An Open Letter to Praise Bands

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. See the Paul Washer video below.

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.

Update: Found this parody via Daniel. It’ fits well with the theme of this post…

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26 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Praise Bands

  1. Agree with this post so much – I have been struggling with this for sometime – I have attended a megachurch for 20 yrs and love the gospel-centered message every Sunday, the people, the ministries,etc.But our praise band has gone this way and I feel that I am watching a performance. We used to sing the contemporary version of the Psalms but now we struggle to know or recognize the words. I just read in Calvin’s Institutes that even 500 yrs ago he was talking about this very thing ! Paraphrasing he said that if it is meant to “tickle your ears, its not worshipful music”

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  2. Pastor Tim, I share your concerns about praise bands. And has anyone ever noticed that the job of “worship leader” seems, in so many cases, to be given to people with musical talent rather than theological depth? Isn’t that a problem?

    But, having concurred, I have a couple of questions.
    1. Do you have a praise band at your church? Any music?
    2. Does Col 3:16 speak about the use of music in churches?

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    1. Hi Stan,
      Those are good questions.

      First, I’m the worship leader and the elders are responsible for leading in worship, however, I pretty much lead everything from order of worship, to song selection, to Scripture reading and overseeing the serving of communion.

      Secondly, we don’t have a praise band in our church. We have an organist/pianist who accompanies our singing, since the vocal cords are the primary instrument for worship. 🙂

      We sing mostly hymns from a hymn book, but do occasionally add something more contemporary if that song has proven itself to be biblically accurate, singable and honoring to God.

      Our worship service is very traditional in nature since we feel that we are actually united with the past by singing those hymns from the past. WE are also joining in the worship that is already taking place in heaven, so we are cautious about adding new hymns to the mix (See Revelation 4-5).

      Finally, as for Colossians 3:16, it depends on who is interpreting the verse and their particular axe they want to grind that determines it’s meaning. I feel that it is “at least” referring to the psalms in the Old Testament, as well as spiritual songs by the church about Christ. I don’t believe Paul had our modern-day music industry in mind when he wrote the verse. I’ve spoken with those who have worked in the music industry for years, and the emphasis isn’t theological accuracy, or accuracy at all, but mass production. Far too many churches buy into it, thinking that since the name of “Jesus” is on the junk, it must be worth something. Blech!

      Hope that helps.

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  3. petedayton

    I am currently experiencing this very thing – I love most things about my megachurch but lately the praise band has left the building. Most of us can’t recognize the words in order to participate. We used to sing the Psalms back to God in a contemporary way but now I feel as if I am in a concert. I just read in Calvin’s Institutes, that he said this very thing 500 yrs ago! Basically that if it is to “tickle your ears” then its not worship!

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  4. Great article Tim. The 3 points made really clear up WHY I enjoy listening to modern praise music in private more than hearing it in church. At church, I really prefer to sing the old hymns. For instance, last Sunday I was almost brought to tears by my 9 year old belting out an old hymn (can’t even remember which one). He was as out of tune as I was, but truly engaged in worship with his father of our Great God. We’ve had praise bands in our church which I did enjoy very much, but I realize that was because none of the 3 points applied in those cases. They were not loud (we have lousy PA syste), everybody sang (even those of us who cannot carry a tune), and we were all looking at the wonderful words (Ok, in some cases the words were repetitive and just plain awful) of the song instead of the praise band.

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  5. I don’t think I could have said it better, Timothy. This trend has been driving me nuts & have been planning to blog about it myself, but you’ve said so well I’ll just re-blog your post.. I attend a very large church where the preaching is terrific, but the worship is clearly focused on the musicians rather than the Gospel. It’s really about a bunch of people listening to talented musicians in a concert-like manner. In fact, a few weeks ago one of the members of my small group mentioned that the music was nice for a change because they toned it down for one or two songs and you could actually hear the congregation engage corporately in worship. Unfortunately, this wasn’t a trend. Thanks for this post.

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    1. Fiveonly,
      Maybe your small group should depart out of Babylon(metaphorically speaking) and find a small church where the preaching is biblically based and the worship is more centered on Christ. Not only would you be happier, but you and your friends would really encourage the small church. There are probably plenty of small churches that are faithfully worshipping God that could really use your help just by being there. The large church won’t miss you a bit, trust me. 🙂

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  7. Bettyann Henderson

    As a musician and the mother of musicians, I commend you for these observations. I lament that most American churches – and protestant churches in Europe also – have praise bands, not just the mega-churches. So often, the rebuttal of these fair criticisms does not address the core of the problem, the music itself – even on the written page. There is something inherently, normatively, objectively bad in the composition and delivery of this style of music, regardless of its volume, lyrics, and the ability or placement of the performers. (Even if they do not see themselves as performers, you rightly point out that our culture has conditioned us to view them as such.) God created music and its qualities exist in His ordered universe with fixed principles of harmony, melody, and rhythm. And He created Man in His image, to hear and discern, respond and create. It is not only a matter of the musician’s inner motivation or the audience’s taste. Martin Luther – who called music “the handmaiden of theology” – wrote, “Next to the word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world. It controls our hearts, minds and spirits.”

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  8. Andy

    fantastic article. i doubt that this will result in any changes of substance. our church periodically pares down the band to just one acoustic guitar and the lead singer not being on the stage. It’s marvellous in terms of letting the congregation sing rather than being drowned out. It never lasts more than a few weeks despite being some of the most moving singing. I think that the egos of the band members miss getting stroked and the full noise needs to be reinstated.
    the guys at the table talk radio podcast (lutheran pastors) have a praise song cruncher which they use to evaluate the usefulness of any given praise song by a series of questions. by their (arbitrary) standards, a “modern” hymn is any one written after the death of JS Bach. A far cry from the mix in most churches where few songs are older than ~10 years.

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  9. vendlerius

    Sure to ruffle some feathers, but it speaks much-needed truth on something that should be near to the heart of every pastor and layperson alike. We need more singing of the Psalms.

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    1. I don’t think you are ruffling any feathers here. You are absolutely correct. We need to sing more Psalms in our worship. The hard part for me, being musically challenged in every aspect, as in… my musical ability lies in the fact that I can play… iTunes on my computer, is that I have a hard time matching tunes with the Psalter and getting them to work well when they don’t! It takes those who are musically gifted to put the Psalms to music so we can sing, AND someone who has the passion for it to work. Otherwise, it tends to be frustrating.

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  11. Pastor Bill Slack

    Timothy,
    I would caution us not to “throw the baby out with the bath water” here. I appreciate the fact that your post may be generally true, but it should not be used as a weapon against any church that has a “praise band” as you call it. I am part of a denomination even more conservative than yours, I am the pastor and the “worship leader” and we have a team of gifted musicians that assist me in the leading of worship. Our worship team is placed off to the side of the main platform – not “center stage” and our focus is pointing people to the worship of God – not self aggrandizement. All of the music is vetted by myself and the other elder on the team (a Westminster Grad and well respected editor for a major Christian Publisher). And the preaching of God’s Word is the center piece of every worship service. We celebrate the Lord’s Supper twice a month, and regularly baptize new believers and our covenant children during the worship service.

    A second thought might be – “When does it become a praise band?” How about when you use both and organ and a piano at the same time? How about a guitar and piano? What about a choir?

    The long and short of it is I thought that James K.A. Smith’s thoughts were worth sharing with our team and a group of brothers that I connect with that lead worship. I think that your comments may be taking those thoughts a bit too far, and, as I said “throwing the baby out with the bath water.”

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    1. Hi Bill,
      Thanks for the thoughts. You are right about the broad brush. There are those churches who do use praise music and do it well, as I should have pointed out. In fact, some might criticize us for using hymns and not doing them well. Although we do the best we can with what we have. I think the general problem of praise bands is that they do focus on what is “cool” and “trendy” instead of glorifying to God. Many will not even tolerate criticism. So it’s good that you were able to read these points to your praise band.

      Also know that my wife and I attended a baptist church before we moved here to Roswell because they did praise/hymns so well. So you are correct in not throwing the baby out with the bath water. But in many cases, we definitely need some fresh bath water and more thought to what we are doing.

      Thanks again,
      Blessings

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      1. Pastor Bill Slack

        Agreed Timothy! It grieves my heart when a church gets her priorities out of order and worship becomes a “show” – that is why I so appreciated your post.. Thanks!

        By His Grace,

        Pastor Bill Slack

        “God made Him Who had no sin

        to become sin for us;

        that in Him we might become

        the righteousness of God”

        (2 Cor. 5:21)

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  12. Some interesting points about praise teams, though they have some generalizations that there are many exceptions too. That part of the article is excellent – at least as something for people to question their own preferences towards. Worship is the response of the people to God’s grace – and the people need to respond.

    Thought your comment about instruments in worship is more than a bit off target. Protestants in the Anglican, Presbyterian, Reformed and such (as well of course as Wesley and the Great Awakening types) used instruments and used them well. The exception to the rule would be those coming out of certain Anabaptist backgrounds which had things in common with Zwingli’s inability to overcome gnostic attitudes toward the physical. Then again – they didn’t follow much in the line of sacraments for similar reasons.

    One last thought – baptismal fonts were traditionally at the entrance to the sanctuary – there because it was through baptism one enters the church, and the reason Catholics cross themselves with “holy water” is to remind themselves of the promises of God in places like Ezekiel 36 – and that they therefore are welcomed and desired in the presence. of God

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