You don’t have to spend much time in a mainline congregation to overhear someone bemoaning our traditional worship and pointing to those huge evangelical churches that get all the kids to come because of their hip and cool worship. When we see Praise Bands, a lot of us get a little church envy. Over the past few months, I have had the opportunity to be around Praise Bands and Evangelical style worship, which leads me to a secret about Mainliners: we all get a little envious of mega church praise and worship.
That being said, my experience with Praise Bands has become increasingly one of alienation. 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. Even some Praise Bands folks recognize themselves just how alienating their shtick can be:
My alienation with Praise music isn’t because I am not musical or don’t know what is going on in worship. I am a pastor after all, I have been in worship LOTS. I play a number of instruments. I had played in music ensembles, secular and church, I have even played in Praise Bands. I can sing well enough to chant, most melodies are easy enough to pick up and I prefer singing parts from sheet music.
So if I am standing there feeling alienated by Praise music because I can’t follow along, what about most other people? What about those who didn’t spend a significant portion of their childhood being musically educated and playing music in church?
Lots of Praise Bands are full of talented musicians. They often perform very well, better than some professional artists who mostly lip sync. Some of the Praise Bands I have heard could easily be found in local bars or pubs playing for young adult hipsters and no one would bat an eyelash.
Most recently, as I stood listening to a Praise band overwhelm my senses with their loud music (crap… I sound old), the lead singer’s beautiful interpretations of song melodies, and the random guitar solos, I looked around at the people in the pews with me. Most were just standing there too, not singing, not really being a part of the music at all. We are all just bystanders to the moment, we were being played at, rather than played with.
As a Lutheran, I am rooted in a tradition that advocates for the role of folks in the pews. In Medieval worship, the people had become unnecessary for worship. The priests spoke Latin, and the people didn’t. The priests had stuff to say and pray, the people just stood there. The priests often faced away from the people to the altar, ignoring the people. The priests even whispered secret prayers to themselves, and only served themselves the wine at communion, because the people might spill the blood of Christ. Sometimes priests said mass all by themselves, people weren’t even necessary for worship to happen. The priests had all special knowledge and privilege, they basically performed worship at the people.
Martin Luther, the key dude of the Reformation didn’t like this at all. He translated the bible into the language of the people. AND he also translated worship into the language of the people. Liturgy (which means ‘work of the people’, but also refers to those rote prayers, litanies, responses, music etc…) was changed so that the people could be included. No more secret prayers, no more facing away from the people, priests spoke in the language that most people understood, and worship was about participation and designed to be for the people. Worship was so that the people could hear the Gospel, instead of be bystanders to the hocus-pocus magic. The assembly, all the people gathered for worship, were now considered necessary.
Now 500 years later, despite all lessons of the Reformation that Protestants – Mainliners and even Evangelicals – have been teaching, we are going back to non-participatory, secret language, performance worship. Just like priests who lead worship in a language that few spoke, Praise Bands are incompatible with a worship that is done by the community. Rock Bands are by design meant to overwhelm the audience with sound. They are a performative medium, not a participatory one.
Worship Bands have become new ‘Medieval Priests’. It is becoming more and more clear to me that we are unnecessary bystanders to most of what Praise Bands do. They play so loud that our singing is unnecessary, so we don’t sing. They sing in such highly interpretative ways, that we can’t follow melodies. They use screens with words intended to be easy to read, but that mean we can’t see what is coming and half the time, the screens are wrong, even in the most mega of mega churches.
What happened? When did we forget the lessons that our forebearers fought to teach us?
I suspect it has something to do with over-emphasis on the individual in North American Christianity, particularly Evangelicalism. We don’t often worship as communities any more, we worship as a group of individuals. More like the folks in a movie theatre, than the folks playing a team sport. I also think it has something to do with our suspicion of history, of tradition, or anything old or ancient, we are obsessed by what is new.
Praise Bands have lost the worship plot. They are more about performance and than facilitation of worship. Praise Bands at their best completely exclude the Body gathered to worship.
Full disclosure: I am fully aware that when I lead worship in my ancient vestments and with ancient liturgies, many can feel alienated. But Liturgy as its best is meant to include and to reconcile. Liturgy is a team sport, where each is given a role, and where no individual can go it alone. Just like any team sport, it takes learning and practice to know what is going on and to play well.
Liturgical worship has stood the test of time, it has been around for 2000 years. You can see our liturgical roots in the writings of the early Christian church. Liturgical worship will remain as long as Christ’s church does. I don’t know if the same can be said for Praise Bands. Praise Bands just may go the way of the Medieval priest saying mass to himself in the dusty corner of a cathedral. Praise Bands are likely to become an obscure historical footnote, remembered only by those wishing to take up the ancient priestly performance.
UPDATE: There has been a lot of thoughtful conversation here in the comments , on Facebook and on Twitter. I written a followup post that hopefully addresses some of the comments which you can find here: I want Mumford & Sons to Play at My Church