A View from the Pew: The Devil is in the Sound System

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When you grow up a preacher’s kid and spend every waking moment (and some sleeping moments) in a church service, you are bound to witness some serious sound system mishaps.

One of my earliest memories of a sound system glitch dates back to when I was 5 or 6. We were attending another church for a revival, and the audio receiver picked up a nearby CB radio. Right in the middle of the service we heard the crackle of “Breaker 1-9, breaker 1-9, you got your ears on? C’mon.”

A version of this glitch occurred recently at my church when our sound system picked up what sounded like a mobile phone conversation. I am no electrical engineer and have no clue what causes these signals to get intercepted or crossed, but with all of the wireless apparatus in use in modern churches, I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more often.

Lapel mics are the source of many of these mishaps. Yes, you will see an exuberant song leader or gesticulating preacher hit the podium mic on occasion, but I can’t count the number of times someone has accidently swiped off a lapel mic in mid-sentence, had the battery die, or, the most amusing and potentially embarrassing problem of all, the mic staying live after it should have been switched off. I’ve heard one of our sound crew say he actively tries to catch our pastor singing into the mic.

There are plenty of examples of a live mic catching people saying or doing embarrassing things before or after a speaking engagement or worship service. Word to the wise – never, ever go into a bathroom with a lapel mic. And always, always treat every microphone as being live.

Having not ever been to seminary or taken a preaching class, I’m not sure what they teach would-be preachers about the sound system, but I wish they would cover one rudimentary fact: positioning or walking a microphone in front of a speaker creates feedback. It’s easy to prevent. Just be aware of your surroundings and don’t turn up the gain too high.

The hearing impaired have the most issues with public address systems, and as congregations age, more and more are challenged by sound amplification. Getting the level just right can be tricky and disruptive.

I remember filling in with the sermon one Sunday night at my church in Macon. An older member on the third row was having a hard time hearing me, probably because my height added distance between me and the microphone. He took matters into his own hands. He got up, marched all the way to the unattended sound board in the back, and upped the gain. It immediately created an echoing feedback loop that deafened all 14 of the faithful saints who had gathered on a Sunday night to hear a rank amateur. It was the most memorable thing about that sermon.

I recently reflected on some of those audio flubs during a sermon (I know, don’t judge me) when I glanced up at the sound booth to see my teenage son working the board. Everything was going well, and so far he’s had no issues. Lately, I find I’m more aware of the sound system on the Sundays he’s in the booth.

But no matter who is in the booth, I think it’s good practice to say a prayer for the sound system and it’s devoted servants because faith comes by hearing, and hearing comes from the sound system.

Lance Wallace_for_webLance Wallace is a Baptist layperson and member of Parkway Baptist Church in Johns Creek, GA, does media relations and issues management at his day job, and blogs at newsouthessays.com.

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