Tag Archives: medieval priests

I wish Mumford & Sons Would Play at My Church

So last week I wrote a post about how Praise Bands are the New Medieval Priests. Over the past few days, that particular post has been generating discussion in the comments section, on my Facebook page and on Twitter. Worship is such an emotionally loaded topic, especially when it comes to music. Music is a powerful art form and so important in Christian worship. I think somewhere along the way, readers got the sense that I was advocating one style over another – that I was saying ‘Contemporary’ worship is not as good as, or as holy as, or as faithful as ‘Traditional’ worship.

Let me be clear, I was not advocating one style over another.

Image source - blog.ncbaptist.org
Image source – blog.ncbaptist.org

This is not about Contemporary vs. Traditional.

In fact, I didn’t use the word ‘contemporary’ or the word ‘traditional’ in that post. I am no classical music / organ snob, or someone who listens only to music newer than 5 years old. If you look at my iTunes library or the presets on my satellite radio in the car, you will see that my preference is eclectic. There is bluegrass, rock, folk, pop, classical, jazz, organ, soundtrack etc… But my heart music is some kind of bluegrass, folk, pop, rock mix or in other words Mumford & Sons. If Mumford & Sons decided to become a Praise Band, I would have resumes delivered daily to the church they play at. If Mumford & Sons decided to write a liturgy… I would be running down the streets looking for Jesus, because I would be convinced of the end of the world.

So let me say it again, this is not about Contemporary vs. Traditional.

I think I failed to connect the dots in my Praise Band Medieval Priests post. I think I failed to make clear I was talking about the medium of worship. I was talking about the ‘how’ of worship, not the ‘what’.

Yes, I have a strong bias to liturgy, but not because I am a traditionalist. I am biased towards liturgy because it is the agreed-to practice of the community of the Church. It is the vehicle that, for hundreds of years, Christians have agreed says what we believe about God, and liturgy allows us to worship God in an agreed-upon way. Liturgy is strongly rooted in the bible, in the early church, and in good theology.

Now I admit, I do think lots of contemporary music has bad theology in it, and I have done my fair share of ranting about Jesus-is-my-boyfriend songs. But I am also the first to admit that a lot of traditional hymns have equally bad theology. There are Jesus-is-my-boyfriend hymns out there too, they just escape our notice because they sound a little more Pride and Prejudice than Sixteen Candles. Contemporary music doesn’t have inherently bad theology, but like hymns, the theology covers a wide spectrum.

That being said, for my evangelical readers, I think I need to explain liturgy as medium.

Liturgy is not synonymous with organ music. The word Liturgy means “work of the people.” ‘The Liturgy’ is the order of worship, the texts that are used for the songs,  the assigned bible readings for each Sunday, the prayers and responses said by the pastor and congregation, the sacraments of baptism and holy communion. Liturgy is the skeleton of worship that Christians have agreed upon for hundreds of years.

But Liturgy can be done with organs, or guitars, or string instruments, or brass instruments, or piano, or drums or a cappella. In fact, I have done liturgy with all those kinds of instruments and their styles.

The style of music in liturgy can be any style, played by all manner of instruments and ensembles. There is some great liturgical music written and played in the contemporary style out there (eg. Steve Bell’s Holy Lord).

So, when I say Praise Bands are the New Medieval Priests, I am talking about Praise Bands. And no, of course not all Praise Bands. But the medium of ‘Praise Band’.

It is not way they play, but how they play it.

221313230_640Like with Medieval Priests , the Praise Band medium has become the message.

When Medieval Priests led worship, the language, the secret prayers, the division between the laity and priesthood, the transformation of bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood became the message. Those things were supposed to be the medium, the means of sharing God’s grace with the people. Instead, the Priests became the message, that only special people were required for worship, that only holy people had access to God. The liturgy of the medieval church had strayed far from the worship habits of the early church. The early church which gathered for prayer and song, to hear the Word of God, to share in the holy meal, to be sent into mission (that’s liturgy by the way).

Now this is completely anecdotal and very well my opinion, but for me the medium of the Praise Band can make the worshipper unnecessary. Just like the medieval priest who said mass by himself, often a Praise Band playing a song would sound just the same whether the congregation was present or not.

I think my objection comes from my experience over the past few years with Praise Bands. It seems like if I stopped singing, if the whole congregation stopped singing, almost nothing would change in the experience of music in worship. Praise Bands are a medium that has everything going against them when it comes to worship. They exist in an entertainment, consumer culture. They are a born of a genre of music that is performative. They even sound the best when played in concert style rather than worship style. They sound really good when the band interprets a song using the band’s own particular style, gifts and blend.

Here is where the rubber hits the road for me; despite all my best efforts to sing along, to songs that I know and that I played when I was in a Praise Band, I feel I like the music is more conducive to me listening than singing along. I am starting to enjoy listening over singing along, and I think I am not alone. I think this has become ‘worship’ for a good many people. Listening to the Praise Band, just like watching the Medieval Priest.

Does this mean I think we should give up on contemporary music in worship? Not at all. But I think, that like the liturgy of the Medieval Priests, Praise Bands will need a Reformation of sorts. I don’t know what that looks like, but some of the comments on my last post are the beginning of the discussion. Read them, see what people who have devoted their lives to music and worship are thinking. It is good stuff, it is smart, intentional and thoughtful.

Meanwhile, I am still thinking about how (maybe even if) Praise Bands are the New Medieval Priests. And wondering if Mumford & Sons will come play at my church.

So are Praise Bands a doomed medium? What needs to be done to reform them? Share in the comments, on The Millennial Pastor Facebook Page or on Twitter: @ParkerErik


PS. Just in case I wasn’t clear that I am aware of my own hypocrisy about this stuff, here is a video of a Praise Band playing a song that I co-wrote for the National Youth Gathering of my denomination…

Praise Bands are the New Medieval Priests

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.

Image source - http://lauraturner.religionnews.com
Image source – http://lauraturner.religionnews.com

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFull 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.

So, are Praise Bands excluding people from worship? What is our way forward? Share in the comments, on Facebook: The Millennial Pastor Page or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

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