In 1963 my Anglican parish priest in Adelaide, South Australia, purchased a tape recorder for our parish. My church youth group tried it out: we were amazed to hear our recorded voices singing back at us. The miraculous tape recorder served our parish well, but we never thought to use it to replace our valued organist, or our singing voices. Our worship was off limits to technology. We used the tape recorder to produce plays and concerts, entertain at social events, and raise money.
Over the last twenty years, with digital technology ever present, many Australian churches have relaxed previously strict rules banning recorded music and audiovisuals during Church worship services. The digital church has now come to stay, whether device-phobic parishioners like it, or not. There is a sensible way of using recorded music and audiovisuals, but sadly, in some churches, nonsensical practices have taken over. Sensible, moderate inclusion of recorded and enhanced music can help churches to teach and promote sung worship.
Some church communities have gone too far, and totally replaced singing with recorded music and recorded singers. Such communities, who seem to be either unwilling or unable to provide music instruction, music staff, and equipment, wrongly teach that total silence is superior to sung worship. I am one of many actively worshipping Christians who deplore this practice. We should not set up a contest between silent worship and sung worship: each has its place in different stages of worship. God can be present with us in both silent prayer, and also when we sing with heart as well as voice. The best worship always includes both silence and song. Church singing, valued and taught in all Christian churches, is an important and effective way to proclaim our Christian faith publicly, and to introduce curious new members and children to prayer and worship.
Recorded church music, when used, should support sung worship, not totally supplant it. Using recorded accompaniments for some services can quickly reduce parish music budgets stretched by weekly organist fees and organ maintenance. But churches who value their music heritage adequately will always make room for skilled organists and choristers, and firmly connect recorded music with sound church music teaching and practice.
Recorded accompaniments have their pitfalls, one of these being the cost of a good sound amplification system, and regular sound technicians’ fees. Reliable and skilled recorded sound supervision and cue coordination during worship is just as important as real time music performance supervision. A blaring and blurting sound system, uncoordinated hymn lyric slides, and selecting disliked recorded songs sung by non-local performers in non-local accents, is a sure way to drive a congregation away to a more musical parish that welcomes and promotes local church musicians and composers..