as a determined choice. From the Bible’s perspective, singing and worship are disciplines—both physically and mentally—not entertainment or self-help therapy.
Sadly, our self-centered culture of endless entertainment pollutes the way we view the activities of worship. People who use physically expressive forms of worship are sometimes labeled as over-emotional or weird. However, in concert settings, the Wall of Sound has a unique way of breaking through these cultural inhibitions. It reduces our shyness a little. The loud volume gives us more liberty. We can freely belt out our worship with all of our strength or shout praises to God at the top of our lungs because no one can hear us. Although these experiences are frequently emotional responses to the power of the concert, it does give us a glimpse of worshiping with extravagant physical expressiveness as David did. I’ve known some people who have experienced a breakthrough in their worship during one of these concerts, and they were determined to make it a daily discipline in their relationship with God, not just a mountaintop high point at a concert.
Benefit #3: The Wall of Collaboration
The first two benefits focus on live settings. Frankly, in a live setting, even a small three-piece band can create the Wall of Sound if they have the right instruments, sound equipment, and the know-how. Even a solo musician could do it with a guitar amp and the right effects. In a studio recording, however, it’s trickier to accomplish. This is why Phil Spector—the inventor of the style in the 1960s—used orchestra-sized armies of studio musicians to play on his recordings. It takes careful planning and harmonious collaboration to pull it off. In other words, from a musician’s perspective, the Wall of Sound encourages unity and collaboration. It reflects another aspect of Christ’s character: His Body. It’s a fascinating experience to listen to a recording with dozens of instruments playing. If you have a decent ear, it becomes a game to see how many of them you can pick out in the mix. It’s breathtaking to hear how a well-organized Wall of Sound fits together with all of its pieces. It reminds us that Christ means to do the same with His Church.
Not a Perfect Style
Despite the benefits mentioned above, the Wall of Sound isn’t always appropriate, and it isn’t always effective. In fact, in certain settings it can be downright destructive to the flow of worship. Some of the reasons might seem obvious, but as we explore these problems in the third and final part to this series, we’ll find that the reasons aren’t as obvious as we think.