Do Praise Bands speak a Secret Language?

Yesterday I ran across a recent post from Lutheran pastor Erik Parker provocatively titled “Praise Bands are the new Medieval Priests”. In it Rev. Parker says that praise bands are alienating him from worship.

I just can’t access Praise music anymore, I don’t hear Praise songs as the music of worship. I find myself wondering why I am just standing there, in the midst of a group of people who are also not singing. As the Praise band performs song after song, I am consistently lost as to how the music goes, what verses will come next, how to follow the melody, when to start and stop singing, or when a random guitar solo will be thrown in right when I thought I had figured out when the next verse starts.

Parker recounts a recent church service where he observed that even as the very talented praise band was playing beautiful music, the people in the pews were, for the most part, “not really being a part of the music at all”, but rather just bystanders, “being played at, rather than played with”.

Parker draws the analogy that modern praise bands are the new medieval priests – leading worship in a ‘language’ that few speak or can participate in. As such, he claims, “Praise Bands are incompatible with a worship that is done by the community… they are a performative medium, not a participatory one.”

I posted a link to the piece on Facebook last night and got an interesting mix of responses. A friend who has recently been looking for a new church noted that being directed to raise her hands to a song she has never even heard before makes her feel like a bystander rather than a participant in worship.

Another friend who grew up on the mission field in Africa said that music in small African churches that can’t afford a sound system is much more participative than in those that can. As he notes: “human nature being what it is, everyone turns it [the volume] up.”

What Language is that, again?

Full disclosure: I’m a member of a praise band. I have spent nearly all of my adult life either leading or playing in praise bands on a regular basis. So I clearly am unlikely to agree with the full premise of Rev. Parker’s post. However, I think he has identified some concerning symptoms, even if he has perhaps
misidentified the true problem.

I share Rev. Parker’s concerns about planning congregational music that is regularly unfamiliar and difficult to sing. I have been a part of rehearsals where a team of professional-caliber musicians have had to work for a solid hour to get one new song learned to the point where we can sing and play it
consistently. I have on more than one occasion wondered out loud how the congregation had any chance of singing the song on their one time through it if it took the band an hour to figure it out.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s imperative that we continue to teach our congregations new songs. But when our primary musical influence is Top 40 Christian radio, the songs we’re pushed to select are often difficult songs to sing, often requiring an unnaturally large vocal range and designed for professional vocalists. That concerns me.

A similar issue often exists with song familiarity. If my own experience is representative at all, our ‘best’ worship times come when we sing familiar songs. Familiarity allows us to think less about learning the words, melody, and arrangement, and think more about the message of the song. It’s no accident
that a congregation stands mostly silent as the band leads a new song from the radio but then wholeheartedly belts out all four verses of a 200-year-old hymn.

It’s not (necessarily) about the band.

Where I think Rev. Parker gets it wrong is in pointing the finger at the Praise Band as the issue. The praise band is not the issue. Praise bands, playing in pretty much any style, can do music in a way that engages and draws in a congregation, or can do music in a way that pushes the congregation off to be ‘the audience’ rather than ‘the body’.

Rev. Parker makes a fair point that style can distract from real congregational worship. As he puts it, “rock bands are by design meant to overwhelm the audience with sound.” And I agree with him that overwhelming a congregation with sound isn’t conducive to congregational worship. But I’ve also attended services in Parker’s own denomination where more traditional instrumentation was used in a way and at
a volume that still served to overwhelm the congregation. So it isn’t strictly about instrumentation or style.

However, there are planning and execution aspects that as worship leaders we can focus on to provide consistent inclusive congregational worship. Rather, though, than turning this into a two-thousand-word post, I think I’ll save those ideas for tomorrow.

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