An Open Letter to Praise Bands

worship_community_copy_260181416I’ve mentioned a few times my appreciation of philosopher-theologian, James K.A. Smith (or Jamie Smith). His book on understanding the positives (yes, the positives!) of postmodernism, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism, was my introduction to his books. And I’m currently reading his work, Desiring the Kingdom.

I was recently reminded of an article of Smith’s posted 15 months ago entitled, An Open Letter to Praise Bands. This approach – An Open Letter to… – is not uncommon in the blogging world for those wanting to address a particular concern. And, so, Smith offered some reminders to worship teams, praise bands and musicians that might be worth considering as we, the corporate local church, gather together for worship.

Near the beginning, he remarks:

In particular, my concern is that we, the church, have unwittingly encouraged you to simply import musical practices into Christian worship that–while they might be appropriate elsewhere–are detrimental to congregational worship. More pointedly, using language I first employed in Desiring the Kingdom, 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.

Smith, then, moves forward with these 3 reminders:

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 model worship 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.

Personally, I appreciate these thoughts of Smith’s.

But what do you think? Do you agree or disagree? Would you nuance any of these or add more thoughts?

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16 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Praise Bands

  1. In recent years, I have attended a church where the congregation sings nearly the entire service, with organ. The organ is located in the rear balcony, as are (normally) any choirs, instruments or soloists who are to perform. Normally at most two short ‘extra’ pieces will be performed, and that only for special occasions.

    Frankly, I even prefer to sing from the balcony, because then I move however the Spirit leads and it’s between me and God. I suppose that I do in some way lead the congregational singing, if only by virtue of having a classically-trained voice which (like it or not) stands out considerably in strength and tone quality. This means that those who know my voice will know I am there even if I am not visible. I’m not totally comfortable with that, but the alternative would be to remain silent…

  2. I heartily agree with all this. I HATE it when I can’t hear myself sing. I feel like I’m screaming to be heard, and find I just want to give up. Same when the band changes a song I know to fit their own style or be different. Sing it the way people know it. either from the traditional hymnal (if it’s a hymn) or from the radio version (if it’s a newer popular piece) Nothing makes me clam up sooner than accidentally singing it “wrong” because I sang it the way I’ve heard it 1000 times. It might be “boring” for the band, but it let’s the congregation sing with abandon from memory. The 3rd can easily be avoided by not having the band be “personalities” on stage. Keep the banter to a minimum and simply LEAD the singing instead of BEING the singer. The congregation is not there to hear YOU. Musical interludes aren’t a problem, as long as they are placed artistically and are short. In popular songs that INCLUDE musical interludes, they SHOULD be included. The congregation expects it and will use that time to worship silently, but will come in again “on cue” because they know what you’re going to do.

    • I agree with what you are saying here, and have been fortunate to see many good examples:

      some small congregations which were quite consistent about how they rendered the songs, the words were usually projected on a screen and the worship leaders did not say a whole lot – maybe a Scripture verse or word of praise to the Lord in between songs.

      or two very large congregations: one very classical, so just with organ. But a highlight of the year was on Easter evening, when they would put out the score of the Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s Messiah in the pews. And the entire congregation would sing along – in harmony, no less. It was magnificent – nearly 1000 people.

      and another very contemporary. They had three services – the early one quieter, the middle one… ‘middle’, and the later one… wow. Choir, band and even worship dance. They had some quite accomplished professional jazz musicians among them. But the whole thing was so participatory… You could see that the congregation was involved from up on the platform. Heck, the pastor even encouraged congregational participation in his sermons! You might say that the volume level was pretty high. But then again, they always had several hundred people at their services, so they could permit themselves that kind of volume – it was even necessary.

      So I think it really can be done tastefully – even when the volume is high and you have accomplished musicians leading the worship.

      I think there is also a place for some numbers – maybe one or two – where the choir or a soloist performs. But a certain rule of thumb would be that you should only bring material that you are able to play well enough that you can forget about technique and focus on worshiping the Lord. Or let us say that you are singing material for a Holy Week service. I suppose you can say you know you’ve done your job right if someone comes up to you after the service and tells you that they felt like they’d been transported back 2000+ years and were personally beholding the Lord on the Cross…

      • Yeah, to this day it still makes me cry to think about it. But just imagine what it’ll be like in heaven… I like to imagine how all the best solos will go to the ones who gave up their careers for the sake of their purity, the dreams of a lifetime for their integrity…

  3. I am sorry to say that, but this seems to be a very distorted way of seeing worship. Since when is worship “a congregation singing songs together” ? Does this mean anyone who can’t sing in tune is not worshipping and should be thrown out of this time of “harmony of a congregation singing as one” ?

    When the organ is playing during some “more traditional” services, without any singing, is it worship (or is it a concert) ? When the trumpets – or other similar instruments – were blown in the OT, do you think you were able to hear yourself sing? Furthermore, what about all other form of expression ? Who said, worship is necessarly singing together?

    I know all the arguments above, since I had this kind of discussion many times (as a worship leader and musician). The more I disccuss this topic, the more I understand that people are different : some people do like heavy bass, some like it loud, some like it heavy, etc. Music is mainly a channel for drawing closer to God. If a person has a problem with loud music for example, it is a personal choice. This person is therefore NOT allowed to put rules on other christians, saying “this is the way it SHOULD be done”. People, do not put your own irritations and struggles on others, calling it unchristian not to act the way you want them to !

    Well, I guess I’ll stop here. I could keep on going, but I thign you got my point^^

    • Jan –

      Thanks for commenting. I think there are a few things to remember with regards to what Smith is saying in his article. In the first paragraph I quoted above, he refers to the aspect of ‘congregational worship’. I think Smith would agree that worship is much bigger than the congregational gathering. But he is addressing the practical aspects in a congregational gathering. His desire is to encourage congregational, communal & collective aspects of our worship – this is missing in much of our gatherings today. Even when Christians gather on Sunday, with the community of God’s people, we can be very individualistic in our approach. We mainly ask: What do I want or How do I want to worship today? Our songs are filled with the words me, my, mine rather than the corporate we, us, our. It’s not that we don’t have personal interests, nor is it wrong to use the words me, my and mine in songs. It’s that we have to remember the corporate aspect. The Bible actually focuses more on the community than the individual. The community aspect leads into the individual, rather than the other way around. Think even of the Lord’s prayer. The words used are: Our Father, Give us this day, Forgive us our sins as we forgive, Lead us not into temptation. So I think he is asking us to ponder what is healthy for collective worship, rather than what is helpful for me, you or another individual.

      Looking back at some biblical passages where they were playing instruments (trumpets) and singing, it seems the voices were heard (at least from the singers) even with the music. And they had no microphones back then! 🙂 There is something powerful about hearing our voices lifted to the Lord!

      I also believe that Smith believes there are other expressions of worship through creativity. He is very much into varying creative expressions. As a reformed theologian, I’m not sure how open he is to what we would appreciate as charismatics. But I believe he is no close-minded person.

      Of course, I don’t suppose he sees these as legalistic rules. If you read the whole article from which I quoted, he is very appreciative of the serving of musicians/worship teams. He simply offers some insights that can be helpful for our corporate worship together: a) we sing together, b) we are able to sing along, and c) the musicians are not the centre of attention.

      • You have brushed up against one of my pet peeves here, namely the content of what is sung. I admit to being one who prefers items comprised of Scripture (perhaps in a poetic setting, but nonetheless…), and would prefer to see not much of either ‘I’ nor ‘we’ in the songs, but rather ‘You’, ‘Lord’, ‘God’ etc.

      • Right. And I was speaking in terms of personal preference – I don’t believe it is sinful to use first person pronouns while worshiping, nor do I even believe it is sinful to use texts other than Scripture 🙂

      • I wont’ answer much, but just to say Scott: I think you do interpret Smiths’ words. I was refering to what he actually wrote. If he meant something else, well he should write it that way. There is – in my view – not much biblical arguments in what he is saying. I heard to many times people say : that’s the correct way of worshipping. Some people need a serious teaching on the issue 😀

        Again, I’ll stop here and not comment anymore I guess.Too much to say on the subject to write it down…

  4. I am in agreement with Jan.

    The post is entitled a letter to praise bands yet it is talking about times of quiet reverential worship. Both are great but they are two different words for a reason. The Bible repeatedly directs us to shout for joy and shout praises. The next time you and the congregation are clearly hearing yourself above the organ start shouting and see how that fits into these prescribed practices.

    I like it loud. I like to be able to shout and it not be a distraction to the people around me.

    Quiet worship is like saying, “We are going to celebrate God, but don’t get to excited about it.”

    • I don’t know if quiet worship is ‘less exciting’. Quakers engage in silent worship – no music or anything. And the Spirit may or may not lead someone to speak out of that silence (but not for more than a couple of minutes – if one speaks for too long, it could have connotations of drawing attention to oneself rather than God). And the Scripture does also say things like ‘The Lord is present in His holy temple / Let all the earth keep silence before Him’ and ‘Be still and know that I am God / I will be exalted among the nations / I will be exalted in all the earth’. So there is a place for shouting and there is a place for silence.

    • Carl –

      What I believe Smith is doing is challenging our modern approaches to the communal gathering of God’s people. Step into the gatherings, the stage lights are on, the smoke machine is running, the lasers are shooting, the music starts and…wait, are we at a concert or the people of God gathering to focus in worship of their God.

      Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with bands, instruments, or even loudness. He is not trying to lay out legalistic laws. He is asking us to consider some things of what it means for the community to worship together. It might not entail looking or feeling like a concert, but something a bit different.

      Again, Smith is not coming from the direct perspective I am. In our context, we allow for prophecies, spontaneous prayers out loud, shouts, dancing, etc, etc. But we can do that and the focus still not be the cool music and band that wow us.

      It’s just some points to help balance us.

  5. Seems this is a hot-button topic. I don’t think Scott is saying that everyone should worship in ONE particular way. He was sharing what Smith said, which probably came from not only Smith’s own preferences, but from feedback or complaints he has heard from others. It’s certainly true and perfectly fine that some people LOVE a more rock-concert type experience in worship. The key is to find a congregation that makes you feel the most comfortable in worship. In response to the article I posted some things that are annoying to ME personally. I don’t expect that every band cater to MY tastes/expectations, but I hope that some DO follow the guidelines that I reiterated from the article. Everyone wants to feel a sense of freedom in worship that leads you to feeling a connection with God. Not everyone will do that in the same way. But everyone should realize that a corporate sense of community in worship (everyone saying/singing the same thing) generally leads to a sense of belonging to a group, which for many people, allows them to open up and feel freedom in their personal expressions of worship. I think that is what Scott is trying to say — that corporate worship is a gateway to more meaningful personal worship.

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