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“It’s Too Loud!”: Responding to Volume Critics at Your Church

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The scene is set. It’s a Sunday morning, and the band is cranking through the second of a four-song set. You loved the latest Hillsong or Bethel song and things are moving in the right direction. However, at the back of the room is an individual you’ve seen before: the person who loves to say, “It’s too loud.”

Over the last 20 years of being a part of growing churches, I’ve noticed a constant din of people who complain about how loud church can be. Whether the music is blasting during worship or a speaker is simply turned on, these folks find a problem with the volume on any given Sunday. However, I’ve also noticed that churches that are growing and making a difference tend to run at a loud volume—it’s not an exception.

The reality is that if your church uses contemporary music to connect with and build up your community, chances are you’ve heard complaints about the volume.

I recently connected with executive pastors and leaders at some of the fastest-growing, most influential churches in the country to find out exactly how loud their weekend worship services are. As you can see below, a trend emerged: each of these churches tends to run loud volumes in their main auditoriums. Here’s a list of eight churches along with their speaker volumes in A-weighted decibels:

Each one of these churches make an impact in their communities and reach thousands of people every weekend. So their practices beg the question: if these churches are running at a loud volume, what are they saying to those in their community that complain about the “noise”? More importantly, what can you say in response to the volume critics at your church? This is a complex issue, but there are a few things to consider as you lead conversations about volume control.

Quick Lesson on Volume and Hearing Damage

One complaint lodged against loud services is that it could damage people’s hearing. While it is possible to damage hearing at many different volumes, it requires more than volume itself. Significant damage to hearing occurs through a combination of the following factors: proximity to the sound source, sustained exposure, and dBA levels. Look at the chart below for examples of the combined factors required to result in hearing damage:

dBA LEVELS EXAMPLE [ref] SUSTAINED EXPOSURE FOR DAMAGE [ref]
85 dBA Snowblower 8 hours
90 dBA Lawnmower 2 hours
95 dBA Inside a subway car 1 hour
100 dBA Riding a motorcycle 15 minutes
105 dBA Table saw 3.7 minutes
110 dBA Jackhammer 111 seconds (1 m)
115 dBA Emergency vehicle siren 57 seconds

Obviously, we don’t want to run our worship services in such a way that it would damage anyone’s hearing. However, most churches that do run loud don’t run loud enough to do damage in the amount of time that we worship. For instance, if your church runs at 95 dBA, you would need to sustain that level for an hour straight (which is virtually impossible to do given the dynamics of how music works) in order to sustain any damage. Obviously, pushing above 115 for any period of time could end up causing damage. However, typical levels average far lower than that across prevailing churches. The important thing to note is that growing and prevailing churches don’t run at a volume so loud that it would do damage during the 20-25 minutes of worship.

3 Reasons Churches Run Loud Services

It fills the room.

The reality is that when you run a loud volume during the service, it gives the impression of the room being fuller. There’s something about a full room that encourages engagement. Ultimately, musical worship is about drawing people in and inviting them to be a part of an experience, and when it runs louder, that full room encourages people to lean in and engage more.

A louder volume encourages more singing.

Trust me, you don’t want to hear me sing. If the volume of the music is so low that you can hear me sing, it may discourage you from singing, not necessarily because I’m such a terrible singer, but because you are worried about what I think of your singing. Louder volumes actually encourage people to participate.

Less somber, more celebration.

A significant reason for keeping the music loud is that most churches are trying to project a celebratory tone rather than somber one. This celebratory tone communicates that Jesus is alive and making a difference in people’s lives today

3 Things It Might Be Besides Volume

When people complain about volume in our churches, sometimes they are really complaining about other things. It takes training to understand how volume works within any given room; an experienced audio engineer can speak knowledgeably about the volume of any given experience. However, when others that are less familiar with the science of sound complain about what they call volume, it might actually be something else that’s causing them discomfort. Three examples of other things it might be are:

The mix

I’m convinced that when people complain about volume, they are often really referring to the mix but don’t know how to articulate it. It could be that there’s too much screeching electric guitar, or cymbals piercing through at an inappropriate spot, or maybe the bass is just rumbling and muddying the mix too much. If we’re hearing a complaint about volume, then we need to investigate whether it’s just a bad mix in the room.

Lousy musicianship

Maybe the electric guitarist isn’t quite up to be leading this audience, or maybe the drummer is banging too harshly on the drums; in short, poor musicianship could be causing a distraction. Sometimes people complain about the volume when what they’re really thinking is that the folks on the stage aren’t leading them in an efficient and effective manner.

Your style

Let’s just speak plainly: some folks simply don’t like your musical style. They wish it was something else—maybe quieter, more somber, more reflective, or more introspective—something other than your current style. Acknowledge that sometimes when someone complains, what they’re saying is not “it’s too loud”, but “it’s not how I want it.”

5 Practical Tips for Helping People Who Think It’s Too Loud

Acknowledge that you hear them.

Whenever anyone complains about anything at your church, you first need to understand what they’re saying, so slow down and listen to them. Ironically, if someone feels like he or she is not being heard when they are talking about volume, it will just upset them even more. Clearly acknowledge that you hear them when they voice their complaints.

Explain your purpose.

Always lead with the “why” of the volume. Any of the following may apply:

  • Our church is about reaching those who aren’t in church, and we’re trying to create the kind of church that unchurched people love to attend.
  • We are trying to reach those that aren’t currently connected to our church.
  • One of the things that we found is that a louder style of music helps draw in and engage people who might not otherwise come to church.

Don’t fight people at the level of dBA levels or a scientific number but start with the “why”. Explain it clearly to them and try to get them on board from a missional point of view.

Offer them a different place in the room.

Even in the most acoustically tuned rooms designed to create a uniform experience, there will be places that are louder than others. Try directing those who are bothered by the volume to a spot in the room that isn’t as loud. Directing them away from the volume can be a practical service to these folks.

Let them know you have earplugs.

A good best practice for churches that are running decibels anywhere in the mid-90s or higher is to have earplugs readily available for people to use. Make sure that your guest services team, the team at the sound booth, and those greeting guests at the doors have some available for anyone who might find the service too loud. A good set of earplugs will reduce sound 10 to 20-decibels in any room, bringing it down to a comfortable range.

Reinforce that your team is working to make this a great experience for everyone.

Please don’t throw your sound team under the bus. Those folks work hard on a regular basis to ensure a quality experience for everyone who attends. Go out of your way in these interactions to articulate that you support your team and that you want to work with them to make it great.

Finally, remember that it’s a minority of people who are complaining about your audio.

Even if one or two people complain about the sound at every service, the reality is there are lots of others who didn’t say anything at all. Consider what is happening to the interactions taking place in the room. If the volume in the room is driving down engagement, it’s too loud. However, I suspect that in most churches we don’t run sound loud enough to increase the engagement.

Finally, Revelation 4 paints this incredible picture of what it’s going to be like to be before the throne. While we can’t replicate all of that, we are trying to catch a glimpse of it by modeling our experience after what we see in the Bible.

I’d love to hear from you about what volume you run at your services and how you interact with the people in your church who think it’s too loud. Thanks for pressing on and for making the kind of experiences that people will engage with and be encouraged by. I’d love to hear more thoughts in the comments section below.


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34 Comments

  1. This is great practical insight into volume at church. I gotta day that I completely agree with you on this matter. This hits home with us. We have been asking some to move to a different location further away from the speakers. I think we will begin offering ear plugs as well. We typically run 92-95 with an occasional peak at 102.

  2. We had people leaving our church in the 90’s saying, “that music hurts my ears!” Finally I called a friend who was one of the leading audiologists in the country and asked how best to respond. He said, “when they are saying ‘that music hurts my ears,’ what they mean is that music hurts their ears!” He went on to say that as we age, something happens to our ears that is analogous to our eyes – the don’t work the same say. He said that especially as a person is getting older (though may happen sooner), they hear fine to a point and then it’s like dropping off a cliff: it hurts! That was a true wake-up call to me. We run our music in the same range as those listed in the article, but we have jars in the back filled with earplugs so that folks can mitigate the sound,

  3. I think you mostly touched on it, but ultimately it’s the content of your program material that matters. Hitting a number on a db meter is fine, but there’s an infinite number of ways to do that and make it sound terrible. To your point, a bad mix can be a huge distraction, whether it’s at 88db or 94db. On the other hand, it can be surprising how “quiet” a really well-mixed worship team can sound at 95 db (or higher). Reducing the “it’s too loud” complaints is really about addressing the content and making sure that the average listener is hearing something well-mixed. The louder you get and the more acoustic energy (volume) you put in the room, the harder it is for the guy behind the mixer to control it. There’s a definite balancing act to make sure that “loud” and “good” are used together, not as an either/or.

    If the pieces aren’t in place that week to make a “good” 95db, backing off the gas pedal isn’t a bad thing. After all, if you had to pick from 5 people not singing because it’s “not loud enough” this week, or 5 people choosing to leave (or stay home) because it’s loud but doesn’t sound good, which would you choose? I would wager the first group, although probably less vocal about it (if at all), would be far more likely to come back in the door than the latter.

  4. We run ours at 86 db peak about 90 when voices hit hard. We had one person leave church for go due to it was loud. They never came over to us or even said anything. They left and sent a letter in a month afterwards. All of us think they sat right in the line of the horn. They said it should be run at 70db. So we are kinda pluzzle on that one. Most of the pastor like oh well.

  5. For the audio guys out there, an often overlooked area of the mix is stage volume. Especially for those in a smaller venue, that monitor mix your electric guitarist is insisting be even louder is likely reflecting off the back of the stage and muddying up your mix. You’re going to push the mains harder to over power that reflected muddy nastiness.

    It’s a good idea to take your mains to zero a few times during sound check so you understand what you’re dealing with.

    Convincing your band members to take a quieter monitor feed is going to depend on their skill and their level of trust that you’re going to make them sound great, even if stage volume isn’t optimal.

  6. For people like me on the autism spectrum and a Pentecostal, sometimes the noise complaints are justifiable. People who suffer from noise sensory issues (like some of us on the autism spectrum) have legitimate complaints.

  7. Good reading, some good points raised here.

    Some aspects not mentioned

    Our tolerance for volume before it’s too loud is also dependant very much on distortion. I recently attended a funeral in another church and as I walked in I immediately noticed the clean clear sound of the keyboard playing ( new installation) Its the Overtones and harmonics higher than the fundamental frequency that give the sound a lot of character. On the other end of the scale I’ve been asked to play audio tracks from the internet in church. Most are poor quality but some are just awful. They are not only very compressed, but very distorted by my standards, they are played at the lowest volume I can get away with.

    Good to hear about older people getting pain and being less tolerant to louder sounds. But it’s not just volume. High frequency hearing loss in old people is very real and very severe. High frequency loss is linked with intelligibility, you cant hear the consonants and its difficult to follow the conversation. Now what does a good thumping Bass do for them? It’s devastating and probably the last straw for some.

    Lastly room resonances and speaker coverage. If speaker coverage is not good and you can detect dull patches (loss of highs) in the seated area then this needs to be addressed at the start before anything else. This is basic first step. Room resonances likewise, acoustic material strategically placed may help and then a third octave graphic etc may just make the difference you are looking for.
    The best test is to ask the old chap in the back row..

    John Fickling
    Senior Audio tech.

  8. Great, thoughtful, well-reasoned article. I would also add that the age of the ‘ears’ and their components will play a role, as things change with age (we have an older gentleman-who loved the music-that wasn’t complaining just to complain but had a legitimate hearing issue). Additionally, I do think the acoustics of the room do come into play, maybe more on the perception of loudness end of things. Thanks again for your article.

  9. Thanks for this great article. This really articulates what our worship team has been trying to communicate to our complainers and even to some of our senior staff. We run at 86-88 dBA with an occasional peak between 91 and 92. The senior staff who complain to us tend to sit in the front row directly in line with one of the line arrays.

    We have started to distribute ear plugs, but some of the biggest complainers refuse to use them, I guess because they think they shouldn’t have to take those measures. I equate ear plugs to sweaters or jackets. If we set the temperature in our rooms to please those who like it very hot, the ones who like it cold will be uncomfortable, and there’s not a whole lot they can do about. If you set it cold, the ones who like it hot can wear an extra layer and everyone can be comfortable. With sound levels, those who like it quiet can put in the plugs and allow the others to enjoy the louder music.

    1. I don’t believe the sweater analogy works. If you have a thumping base the reverberations are not muted at all.

      I am one who is hearing impaired and I don’t use ear plugs because they don’t. I’ve tried them.

  10. I once was completely unsympathetic to the “too loud” complaints. Recently, compliments of a virus I’m told, I suddenly have tinnitus and some hearing difficulties. Loud music is particularly uncomfortable to me. I obtained an app for my iPhone that measures DB levels. Our church consistently averages over 100 DBs and peaks at 105 often. And the bass seems to be mixed at an extremely high level. Would you say this is too loud?

    I am an elder at our church, and I know most people like the music, but the discomfort makes me want to come late so I can avoid some of the songs. It seems like there ought to be a place for us to worship.

    By the way, ear plugs don’t work. It seemed like a good idea to me back when I was unsysmpathetic. It’s hard to have empathy without the experience.

  11. I appreciate the information you’ve provided, and the spirit in which it is delivered. The 5 practical tips will be helpful in many cases.

    However, as one who has in the past year begun having hearing difficulties, including tinnitus, I believe the 5 tips will ring very hollow for most of the people experiencing the discomfort. It frankly sounds more like “Our church is no longer for you.” For people who have spent years helping to build the very church that is no longer for them , hearing that is sad. It leaves the hearer to make decisions they shouldn’t be forced to make. And the church suffers because some of its most faithful followers will opt out.

    It would be nice if an effective method of dealing with these difficulties could be found. Perhaps a separate service with the decibel levels promised to be < 90 would be an option. Or perhaps one of the existing services could be designated "low volume." Another option might be to separate a small room for them to sit in, though I have a feeling they would feel ostracized, not to mention the cost. That's probably not a viable option.

    I lead a small group of empty-nesters in our church, and nearly every member has complained to me about the volume. As an elder, they expect me to act on the problem. In the past, before I was forced to be more empathetic by my own condition, I would pass on the comments to our pastors, and they would tell me the five tips you mention, and one time they told me volume would not exceed 90 decibels. At the time I didn't have an appreciation for what that meant. I would then feel like I had been helpful.

    However, the decibel levels currently run between 100 and 105 at our church. I now have complete empathy for the "complainers", and now I am faced with the same dilemma. It's funny how God finds a way for us to be empathetic.

    Please continue to think about this issue, as baby boomers need a place to worship too.

  12. You have made some excellent points in the article. As an audio engineer, I’ve dealt with these issues first hand. A couple of additional thoughts:

    First, a lot of churches try to be something they are not. A small church with a mediocre band and a terrible PA will try to recreate Hillsong. All they can do is attempt to match the volume, and with a bad PA, it’s painful for everyone. An extra 10 dB SPL A doesn’t make up for ability.

    Second, we see more and more over-use of compression. It’s a bigger problem today than 10 years ago because digital boards have compression on every channel, buss and output. Inexperienced engineers crank the compressors to oblivion and remove all dynamic range from the mix. So, what would have been a mix with an average SPL of 85-88 with peaks up above 100–which would be very comfortable—the entire worship set is a steady 98. This is exhausting to listen to.

    I heard this recently at a conference and what should have been a good band on a good PA sounded like an incredibly loud AM radio. There was no life , no energy, just loud. I left after 60 seconds.

    Putting up a great mix takes a lot of skill. Churches would would be wise to bring in highly qualified engineers to train their audio teams. Yes, this costs money, but probably less than the annual tithes and offerings from a 60-year old couple who has been there for 30 years, but left because of the sound.

  13. Earplugs? Seriously? Would you suggest people wear earplugs during an over-amplified sermon? If not, then why during the music? Others here have commented on the technical aspects of audio, mixing etc. But I take issue with the idea that higher volumes from the band encourage people to sing – they don’t. In fact it is noticeable that with louder volumes the focus is often towards the band rather than the congregation, and for those of us who do like to sing and (if I may say so without being immodest) are good at it, it is discouraging if you can’t hear yourself do it, and worse, if you can’t hearhow your voice is blending with others. This is not trivial point. Music, especially singing, has the capacity to build and enhance community, and this is impaired when the stage musicians are allowed to dominate in what should be a communal act of worship.

  14. One further point. You mention one reason for loud volumes being a desire to project a celebratory atmosphere. This is not always appropriate, and one discussion in the church circles in which I move is the concern that the contemporary church is losing the capacity to lament. I’ve come across significant numbers of people who have, after a while, become very disillusioned with the rather relentless celebration in their churches and long for a more rounded expression of the Christian life.

    1. Simon!

      I appreciate the push back and well thought out critique.

      In the interview that’s attached to this article, I go into more nuance around volume and it impacts.

      Again, thanks for doing everything you can to reach more people in your community!

      – Rich

  15. Great article, Rich. It’s not enough to “set it and forget it.” Worship leaders, production directors, site pastors and lots of other kinds of leaders need to know how to receive and address criticism which WILL come around volume – either because it’s too much or not enough!

    Over the years I’ve definitely found that making sure I listen to someone’s concern and do everything I can to clearly understand why they are upset is 90% of the solution. I’ve found often that sound guys and worship leaders push back but don’t really take time to listen and hear the person who is making the complaint.

    Another factor in all of this is helping people from the congregation understand that our production team (in most cases, anyways) are volunteers. These are not paid professionals. Sometimes volunteers get things wrong and that’s why we need grace for each other. We’re not going to be perfect. We have a target that we’re shooting for. Most weeks we hit, sometimes we don’t. The people running production on our teams aren’t robots and their heart is to serve, to help and, ultimately, to see people worship God together in our services.

  16. I am of the opinion that if you need to supply ear plugs to people when they come to worship, the music is too loud. You also have to remember, especially in smaller churches in smaller communities, you don’t often get visitors. We need to respect each other and have regard for the elders in our congregation. If we don’t think they are as important as we are we’re not really being part of the body.

    I also had something happen to me which changed my opinion of things. We had 4 young adult males come in to our church that had never been to church. They didn’t have good family situations so the church loved them and became their family. Within a few months they all came to Christ and we rejoiced with them. One weekend we went to a Christian concert. We all came out with our ears ringing but big smiles on our faces cause we thought the music was great. We excitedly asked the 4 young men for their opinion of the music and they shrugged their shoulders and said it was ok. We asked them how come and their answer really got us all thinking. They said the music was very similar to what was in a regular concerts they used to go to except it had “Jesus” thrown in occasionally. They said we don’t want the “same old”, we actually enjoy church music and we want to worship. It doesn’t need to be so loud.

    People it’s not the rock gods we are trying to impress. Our music is to be projected as a love offering into the heavenlies. So please don’t make your music so loud that it makes the angels cry.

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Rich Birch
Rich Birch is one of the early multi-site church pioneers in North America. He led the charge in helping The Meeting House in Toronto to become the leading multi-site church in Canada with over 5,000+ people in 18 locations. In addition, he served on the leadership team of Connexus Church in Ontario, a North Point Community Church Strategic Partner. He has also been a part of the lead team at Liquid Church - a 5 location multisite church serving the Manhattan facing suburbs of New Jersey. Liquid is known for it’s innovative approach to outreach and community impact. Rich is passionate about helping churches reach more people, more quickly through excellent execution.His latest book Church Growth Flywheel: 5 Practical Systems to Drive Growth at Your Church is an Amazon bestseller and is design to help your church reach more people in your community.