Sunday, August 25, 2013

Sunday Morning Concert: Rise of the Praise Team

You walk into the sanctuary and take your seat, and find yourself greeted by a fresh, young face at a microphone up front. He smiles broadly and informs you that, "This is the day that the LORD has made," and then invites you to join him in rejoicing and being glad in it. The band behind him begins to play a vaguely familiar tune.  You may have heard it on Christian radio once or twice. As the music progresses, so does the leader's enthusiasm, but he seems mildly distressed that some (like you) aren't keeping pace. So between songs he begins a three-minute, rambling monologue on the virtues of praise, then instructs you to boldly "make a joyful noise to the Lord" ... while he himself begins to croon impressively in three octaves. Unable to keep up with the key and meter changes, you look around uncomfortably to see if the other congregants are as lost as you are. The scene is mixed: a number have their hands raised and seem genuinely caught up in the experience, while others--less sure of themselves--stare intently at the PowerPoint. Some gamely but softly mouth the words. A few have bailed out completely and are checking their iPhones. The song ends, and there is scattered applause, as many have apparently forgotten they are not at a concert. In a deft pivot, the leader encourages them to turn it into a "clap offering" to the Lord. After all, he warns you, the next song will require a lot of clapping! 

Sound familiar? If you've been around at all, you've seen it.  But it wasn't always thus, so how did we get here, and is the praise team a healthy development for the church? 

To be clear, I don't have a particular beef with praise team participants themselves. I have known many over the years, and have generally found most to be very talented and earnest believers who really want to glorify God and bless the church with their gifts. My real concern is that large portions of the worship service have increasingly been delegated to musicians by pastors, often with little guidance on what their objectives ought to be, or how they should be accomplished. The effect on the church is one of performance art masquerading as corporate worship.

Praise bands carry a lot of risk. For example: 
  • They consume a lot of church resources. The easiest way to render a church ineffective for ministry is to pour lots of time and energy into programs. 
  • In some ugly cases they can become "power centers" within the church, competing for influence and affection. 
  • And of course the congregation can be lulled into seeing them as a weekly jam session.
If churches are going to employ praise teams, pray and think on these things:
  • First, nobody says you have to do this. Don't worry about what other churches are doing or what young people expect. There are many ways to worship in song ... even without a sound board and an electric guitar.  Somehow the church muddled through nearly 20 centuries without them. Count the cost, and ask God if this is the way He wants you to use the resources He gave you.
  • If you do go ahead, remember that the basic formula for corporate worship is this: the praise team is not performing for the congregation! Rather, the congregation is performing (that is, worshiping God) with the praise team's help. Be aware that much of the congregation doesn't understand this ... and frankly, many praise team participants really don't either. You're going to have to be very intentional in promoting congregational worship.
  • Pastors and elders, you need to lead your worship leaders. You wouldn't turn over half an hour of your service to the ushers or financial secretary or the audiovisual technician.  Musicians need guidance too. So love them by leading them.
  • Song choice is important. Kindly stop picking the latest tunes from Christian radio.  We appreciate that you're working hard to bring us something "fresh and new", but reasonably familiar and singable is better for most of us in the congregation. We worship more purposefully and authentically when we can sing along rather than mumbling incoherently.
  • Praise team leaders, please don't launch into spontaneous mini-sermons. The pastor has spent all week preparing to rightly divide the Word of Truth for us, and he promises not to spontaneously break out in song (we hope).  I know you're feeling inspired, but please stay focused. Your job is hard enough without trying to do his.
  • So-called "special music" can be a particularly insidious trap. The congregation goes into full audience mode, as cameras and smartphones are whipped out to record the performance. Great freedom is given to the performer to sing anything even mildly spiritual. Worship service no more ... we're now in talent show territory. If you're going to incorporate special music, please do so very carefully.
  • Oh, and if you have to ask ... yes, the drummer is too loud. 
Am I saying churches should not have praise bands?  No, I'm not quite going that far. But in much of the church they have become the default option, and we are increasingly failing to ask why.