An Open Letter to Praise Bands: Performance vs. Worship

by James K. A. Smith.. (slightly edited for length)

Dear Praise Band

I so appreciate your willingness and desire to offer up your gifts to God in worship. I appreciate your devotion and celebrate your faithfulness–schlepping to church early, Sunday after Sunday, making time for practice mid-week, learning and writing new songs, and so much more….

So please receive this little missive in the spirit it is meant: as an encouragement to reflect on the practice of “leading worship.” …. 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…. I sometimes worry that we’ve unwittingly encouraged you to import certain forms of performance….

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.

praiseband

So let me offer just a few brief axioms with the hope of encouraging new reflection on the practice of “leading worship”:

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.

Please consider these points carefully and recognize what I am not saying. This isn’t just some plea for “traditional” worship and a critique of “contemporary” worship. Don’t mistake this as a defense of pipe organs and a critique of guitars and drums (or banjos and mandolins).

My concern isn’t with style, but with form: What are we trying to do when we “lead worship?” If we are intentional about worship as a communal, congregational practice that brings us into a dialogical encounter with the living God–that worship is not merely expressive but also formative–then we can do that with cellos or steel guitars, pipe organs or African drums.

Much, much more could be said. But let me stop here, and please receive this as the encouragement it’s meant to be. I would love to see you continue to offer your artistic gifts in worship to the Triune God who is teaching us a new song.

Most sincerely,

Jamie

Professor of Philosophy, Calvin College and Editor of Comment magazine.

To see the full unedited version: Click here.

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9 Responses to An Open Letter to Praise Bands: Performance vs. Worship

  1. Dave S says:

    As you know, since the inception of IHOP, 15+ years ago, there has been a growing group of musicians who are fans of “spontaneous worship”, and who weave that into their worship sets. There’s obviously a strong “upside” to it, which is why they do it. But there’s a flip side, too: it can be very hard to “follow” if you’re in the “congregation”. There are no words on the screen. There are no words from memory. And the little “choruses” keep changing all the time. And worse of all, due to the difficulty of doing it (for the musicians) oftentimes the actual lyrics are either trite, or questionable in doctrine (!!) .

    But again, even if the words are dead-set-right-on, it’s almost impossible to participate as a congregation member. Oh well. I guess it just means it’s time to *dance*. 🙂

  2. sweetjoey says:

    as a seasoned veteran of the bass and currently serving in the local church I have a few comments-
    as a musician, I believe to make good music, you have to serve the song; if this is done, all of the above criteria is met.
    taste, execution and sensitivity are the big three in praise and worship. sadly, they aren’t employed as much as they should be.
    as a listener, I struggle with being distracted by inappropriate cymbal smashes, unnecessary drum fills, wrong style for the song etc. nothing is worse than a classic carol/hymn butchered by a band because the drummer didn’t know to play it in 12/8.
    as a player, I need to worship the Lord on my instrument; it is how I express myself in ways that cannot be uttered. I have to move around and be free. I am not performing, but I will likely be the one moving around the most and this isn’t wrong.
    high quality P&W musicians are rare in numbers.
    it takes a certain player who ‘gets ‘ it.
    I am convinced that to the degree of these three things are employed in P&W, is the degree God will move.(not the only reasons); a spirit of excellence needs to be the standard in churches; even in volunteer situations.
    I could be wrong, but I feel strongly about this.
    we are created in the image of God. we are higher than angels. we should be making the best music in the universe as humans.
    i believe the best music heard in heaven is the best music made by us here and now.

  3. jschlue2 says:

    While there are good things to be taken away from this article, here are a few observations.

    While worship should not be all about the band, it’s not all about the congregation either. There are a wide variety of people in every congregation, and the fact is, some sing loudly, some sing softly, and some don’t sing at all. Whether or not the congregation can hear each other is not the point of worship. In fact, in the times I’ve been most deeply in worship I’ve not been aware of the rest of the congregation at all, or at least not to the point that I care if I can hear them. Our attention needs to be on the Lord, and not on what the guy next to us is doing (or not doing). Depending upon how the worship is flowing, there are times when it’s nice to have the music more subdued, but there are also times when I like to “feel” it in my body.

    As far as the congregation being able to sing along, I agree that most times that’s a good thing. However, there are also times when it’s also nice to just be able to listen to a song that may not be the easiest to sing along with, but it certainly can still be used to worship to. The same idea can also apply to those times when the band goes into an instrumental section. As long as they do it with the right heart and not just to show off, it can be a very power time of worship as well.

    As far as the skill level and “performance” ability of the band, I agree that worship is not a performance – per se. However, we are admonished by Scripture that our playing and singing is to be done skillfully. While that mean different things for different skill levels of musicians and singers, we should all strive to play and sing the very best we can. In that sense it would be assumed, I would think, that we should put forth a “performance level” effort, in keeping with the level of our ability.

    • sweetjoey says:

      I agree-
      when I am playing bass up there, I don’t even know what is going on in the sanctuary. there could be people lying prostrate in front of me and I wouldn’t be able to tell you who it was after the service. I am very focussed on what is going on musically and maybe a little hyper-sensitive even.
      the only time I really pay attention to the people is during the altar call.

      • jschlue2 says:

        Nice to hear from a fellow bass player!

        • SuzyQ says:

          Bravo!!! Well written.

          I recently attended a large well-known local church and grieved as I observed not even 1/4 of the congregation joining in to words of relatively new songs displayed on the wall, to the sound of a keyboard and drums, but stood gazing around as we all stood for approximately one hour. My mind went back to when that whole congregation stood singing familiar hymns & choruses in unison in the presence of The Master.
          I give credit to their worship leader for his years of service and devotion to that ministry but beg God to remind him not to forget or try to replace the powerful and anointed old hymns.
          I also recently sat in a hymn-sing in Red Deer Alberta where it wasn’t until I tried to control my quivering lower lip and tears freely flowing down my cheeks that I realized the power and anointing of the familiar old words of the hymns and … when I glanced next to me, observed many young people stand with hands raised and tears running down their faces. The very atmosphere was electrified by the presence of The Master during that hymn-sing. Somehow, we must teach our kids the words of the old God-inspired hymns so they won’t be forgotten. Now and when times get tough, we may all need the words of those old hymns to comfort and sustain us.

          This post is not intended to be critical but to be prayerfully considered.

  4. Michael Smith says:

    I am a professional trumpet player and work with a church that has what you call a praise team. As a Catholic, at first this was a little hard to follow as the Mass, that I am accustomed to is ordered and centered around the Eucharist. However…as weeks passed, I came to realize that bringing people under one roof to feel closer to God. The people were there because they WANTED to be and maybe the music we made helped get them there. Yes…its different than my Catholic Mass but in a time when religion itself is being questioned, if people want to commune with their maker in a different…hip manner, who are you or anyone else to be judging? You can call it a performance if you like and if labeling it is important to you, by all means, carry on. I look out from the stage and see very happy Christians having honest emotions. These are good people…feeling close to God…who cares if it’s not the way you would have it. Given the choice, my Catholic roots would still put me at Mass on an off Sunday but I see nothing wrong with the way this church conducts it’s services.
    .

  5. Chris says:

    As a pastor in a church, I appreciate the idea of addressing the subject of corporate worship in the church. This is not a rebuttal of Jaime’s thoughts, but it is somewhat of a commentary on worship. Upon reading Isaiah 6, it becomes difficult to form a postulate that requires the worshipper to utter a sound at all. Isaiah cries out for mercy, and more in shout form than a musical tune. As another commenter stated, worship is not about the congregation. It is about kneeling and bowing before a holy God and humbly accepting his mercy and grace. There are many times when in the privacy of my office, I will turn on the radio and worship God while not even opening my mouth. I listen to the music and lyrics which glorify God and I humbly bow in God’s presence accepting His grace. I do the same in the middle of the musical portion of the worship service as well. I can’t even tell you whether I am listening for the congregation or not. Mostly, my attention is upward and not outward. Once again, it becomes difficult to form postulates of what worship is and what it isn’t when reading passages of Scripture that have no music in them as all. In truth, the directives in the New Testament to the church give little attention to worship through music. With this understanding, Jaime errs with his Biblical exegesis. I do appreciate his attention to this subject however. Certainly his last point is spot on as Scripture teaches us not to glorify self. The other points are a stretch at best, downright wrong at worst. If one was to be a missionary and begin worshipping with people of whom he cannot communicate, is it impossible for him to worship with the body if he cannot sing the songs in a different language? Or is it possible to worship God when one cannot understand the language but knows that God is being praised?

    We must be careful that our construct of worship is God-centric and heart-led. We cannot focus on those around us and still be God-centric. We cannot focus on the people on stage and still be God-centric, and we cannot focus on ourselves and remain God-centric.

  6. sweetjoey says:

    I believe it should be a given that P&W musicians are of a high calibre.
    when Saul summoned for a musician, he asked for a skilled one; one that could soothe him from demonic spiritual influence.
    I don’t believe david was simply musically skillful-
    he obviously knew the deeper thing about music that could wield maximum results against a spiritually dark situation.
    perhaps he knew exactly what key to play in that situation. maybe he knew what modes/progressions needed to be used. I am sure he used a perfect balance of tension and release.
    as a person with perfect pitch myself, I can assure people that what key a certain song is played in church is very important. many times I have seen a potentially great song played in D when it should have been Db.
    just my opinion, but if your P&W team has a person gifted with hearing the colours in music, maybe they should be consulted about what songs are played in what keys. it makes a huge difference at times. I think these details are important to God as well.
    music is colour.

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