When the amped sound of the praise band overwhelms congregational voices, we can’t hear ourselves sing–so we lose that communal aspect of the congregation and are encouraged to effectively become “private,” passive worshipers.
I love this open letter to praise bands by James K.A. Smith (Hattip: Lance). He says what we all feel about the praise band in a way that truly resonates with those of us who are seeking to worship in spirit and truth. I know, the praise band leaders say they are seeking to worship Christ in spirit and truth too, but for some reason, their spirit and truth seems more focused on their emotional experience before a crowd, than actually humbly worshipping our Savior for who He is and what He has done.
Mr. Smith points out part of the problem is that we, the church, have encouraged the leaders of praise bands to bring their worship into the church itself. He writes:
I sometimes worry that we’ve unwittingly encouraged you to import certain forms of performance that are, in effect, “secular liturgies” and not just neutral “methods.” Without us realizing it, the dominant practices of performance train us to relate to music (and musicians) in a certain way: as something for our pleasure, as entertainment, as a largely passive experience. The function and goal of music in these “secular liturgies” is quite different from the function and goal of music in Christian worship.
In other words, we know you have talent, and want you to use that talent, but it’s not truly fitting for true worship of God’s people. He gives three reasons for this:
1. If we, the congregation, can’t hear ourselves, it’s not worship. Christian worship is not a concert. In a concert (a particular “form of performance”), we often expect to be overwhelmed by sound, particularly in certain styles of music. In a concert, we come to expect that weird sort of sensory deprivation that happens from sensory overload, when the pounding of the bass on our chest and the wash of music over the crowd leaves us with the rush of a certain aural vertigo. And there’s nothing wrong with concerts! It’s just that Christian worship is not a concert. Christian worship is a collective, communal, congregational practice–and the gathered sound and harmony of a congregation singing as one is integral to the practice of worship. It is a way of “performing” the reality that, in Christ, we are one body. But that requires that we actually be able to hear ourselves, and hear our sisters and brothers singing alongside us. When the amped sound of the praise band overwhelms congregational voices, we can’t hear ourselves sing–so we lose that communal aspect of the congregation and are encouraged to effectively become “private,” passive worshipers.
2. If we, the congregation, can’t sing along, it’s not worship. In other forms of musical performance, musicians and bands will want to improvise and “be creative,” offering new renditions and exhibiting their virtuosity with all sorts of different trills and pauses and improvisations on the received tune. Again, that can be a delightful aspect of a concert, but in Christian worship it just means that we, the congregation, can’t sing along. And so your virtuosity gives rise to our passivity; your creativity simply encourages our silence. And while you may be worshiping with your creativity, the same creativity actually shuts down congregational song.
3. If you, the praise band, are the center of attention, it’s not worship. I know it’s generally not your fault that we’ve put you at the front of the church. And I know you want to modelworship for us to imitate. But because we’ve encouraged you to basically import forms of performance from the concert venue into the sanctuary, we might not realize that we’ve also unwittingly encouraged a sense that you are the center of attention. And when your performance becomes a display of your virtuosity–even with the best of intentions–it’s difficult to counter the temptation to make the praise band the focus of our attention. When the praise band goes into long riffs that you might intend as “offerings to God,” we the congregation become utterly passive, and because we’ve adopted habits of relating to music from the Grammys and the concert venue, we unwittingly make you the center of attention. I wonder if there might be some intentional reflection on placement (to the side? leading from behind?) and performance that might help us counter these habits we bring with us to worship.
I really like reason number 3. He says what needs to be said. So many who lead praise teams seem to think that the worship is about them and their performance. I know that praise leaders will say that it isn’t. If that is the case, why not move the praise team to the back of the church where no one can see them? That is a quick way to determine just how important the praise team and song leaders think they are.
What I have found in most churches that have praise leaders/teams is that for them, worship is the music itself. It’s not what is prescribed in worship according to Scripture. The means of worship according to Scripture are… and get this, reading God’s word, the declaration of God’s word (known as preaching), prayer and the sacraments. No where are we given praise teams/leaders.
In fact, up until about 200 years ago, the use of instruments in worship was quite limited to those of the Lutheran and Catholic persuasions. Protestants didn’t use instruments for the most part and sang only from the psalter which is the actual worship book of the church, i.e., the Psalms. Now it is hard to even find anyone sing the psalms at all. There are hymns that reference the psalms, but that isn’t singing a psalm.
The other problem with praise-band churches is that they tend to punt the other elements of worship. For instance, preaching God’s word has fallen on hard times and has been substituted for mass-counseling sessions on everything to from better marriages, to better sex in marriage, to better dating before sex and marriages, etc. The messages are attempts to become more “relevant” to the needs of the congregation and shows the complete lack of faith those who preach such sermons have in God’s word.
Preaching God’s word faithfully means preaching the text of God’s word, saying what it says, not saying what it doesn’t say. It means declaring the truth of what God has said regardless of how uncomfortable or unwelcome it may be. Far too many preachers are too busy wanting to be liked, as opposed to doing what God has called them to do.
The other element of worship that has fallen on hard times is true biblical prayer. We do get prayer in the praise-band churches, but it’s usually the praise-team leader emoting about “just” wanting to see Jesus and “just” wanting to be in His presence, and “just” wanting to praise Him, and just just just just just just many other things. And by golly, the praise-team leader was so emotional, that it must have been a good prayer. That’s not true prayer.
True prayer is speaking God’s truth back to Him and praising Him (real praise) for who He is. That requires that the one saying the prayer to the One receiving it must know some actual truth about the One being prayed too. In other word, if you are going to lead in prayer, you should probably have a deeper knowledge of who Christ, the Father and the Spirit are, than your typical eighth grader.
And then, there are the sacraments. I was visiting a mega-church back in July that actually had it’s baptismal in the lobby of the church. They didn’t bother putting it in the sanctuary where they “worshipped,” even though baptism is a center-piece for worship. By baptizing our converts, we are worshipping in the truest sense.
Never mind communion. It’s pointless to even bring up that the early church had communion every Lord’s day. It was central to the worship service. Most mega-churches cannot conceive of the fact that the Lord’s supper is actually an element of the worship service given to us by our Lord. After all, there is no room in the “worship” service for communion. It takes too long and cuts into the “singing/emoting/concert” time.
And we wonder why the broader church is having trouble standing for righteousness’ sake.
Timothy Hammons is a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America and currently serves as Pastor of Redeemer Christian Fellowship in Roswell, New Mexico. This article appeared on his personal blog