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Blake Engel, All Church Sound ((c) 10.2001)

I've been to several churches now where I've seen an interesting sign posted at the entrance to the sanctuary. The sign reads something like "Please turn off all portable distractions (cell phones, pagers, electronic toys, etc.)." At first I thought it was kind of funny, until I began to think about it. Most theaters and concert halls ask the same thing. They know how annoying it is when those little gadgets beep and buzz during the show. Not only does it bother the people around the activated device, but it bothers the actors, actresses, and musicians, too. When was the last time you heard a live recording of an orchestra where you heard beeps, buzzes, and rings in the background?

At one church I visited, the pastor told me of a time when another pastor was preaching on distractions. Just as he had finished mentioning cell phones and pagers and the congregation was silent, someone's cell phone went off! The sad part was that the phone ringing wasn't a planned event.

How dare we bring noises from the outside world into a concert hall or theater where hundreds, possibly thousands of people have paid often hundreds of dollars to hear a great performance? Are we so proud we think we need to show off how well in contact we are with everyone? Do we really need to have the ability to be in constant communication with anyone at any time?

I remember a friend telling me of using one of the first wireless bag telephones. He was sitting on the lake shore of Chicago, enjoying the summer evening, while chatting business with colleagues in New York. His friends heard all of the background noise, and wondered what was going on and where he was. When told of the new wireless wonder, they commented that it was only a short-term fad since no one really had to be in contact with people all of the time. My, how things have changed in only a few years.

"Oh, but it’s only church" I've heard people say. People who have never spoken to a large group before or those who don't see church as being important usually make such comments. "It's only church, people will understand my other commitments". Sure, try to tell that to someone who's hearing the gospel for the first time and is about to make a decision -- when your cell phone goes off because your neighbor is checking to see if they can borrow your lawn mower for a few hours.

Besides cell phones, pagers, and noisy electronic toys, there are other distractions in a church sanctuary, too. No, not the two-month old baby who's crying for food, and not the dear little old man asking his wife what time it is in a louder-than-expected voice so she can hear him. No I'm talking about distractions that are constant. Distractions that your entire congregation has put up with year after year. Distractions that probably half the congregation couldn't point toward the specific cause. I'm talking about poor acoustics and a poor sound reinforcement system.

"What?! You've gone on and on about electronic distractions, and now you're saying that the sound system and the room acoustics are distractions?" That's right. The sound system becomes a distraction as soon as there's feedback. The moment someone's microphone isn't turned on or a local radio station breaks into the pastors' sermon, the sound system becomes a distraction. None of those things happen at your church, you say? Well, what about hum and buzz and hiss from the speakers? What about the fact that the people in the first 10 rows can't hear the pastor, but the people sitting in the back can hear just fine. What about the mothers in the foyer who've stepped out to quiet their child, only to find out they can't hear the sermon in the foyer? What about the sound system that makes every voice sound like it was recorded in a tin can or as though your ears are covered with 10 layers of heavy blankets? How about the sound system that makes a tape or CD played back sound like you're listening to an AM radio? These problems are all distractions whether you know it or not. Most sound system problems aren't realized simply because no one thought to question whether or not it could be better or if it was as good as it should be. It's easy to live with a problem when you don't know anything different.

So what about acoustics? How can the sound of the room be a distraction? Echoes off the back wall that arrive back to the choir a split second after than they originally sung that word or note can throw off their timing. Parallel walls in the congregational seating area that create standing waves and flutter echoes can affect the ability of a congregation to learn new songs. Acoustics so poor that when the minister says to "go home and hug your Honey" at the end of his message on marriages, some people become very offended and leave the church because they clearly heard him say "go home and hug your money". Acoustics so poor that fundraising programs fail because everyone brought jars full of "honey" instead of "money", or when the church sound seminar topic "how to recognize speech" has low attendance because no one wanted to come hear about "how to wreck a nice beach". These are all distractions more than 98% of churches live with on an ongoing basis.

It's not just old or existing churches; it's new churches, too. How many times I've heard a church board tell me "we've got a new building complete with a brand new sound system, but we're now working out all of the bugs". What?! There shouldn't be any bugs in a new building like that. In many cases, the money spent on all sorts of fancy sound equipment and acoustic panels could have been cut in half and still had plenty to do the job right the first time. The thing is, there's no money left now to make any repairs now since many members left after they found out how poor the new building was, and those still remaining are not so willing to part with their money after seeing how its use didn't result in anything very good the first time around.

Distractions are all around us in this world. When we enter a church, we should be able to shut out the hustle and bustle of this often crazy, complicated, and noisy world we live in. Kindly turning off electronic distractions helps, walking out of the sanctuary when our little ones need special care helps too. But if the room we're in isn't conducive to worship in song or speech, if the sound reinforcement system degrades the quality of the original sound or doesn't deliver it everywhere in the room properly, what do we have? We're left with a situation where it's not easy to learn new concepts, songs, or teachings, that's for sure.

How will we understand if we cannot learn?

How will we learn if we cannot listen?

How will we listen if we cannot hear?

God calls us to spread the word to everyone. This includes non-believers as well as believers. If our houses of worship are such that words become distorted, mis-communicated, and misunderstood, are we really spreading the word of God the way He wants us to, or are we just spinning our wheels? The evil one would like just that--churches that just spin their wheels, never getting anywhere, never growing, never bringing the local neighborhood to God. Miscommunication and misunderstanding are two of the evil one's greatest devices used to upset and tear apart. Many friendships, marriages, and other partnerships are broken because of these problems. The same can happen in our houses of worship without us even knowing. Don't let the relationship you have with God or the relationship a visitor is trying to get with God be broken because of an unknown distraction. Be aware of the shortfalls many church sanctuaries and sound reinforcement systems have--and get the problems fixed before any more people are lost because of distractions no one thought to address.