About Tuning Out

1A few weeks ago I stirred the evangelical worship pot with my post “Are We Headed For A Crash? Reflections On The Current State of Evangelical Worship”. One of the lines that got me the most flack was this one (when explaining my experience at a worship service/concert):

“…Even I didn’t know most of the songs that we were supposed to be singing along to at the conference. I tuned out. I sat down. I Tweeted. I texted my wife. I gave up.”

Some people very sweetly encouraged me to try a bit harder next time, while others offered to pray for the state of my soul.

I wanted to say two things about this whole “tuning out” thing:

First, it’s good for worship leaders to sit back from time to time and analyze a worship service. Analyzing isn’t a bad thing when it’s not the only thing. If all you’re doing is analyzing, then you’re missing the forest for the trees. But if you never do any analyzing, you’re missing the trees that need pruning.

I’m grateful for the opportunity I had at the worship conference to enjoy some sweet times of congregational worship, and to enjoy some enlightening times of observing. I was in a section where I could sit and not be a distraction or discouragement to anyone, and I learned a lot. Worship leaders have to be able to analyze and observe. It will make them and the services they lead more effective.

Second, it’s hard for people to stay engaged when the songs are all unfamiliar (and this should not be a controversial statement). This is true on Sunday mornings, and it’s true at your favorite performer’s concert. New songs are great, but familiar songs are an anchor.

When we don’t sing any familiar songs, we take away any sense of there being an “anchor” for the congregation, causing them to get defensive and pull back. Will there always be those who aren’t engaged no matter what you do? Yes. And will there always be those who say things were great no matter what you do? Yes.

But most people, including worship leader bloggers, will eventually succumb to fatigue in a service where there are no familiar songs. We should be aware of this when we lead worship, and not wear our people out.

I eventually succumbed to that fatigue, and “gave up” singing along, and decided to check in with my wife (putting three girls to bed), check in on the outside world, and observe. I would have preferred to sing along.

Your congregation probably prefers to sing along too. But when they can’t sing along, they usually won’t sing along, and that was my experience several weeks ago, as a normal person in the pews. Or, nicely padded theater seats.

So worship leaders: when you’re leading, try not to give people excuses to tune out. And when you’re in the congregation, try to be as engaged as you can be. But from time to time, it might be a good idea to sit down, observe, and analyze. (But be careful blogging about it unless you’re prepared to explain yourself!)


12 thoughts on “About Tuning Out”

  1. Good Word…

    I will always be a perfectionist technician no matter how hard I try my Sound Technician, Electronics Technician and Worshiper Heart will always have a part of me observing.

    But, I don’t think I’ve ever *really* tuned out.

    Forced out yes.

    Like when the bass was so loud it set my innards into oscillation and made me physically sick.

    Or, when trying to hit that note none of us can hit the leader tries to yell it out and sets ones ears to ringing, like being at the shooting range without ear protection.

    You can’t help but flinch.

    But, usually, because I am there to Worship I try, really try, to stay focused.

    Yes, new songs are a pain. But, they are usually repeated and I can often find something to harmonize with.

    I guess what I am trying to share is that *if* a person has come to Worship, it will usually take a bit to knock them off pace.

    But, leaders… Will always analyze… *if* they are good leaders. Because they will always want to improve their serve… And, that is the difference, simply put, between one’s purpose on the platform and who they are trying to lead the congregation to.

    Can I learn from this guy something that will improve my serve at a later date? Are they doing something that is distracting? Do *I* do that? How do I stop doing that? What should I replace it with? Etc., Etc.

  2. Some thoughts:
    Musicians and singers can seem oblivious to the fact they assimilate and get bored with new material so much faster than others. Just as everyone else is getting it, they’re past it and ready for the next thing.
    Maybe Christians singing at a conference is not the same thing as congregational singing. Local church is congregational singing. Conference is something else.
    Maybe you could explore the concept of ‘singing along’. I’m generally aiming for the congregation to sing, with musicians and vocalists providing a scaffold for them to do that with confidence. I think the ‘singing along’ is what we do at a concert or in the car.

    Helpful thoughts. Keep going.

  3. With a 30 year background on this whole performance vs participation debate you have rightly surfaced, my book “Soul Space: Ancient Realities in Postmodern Worship Spaces” (2008) addresses this inherent space issue. There is a big difference between loving people and loving AT people…and the worship service will always be perceived as performance as long as there’s a flat floor and raised platform with everyone facing the same direction. Soul Space tells the Grace Community Church, Noblesville IN and the unique participatory, immersive space we designed / built for them in 2008. The elephant isn’t IN the room The elephant IS the room. Kevin Callahan Callahan Studios Soul Space +361Worship http://www.callahanstudios.com

  4. Yup.

    You know what else causes a congregation to tune out, sit back, and not participate? A whole lot more than video screens or iMag (for those congregations used to such things)…

    … key selection.

    Nothing makes them shut up and give up quicker than singing a Tomlin song in the original key.

    1. Regarding ‘Key Selection’…. Absolutely! A three octave operatic voice is great for specials… But, if the Worship Leader can’t lead in a congregational singable key, it would be better…… Well, you get the idea.

      There is one thing worse, though, a ‘baby’ Worship Leader who trie to scream past a note they can’t actually hit… 🙂

      1. Well, if the song is congregationally singable, that’s usually not an issue…

        There are circumstances where I will still violate this rule for certain types of songs, “Cornerstone” by Hillsong is a good example, where the song is just so, so good, and it jumps the octave. If the song is familiar, the congregation will usually just keep singing in the original key if they aren’t comfortable jumping the octave with the leader.

        On a side note does anyone else constantly mistype singing as sining, or is it just me?

  5. Hey Jamie, thanks for sharing so honestly and sensitively. This is a helpful follow-up to your original post. I’ll go back and read the comments and your other posts.

    “Worship fatigue” and “tuning out” are real problems. Regarding choosing too many unfamiliar songs, my experience is that the complexity of the song is a bigger issue than whether it’s new or not. If the song has a great hook and is easy to sing, it can be invigorating, not tiring.

    Another source of fatigue can be singing too many songs back-to-back that are dense lyrically and theologically, especially the modern hymns. One or two is fine, after that, my brain starts to hurt.

    Thanks for being a thought-leader for worship!

    1. ” Regarding choosing too many unfamiliar songs, my experience is that the complexity of the song is a bigger issue than whether it’s new or not. If the song has a great hook and is easy to sing, it can be invigorating, not tiring. ”

      Oh do I agree here. 🙂

      While I understand what you’re saying in the second graph. You can go to far in the other direction and be so simplistic that it becomes more of a sung chant than a song from the heart, too…

      1. Of course, there’s no inherent, non-cultural reason that chants can’t be from the heart as well. By culture, I mean church culture. Its just another form of expression, after all.

  6. I totally understand that, Jamie. Even if I came to a service hungry and eager to worship the LORD, I can’t help tuning out when all the music is foreign and unfamiliar.

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