Turn Down That Microphone and Preach from Your Soul: How Modern P.A. Systems Have Harmed Preaching

I had a funeral  today and for various reasons the P.A. System was not working during the time for the homily. I have a large cavernous Church, built of stone and plaster and both music and voice resonate well. With a fairly full church I had to preach the Old Fashioned way, I belted it out.

I was reminded again how powerfully the modern use of microphones has affected preaching and to some extent singing. To preach without a microphone means to preach with elevated volume and it requires one to strongly project the voice. In effect one has to preach authoritatively and passionately. I had to speak boldly. And as I preached in this manner the physical requirement began to affect the message. As adrenaline began to build, enthusiasm and a kind of confident joy overtook me.

Now I am not generally known for a quiet style of preaching anyway 🙂   but preaching in this manner strengthened my message even more. Body and soul were fully engaged in proclaiming the message. Ah what power the preachers of old had to have! Imagine Jesus preaching out in the open to thousands. He surely did not speak gently, he needed power to project.

It is not the first time I have preached without a microphone. Yet today it occurred to me that I have to do more of this. I have learned in the past to stand far back from the mike but perhaps, in the right conditions no P.A. at all is best.

I have discussed with brother priests before the concern I have at how too much microphone harms our preaching. Too much microphone causes the priest to adopt a gentle, lyrical style of preaching. His style too easily becomes suggestive rather than bold proclamation. The suggestive and conversational tone of many a modern preacher can, if not balanced by other things, amount to an “uncertain trumpet.”  St. Paul warns, “For if the trumpet produces an uncertain sound, who will get ready for battle?” (1 Cor 14:8) It is a sure fact that many of the Catholic faithful have no readiness or appetite for battle and this can surely be laid at the feet of uncertain and uninspired preaching and teaching.

So perhaps a suggestion….No! a strong prescription! Use less microphone for the preaching moment and for the proclamation of the Word. It is a very different type of preaching that emerges from such a context, and  I think, a far better, bolder and braver preaching. The lectors too will benefit from a louder and bolder style.

It is a true fact, not all churches, (especially the ones built after 1970 and until recently), are  well suited for this option. But many are and we surely need bolder preaching today and trumpet that is more certain. Some of preaching simply comes down to the physicality of the moment. If a priest needs to project his voice he is affected by that very fact and his message inevitably turns bolder and braver. He will feel the very voice of the Prophets echo though him.

Lectors too will find a whole new experience for they will not merely read the Word  of God, they will proclaim it. And those in the pew will be less sleepy and the authority of the Word of God will reach them in a whole new way.

And finally, music will also benefit. Too much modern Church music, if you ask me (and I know you didn’t but I’m saying it anyway),  is rather sing-songy and lyrical. Meditative music is nice and has its place but we also need a return of some of the bold and brave singing enshrined in the hymns of the past;  before heavy use of P.A.  systems influenced us to sing more softly and in a more folksy manner.  Different musical styles all have their place but good gutsy singing has taken something of a hit and I blame the loud microphones for some of it.

Less mike and more manpower may well re-energize the proclamation of the Word, the preaching  of it and the singing of praise to God. A certain trumpet can awaken even the dead! (cf  1 Cor 15:52).

This video shows Jesus preaching to an unruly crowd in the synagogue. No Microphone in those days!

32 Replies to “Turn Down That Microphone and Preach from Your Soul: How Modern P.A. Systems Have Harmed Preaching”

  1. Hahahaha you are DEFINITELY not shy about bold preaching! And that is a wonderful thing. You have the ability to make me laugh, make me cry (ok, tear up a little since i don’t cry easily in public), make me think, and make me feel renewed in faith all in one homily. That is a great talent. I actually get really really nervous when microphones are involved with me speaking about anything, so I prefer not to use them, myself. I get nervous with public speaking anyways, but microphones increase that fear. The music at your 11am mass is some of the best i’ve heard, and I don’t think they need microphones! I’ve always wanted to be able to sing, but sadly that is one way I cannot contribute to church without people wanting to plug their ears. Great post!

    1. Katherine,
      Sing anyway. As Msgr has pointed out before, “Everyone should sing. If God gave you a good voice, it is the best way to thank him. If He didn’t, it is the best way to get even.” As for the people around you, they only need to plug their ears if they aren’t singing themselves. Ever notice that a big enough group of singers almost never sounds bad?

  2. Msgr. Pope- I have a few things to ask/say.

    Number 1, thank you for your participation in the Solemn Pontifical High Mass last week at the BNSIC. I don’t think that I have seen a happier priest or bishop during the recessional in some time than Bishop Slattery. He had a smile on his face the whole time.

    Secondly, do you know what movie that clip is from? It really interested me after watching it.

    Finally, I agree that less microphone is best. The one Mass that I can recall not have a microphone on for the priest was during a blackout. It turned a boring, monotone, priest into an engaging one. A very welcome change 🙂

    Thanks again

  3. I’ve had it happen several times too! As a result, some of the faithful have told me never to use a microphone. They say that I preach 10 times clearer and the words strike deeper. At the end of Mass, although I feel tired, I also feel more energized! God works in strange ways. Thank you for confirming my expreience too.

  4. Another point to not having the microphone on is, the person in the pew must be still and really be attentive.

    Your idea is great. Lets send a memo out across the US!

  5. Amen to all that noise, monsignor. I long wished they would turn off the microphones. I always thought I was being nostalgic, but you have grounded that longing in good sense and theory. Now, if they would also turn the ac/heating during the service…

    As a gratuitous aside, one of my favorite images (ever) is of Eugene Debs speaking at an outdoor rally ca. 1912 or 1918. It is an image of great intensity (you can see the veins bulging out from his head, his hands are raised, and he leans out over the dias) and it is not hard to imagine a voice to go with the photo. It may have been a political speech, but it sure looks like preaching to me: http://library.indstate.edu/about/units/rbsc/debs/images/BoxF/F15.gif

  6. Nice thoughts, but my pastor may preach 5 Masses a weekend. The mic helps him through it. Others of us simply don’t have the vocals to do it.

  7. Not so fast. Most priests (and deacons) are not well-formed public speakers. Most churches are not suitable for public speaking. Use the microphone intelligently but do not abandon it. Who was it that said, “faith comes through hearing.” Many poor p.a..systems are better than nothing, actually. If preaching is a matter of emotional demonstration and vituperative display, then go ahead. But most of us want a well-prepared homily without the screaming and hype we encounter in everyday vulgar society.

    1. As to your first wo point , isn;t it sad that “most” priests and deacons are not well-formed public speakers and that most churches are poorly designed. It was St. Paul who said that faith comes by hearing and he had to mic 🙂 But I get your point.

      I don’t frankly appreciate your use of words like vituperative, emotional and screaming to describe what I am advancing here. You are entitled surely to your opinion however.

  8. And, dearest Monsignor, Jesus was well-miked on that set….everything in that video was arranged in advance to achieve the best effect, which means a totally artificial environment.

    1. What?! You mean this wasn’t an actual film of hte actual moment?! Darn! I thought it was the original event! 🙂

      Of course my purpose in displaying the clip is that it manifests well the older style of exuberant preaching

  9. Not a problem for my home parish — we;ve never installed a sound system. Of course, when it was ancient Fr. M.’s one Sunday a month to preach, most of us dozed through it… on the other hand, Fr. W. was such an engaging preacher that no microphone was ever needed.

  10. Would it be sexist of me to say that “Real men don’t need microphones”? When you mentioned a more “gentle, lyrical style” of preaching….I took that as effeminate.

    The priesthood needs more “brave, bold” (masculine) preachers like you!

    1. I agree with your points except that I might say that I did not mean to imply anything effeminate in the priest who speak softly. I would admit that our culture’s aversion to strong, uncompromising preaching and teaching has some roots in the feminization of our culture. However, I will also say that I know many women who appreciate strong preaching.

  11. At Holy Rosary Church in Bozeman, Montana, the priest did not originally use a microphone, nor did the choir use a microphone. Even though they had a small school at the time, they had a solid choir because most students participated in it–fourth and fifth graders made up one choir, sixth, seventh and eighth graders made up another choir, the high school Glee Club made up a fourth choir, and then the parents made up the senior choir.

    I think if it can be done without microphones, that is better because it has less the appearance and feel of a production.

  12. Two of my three parish churches were built before sounds systems existed, and they were built for sound. Ever wonder why the ambo is in the front and the choir is in a loft in the back? It’s all about how the sound carries through the structure. As these churches get older, the plaster on the walls gets harder (and cracks, but that’s another issue altogether), and more reverberation is added to the sound in the structure. Both of those churches now have PA systems, and both systems sound absolutely terrible. I often switch the mic off because I don’t need one in either place (God gave me the gift of voice projection), and I agree entirely with the mention that preaching without the mic can engender a whole new style of preaching – preaching with conviction. I do that at every Mass, mic or not, and sometimes I just have to step back from the mic. Even when I do use a mic, I never speak directly into it. That seems to help quite a bit in balancing the unnecessary yet irremovable mic at the ambo with my style of preaching. I refuse to let an electronic device dictate how I preach. All this works in the churches I serve at the moment. If I ever get transferred to one of those round monstrosities, I may have to try something else.

  13. Good thoughts! In my parish, which always uses a sound system, the front five rows are usually unoccupied, and the congregation disperses around the rest of the church, as if seeking the maximum distance from each other, and the priest – even on weekday masses. If there were no mike, perhaps they would be more inclined to gather at the front.

  14. I was thinking about this very topic just the other day, after a Mass where the priest mumbled the entire Mass, including the homily. I’m a cantor and I’m constantly struggling with the mike…God has blessed me with a loud voice (I’m actually uncomfortable having to talk in small rooms…) so when I cantor I back away and just let my voice out. It certainly is more appropriate for the liturgy. Many of our cantors come right up to the mike, instead, which suits some of the music our music ministry sings, unfortunately. But that’s a different discussion…
    I completely agree that priests need to get rid of their lapel mikes. I’ve heard so many homilies and prayers where the priest just says what he needs to say in monotone and puts the congregation to sleep. It’s not even reverent anymore, at that point. On the other hand, it makes a huge difference for someone to speak, pray, sing with conviction! Certainly I don’t expect the priest and music ministry to entertain the congregation, but I do expect conviction. I think getting rid of the mikes — and redesigning our worship spaces to be conducive to “unplugged” worship — would do wonders for the Liturgy.
    AND we’d use tons less electricity. Imagine that!

  15. Just as a small point, while some people do come by vocal projection honestly, it can be learned. (In fact, if I remember correctly, it’s part of drill-instructor training in all the services.) Once you learn to produce the volume from your diaphragm rather than your throat, you can boom your words all day without straining your vocal cords.There is simply no reason why it can’t be taught as part of the art of homiletics.

  16. Wow. What a great piece! There is a man named Robert, in Colorado Springs, CO.
    He and his wife Brenda, run a ministry named “The Street Church”. They devotedly
    reach-out to the homeless community and have a service/meal every Sunday afternoon
    in the park. Brother Robert never uses a mic, but, he is EASILY one of the most Spirit-filled
    preachers, I ever witnessed. He did a reading from Acts (5;39), that CHANGED the World!

  17. As I stood just outside the nave this morning, it occurred to me that a definite advantage to having a sound system: allowing those outside the nave to hear what is going on, such as those quieting restless children in the narthex or other area designated as Baby Jail.

  18. Yes! Thank you so much for this post.
    Our church is the typical 1960’s “spaceship”. The floors have been carpeted for some time now….makes for terrible acoustics!! Wish they would rip it up and just have tiles.

    One day we didn’t have power….the choir singing WITHOUT microphones was……..Heavenly!!!!

  19. i am a member of a choir in the church and sometimes i sing alone during weekday masses. There are times I sing without the aid of microphone but most of the time i sing with microphone because it is set in the choir during sundays and during weekdays when i have a companion in singing. when i sing alone i prefer not to use the microphone because i feel more happy and fulfilled when doing it. i feel that i have proclaimed the word of god through music with an effort. unfortunately if i have companion in singing i sing with the microphone because they prefer to be aided with it that is why i have no choice but to use the mjicrophone.. but even though i would always prefer singing without the mic even though i feel tired and strained after but it uplifts my soul and it gives me joy..
    One more reason why i do not choose to use microphone in singing because i feel that my voice is getting softer and thinner when i use the mic.. one time that the mic is not turned on and the mass will start i have no choice but to sing powerfully and gladly i was able to do it and i loved it from that time on my voice became more powerful and i am able to sing mightfully..

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