The Problem with Praise Teams

The Problem with Praise Teams final 1

There has been a good deal of discussion recently about the Praise Team/Praise Band phenomenon, a phenomenon that has become a liturgical commonplace.  Most of that discussion has centered around the practical issues of the expense, the placement of the instruments (front, side, back?), the adjusting of the volume, etc.  Many of us regard that cost/benefit analysis of the matter to fall heavily on the “cost” side, and do not regard the practice as being worthy of the effort, expense, and other logistical headaches involved.  If a student or former student were planting a church today, and if he asked me whether he should have a Praise Team/Praise Band, I would advise against it on practical grounds. Recently, however, someone asked me if I regarded the practice as biblical or unbiblical, and this provoked me to think about the matter differently.  When one asks whether the practice fulfills the biblical duty, the question is framed quite differently, and I now have a provisional opinion on the question of whether the practice is biblical.

Roughly twenty years ago, I began teaching the course on Presbyterian Denominational Standards at Gordon-Conwell Seminary.  About a fourth of the course addressed Presbyterian polity and three-fourths addressed Presbyterian worship.  Students in those days will recall that I often expressed concern about performing choirs and overly-loud organs. In each case (performing choir and overly-loud organ) my concern was the same:  congregational praise is a commanded duty that can be audibly discerned; we should hear congregational praise when it is sung, and nothing else (choir, organ, marching band, bagpipe) should be permitted to obscure the thing that is commanded.

Congregational praise is not the only command that can be measured by the senses.  When Moses instructed the Levites to weave cherubim into the temple curtain, or to carve them on the ark of the covenant, obedience could be visually measured.  One could inspect the product visually and determine that the command either had or had not been observed.  Suppose the cherubim had been woven into the curtain, but out of the same blue, purple, and scarlet threads of the rest of the curtain; would this have been obedient to the command?  The cherubim would have been woven in, but would have been done so in such a manner that they were invisible.  I think such camouflage would have evaded the command rather than fulfilled the command.  Surely, the intent of weaving the cherubim into the curtain was that the cherubim would then be seen there (as a warning not to re-enter God’s Edenic presence except by way of His appointment, since cherubim guarded the garden of Eden after the curse-banishment).  Some commanded things involve the senses; we should feel the waters of baptism and taste the wine of the Supper. The incense of the Levitical priests should have produced visible smoke and an aroma that could be smelled: “And Aaron shall burn fragrant incense” (Ex. 30:7).  And we should hear God’s assembled people vigorously sing His praise together.  If we do not hear the audible thing commanded, arguably we have not done the thing commanded.

The expression “unbiblical” is not always helpful, because it is not always clear enough to do the job.  If someone denies that Christ’s death atoned for sin, such a denial is “unbiblical” in the sense that it denies the central thing the Bible teaches—that the last Adam has undone the work of the first Adam and restored us to God.  But if someone affirms that Abraham Lincoln was the sixteenth President, this is “unbiblical” only in the sense that the Bible does not address the American Presidency.  Suppose then, for a third example, that when a local church observes the Lord’s Supper each week, the minister reads the words of institution from one of the gospels (or from 1 Cor. 11), but then distributes Spam and Coke instead of bread and wine.  Is this “unbiblical?”  Well, the words of institution are surely biblical; having the meal as a part of worship is surely biblical.  But is the biblical teaching fulfilled by distributing Spam and Coke?  Well, not quite, because the three imperatives (“take,” “eat,” “drink”) have particular direct objects.  The words of institution employ the demonstrative pronoun “this.”  “Do this (τοῦτο ποιεῖτε) in remembrance of me” does not quite mean “Do anything in remembrance of me.”  “This (τοῦτό) is my body” (after the clause, “he took bread”) does not mean “anything is my body.”  And “this (τοῦτο, a cup filled with Passover wine) is my blood of the covenant” does not quite mean “any cup (filled with anything).”  “For as often as you eat this bread (τὸν ἄρτον τοῦτον) and drink the cup (ὸ ποτήριον πίνητε)” does not mean “as often as you eat anything and drink anything.”  So I think we would agree that distributing Spam and Coke during the Lord’s Supper is “unbiblical” in the sense of being “not quite biblical.”  There are some biblical things about it, and some not quite biblical things about it.  I regard the Praise Band (or Praise Team) as “unbiblical” in this particular sense; it is “not quite biblical,” and I would like to explain why I regard it so.

To demonstrate that the Praise band is “not quite biblical” we will need the help of our friend Ann.  Ann is not a theologian; she is just a good faithful Christian who happens to have been born blind.  In every other way, she is a perfectly healthy person; in fact, her other senses are very well developed, as is often the case with those who are blind.  But Ann is very helpful to us because her experience of the Christian worship service is entirely auditory; she doesn’t see anything, she merely hears.  And the question we will ask Ann is “What do you hear?”  If her answer is not the answer the Bible teaches, then what we are doing is not quite biblical.  That is, if the Bible commands something, and if the something it commands is auditory in nature, then a hearer should hear the thing the Bible commands.  So we turn to these considerations, with Ann’s assistance.

First, does the Bible command anything regarding our assemblies on the first day of the week?  Does it merely require that we not forsake assembling together (Heb. 10:24-25), but then permit us to do whatever we wish, e.g. throw Frisbees, eat hotdogs, watch the Pittsburgh Steelers, etc.?  Some traditions think the Bible requires nothing of our church-meetings on the first day of the week.  Some traditions simply meet because they find it helpful and convenient to do so; they regard “church” as a voluntary society, a group of like-minded people doing something together that they find helpful or encouraging, similar to community theatre or a community chorus, but more religious.  For such traditions, Ann and I are silent.  We have nothing to say to those who regard the Christian assembly as a voluntary society, because, by definition, if it is merely a human invention, a voluntary society, then it is answerable to no one other than those humans who invented it.  But there are other traditions that regard the assembly on the first day of the week as biblical and apostolic, something the early church “devoted” itself to:  “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42).

For traditions that regard the church as an institution (not as a voluntary society), then that institution must do what it is instituted to do; it must “devote” itself to the purposes for which it was instituted.  Working within that tradition, then, we ask whether that assembly is required to sing audible praise to God, and if so, how it is commanded to do so.  That is, if an audible thing is required, then there would be an audible test of whether the required thing were done (as with the visible test of the cherubim woven into the curtain of the tabernacle).  For example, if Justin Bieber showed up and sang several songs for the congregation, would this fulfill what the Scriptures require the congregation to do?  Do the Scriptures merely require some musical act of any sort, or do they require a particular musical act?  If the entire congregation stood up and hummed “Amazing Grace,” would this satisfy what the Scriptures teach?  I suggest that the Scriptures teach three audible things about the singing of praise in the Christian assemblies:  that the singing be congregational, that it be together (not necessarily unison, but together), and that it be vigorous (loud or robust).

Let me first apologize for the abbreviated nature of the argument here, because I do not wish to write a book-length argument.  But here is (part of) how I reason.  When the New Testament authors employ Greek, I assume that they ordinarily employ it in a manner similar to the Greek Old Testament.  For three centuries, the Greek Old Testament had been the Old Testament employed by the Greek-speaking Jews, and for many of them it would have been the only book with which they were familiar because “books” were rare when they were in the form of manuscripts written on papyrus or animal skin (Porter, 2000, p. 1099).  Therefore, I assume that when they use the same words to describe what is done in the Christian assemblies as were used to describe what was done earlier in the pre-Christian assemblies of the Israelites that they ordinarily meant the same thing.  Specifically, when Acts 2:42 says that, among the things they were “devoted” to was “prayers” (ταῖς προσευχαῖς), they probably meant the same thing by the term as was meant in the Greek Old Testament. In the Greek Old Testament, “prayer” was employed to refer both to what we would call “spoken” prayer and to what we would call “sung” prayer, or praise (Nichols, p. 33). The canonical Psalms, for instance, were sometimes referred to as “prayers.”  Psalm 90, the only psalm attributed to Moses, is entitled “A Prayer of Moses (προσευχὴ τοῦ Μωυσῆ), the man of God.”  Psalm 102 is entitled “A Prayer of one afflicted (προσευχὴ τῷ πτωχῷ),” even though we think of it as a Psalm/hymn.  Psalm 142 is entitled “A Maskil of David when he was in the cave.  A Prayer (προσευχή)”.  When one of the five collections that constitute the psalter concludes at Psalm 72:20, it says, “The prayers of David (οἱ ὕμνοι Δαυιδ), the son of Jesse, are ended,” indicating that such “prayers” could also be called “hymns.”  In the language of the authors of the New Testament, “prayer” and “hymn” were virtually interchangeable (as Calvin noted), so that the Psalms that Israel sang when she assembled inform Christian singing when we assemble:  “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing (ᾄδοντες) psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16).  Note that when the “word of Christ” dwells richly in our assemblies, it does so in part by our “singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” that are similar to canonical psalms or hymns, though in our case they are overtly Christological (“the word of Christ”).

What this means for our purposes is that traits that characterized biblical psalms/hymns/prayers would have undoubtedly characterized the early Christian psalms/hymns/prayers.  This means that I regard as germane to our consideration not only the apostolic letters of the New Testament, but also the canonical psalms (and other OT hymns) before them, as well as the visions of perfected worship in the book of Revelation.  So when I talk about what “the Scriptures teach” about the singing of praise in the Christian assemblies, I do not narrowly mean “what the Gospels teach,” or “what the book of Acts teaches,” or “what the Pauline letters teach,” but what the whole of Scripture teaches about singing God’s praise in Christian assemblies.  It is entirely possible that some would disagree with me here, and say that we can settle the matter only by the Acts of the apostles, or only by the canonical Gospels, or only by the epistles, or only by the canonical psalms, etc.  I would entertain such an argument reasonably and, I trust, charitably, but I do not embrace such a view.  My understanding of tota Scriptura is that we are to account for what the entirety of Scripture teaches on a given matter.  When I say that “the Scriptures” teach that congregational praise is congregational, together, and vigorous, I derive those three traits from the whole of Scripture.

Congregational Praise

The first thing we learn about singing praise in the Scriptures is that it is congregational, an act of the entire assembly that gathers in God’s presence.  But wait (some say), weren’t there special Levitical priests who performed praise in the Old Testament?  There were indeed, but everything the Levitical priests did in the tabernacle/Temple was on behalf of the other eleven tribes.  They offered sacrifices on behalf of the other eleven tribes, standing in their place as their proxy, as it were; and so they also sang praise while offering those sacrifices.  But the Levitical priesthood has disappeared with the sacrifice of Christ, and all of their peculiar duties that distinguished them from the other eleven tribes disappeared also, which led the Reformers to speak about “the priesthood of believers,” an office that extends now to the entirety of the Christian church.

Apart from this (exceptional) Levitical praise, the rest of the praise taught in Scripture is to be done by the congregation of God’s people.  The act is essentially vocal; one can listen to a sermon, but one does not listen to singing (at least not in the congregation):

Ps. 34:1   I will bless the LORD at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth.

Ps. 40:3   He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the LORD.

Ps. 51:15   O Lord, open thou my lips, and my mouth shall show forth thy praise.

Ps. 63:3   Because thy steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise thee.

Ps. 71:8   My mouth is filled with thy praise, and with thy glory all the day.

Ps. 109:30   With my mouth I will give great thanks to the LORD; I will praise him in the midst of the throng.

Ps. 119:171   My lips will pour forth praise that thou dost teach me thy statutes.

Ps. 145:21   My mouth will speak the praise of the LORD, and let all flesh bless his holy name for ever and ever.

Prov. 27:2   Let another praise you, and not your own mouth; a stranger, and not your own lips.

Matt. 21:16   and they said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” And Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, ‘Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast brought perfect praise’?”

Rom. 14:11   for it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.”

Hebr. 13:15   Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.

While the Bible refers to praise of “the heart,” it does so as a complement to vocalized praise, not as a substitute for it.  Each of these texts, taken in its natural sense, refers to the actual organ of the mouth or lips or tongue, demonstrating that the act is vocal.  There may be such a thing as “the conscionable hearing of the Word” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 21:5), but there is no such thing as “conscionable hearing of the singing of praise.”

Ps. 9:1   I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart; I will tell of all thy wonderful deeds.

Ps. 28:7   The LORD is my strength and my shield; in him my heart trusts; so I am helped, and my heart exults, and with my song I give thanks to him.

Ps. 86:12   I give thanks to thee, O Lord my God, with my whole heart, and I will glorify thy name for ever.

Ps. 119:7   I will praise thee with an upright heart, when I learn thy righteous ordinances.

Ps. 138:1   I give thee thanks, O LORD, with my whole heart; before the gods I sing thy praise;

In the assemblies of God’s people, this vocal act is performed by the assembly itself:

Psa. 5:11 But let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them ever sing for joy, and spread your protection over them, that those who love your name may exult in you.

Psa. 21:13  Be exalted, O LORD, in your strength! We will sing and praise your power.

Psa. 22:3  Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.

Psa. 22:23 You who fear the LORD, praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him, and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!

Psa. 30:4  Sing praises to the LORD, O you his saints, and give thanks to his holy name.

Psa. 33:1    Shout for joy in the LORD, O you righteous! Praise befits the upright.

Psa. 66:8    Bless our God, O peoples; let the sound of his praise be heard…

Psa. 67:3 Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you!

Psa. 69:34  Let heaven and earth praise him, the seas and everything that moves in them.

Psa. 79:13 But we your people, the sheep of your pasture, will give thanks to you forever; from generation to generation we will recount your praise.

Psa. 89:5  Let the heavens praise your wonders, O LORD, your faithfulness in the assembly of the holy ones!

Psa. 95:1-2  Oh come, let us sing to the LORD; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!  Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!

Psa. 98:4   Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises!

Psa. 102:18  Let this be recorded for a generation to come, so that a people yet to be created may praise the LORD:

Psa. 105:1-3  Oh give thanks to the LORD; call upon his name; make known his deeds among the peoples!  Sing to him, sing praises to him; tell of all his wondrous works!  Glory in his holy name; let the hearts of those who seek the LORD rejoice!

Psa. 106:10-12 So he saved them from the hand of the foe and redeemed them from the power of the enemy.  And the waters covered their adversaries; not one of them was left.  Then they believed his words; they sang his praise.

Psa. 115:17-18 The dead do not praise the LORD, nor do any who go down into silence.  But we will bless the LORD from this time forth and forevermore. Praise the LORD!

Psa. 149:1 Praise the LORD! Sing to the LORD a new song, his praise in the assembly of the godly!

Psa. 150:6 Let everything that has breath praise the LORD! Praise the LORD!

Rev. 7:9 After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

Rev. 19:1-6  After this I heard what seemed to be the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, crying out, “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God…Once more they cried out, ‘Hallelujah!’…And from the throne came a voice saying, “Praise our God, all you his servants, you who fear him, small and great.”  Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out, “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns.

Not only does the entire assembly of God’s people declare His praise; they call on creation itself (“Let heaven and earth praise him, the seas and everything that moves in them”) to join them.  Those who benefit from God’s creative and redemptive acts are those who are called to sing His praise.

Praise Together

Very closely related is the reality that congregational praise is done together.  Only one of 150 Psalms (Psa. 136) is antiphonal, where one party (probably priests) does one part and the congregation replies “His steadfast love endures forever.”  The ordinary pattern is not antiphonal but unison, and the ordinary pattern does not divide the congregation into parts.  The ministering Levites may well have sung the one part of this antiphonal Psalm, but the united congregation sang the other part.  This is undoubtedly due to the fact that worship is essentially a dialogue between God and His people; He addresses them in word and sacrament; they reply in prayer and praise.  Thus, there should ordinarily be only two “voices” in worship; the voice of God in word and sacrament and the voice of the people in prayer and praise (even if a minister speaks for the one party or the other).  Therefore, it would not be right for one hundred people to gather on the first day of the week, each one podded up and each one singing something different from what the others were singing.  The congregation is assembled together, to worship together, and to pray and sing together.  What distinguishes corporate devotion from private devotion is precisely this united dimension.

Singing together does not exclude singing harmonious (or polyphonic) parts.  Singing together does not mean that the congregation must sing in unison.  If a given culture develops sufficiently to sing harmonious parts, that is fine, but they should be singing the harmonious parts to the same hymn; the congregation should not be divided into sub-groups that are doing different things from one another. A certain kind of harmony is built into the very nature of the differences of voices; most females will sing the melody an octave higher than most males, for instance.  This is fine, as long as they are singing these (differing) octaves together.

Vigorous Praise

We note also that biblical praise is vigorous (loud).  We may be able to pray silently, but we cannot sing silently.  The assembly is to raise its voice in hearty, loud praise:

Psa. 32:11 Be glad in the LORD, and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart!

Psa. 33:1  Shout for joy in the LORD, O you righteous! Praise befits the upright.… 3 Sing to him a new song; play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.

Psa. 35:27 Let those who delight in my righteousness shout for joy and be glad and say evermore, “Great is the LORD, who delights in the welfare of his servant!”

Psa. 42:4 These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I would go with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God with glad shouts and songs of praise, a multitude keeping festival.

Psa. 47:1 Clap your hands, all peoples! Shout to God with loud songs of joy!

Psa. 71:23 My lips will shout for joy, when I sing praises to you; my soul also, which you have redeemed.

Psa. 81:1 Sing aloud to God our strength; shout for joy to the God of Jacob!

Psa. 95:1 Oh come, let us sing to the LORD; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!… 2 Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!…4 Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises!

Psa. 100:1 Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth!

Rev. 19:1   After this I heard what seemed to be the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, crying out, “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God…3 Once more they cried out, ‘Hallelujah!’…5 And from the throne came a voice saying, “Praise our God, all you his servants, you who fear him, small and great.” 6  Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out, “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns.”

Our earthly assemblies are anticipations of the heavenly/eschatological assemblies, in which the redeemed cry out songs of praise in loud, united praise.  Therefore, our present assemblies should look and sound like those assemblies insofar as it is possible; we too should cry out in loud, united songs of praise.  Such vocal exuberance is natural to our social nature.  Nations have national anthems which they sing vigorously at appropriate occasions; British soccer fans sing the anthems of their respective teams across the field, attempting to drown out the voice of the opposing fans.  Effectively, in worship, we declare robustly, publicly and unitedly our allegiance to our Creator/Redeemer, and we effectively “shout down” all opposition.  But it is the congregation that does this, not a small ensemble with artificially-amplified voices.  The amplification should come from the great number of redeemed voices joined together.

What Ann Hears

Let us take Ann, our blind friend, to two churches on two consecutive Sundays.  On one Sunday, we take her to the local RPCNA church, and the congregation sings Psalm 100, in four-part harmony, without instrumental accompaniment.  The next Sunday, we take Ann to a NAPARC church that has a Praise Team and it sings the 100th Psalm.  We ask her the same question about each:  “Ann, what did you hear?”  Here are her answers:

Week One:  “I heard a congregation of voices united together singing Psalm 100.”

Week Two:  “I heard a small number of voices, greatly amplified, singing Psalm 100, and I think I heard other voices, greater in number but lesser in volume, singing along with them.”

Anyone who has been present at such services will attest to the fact that Ann’s answer is accurate.  For content, she heard the same thing (Psalm 100).  But in the one case, she unmistakably heard the congregation unite in singing God’s praise; whereas in the other, she wasn’t even entirely sure she heard a congregation at all.  She’s sure she heard a small number of highly amplified voices, and that these voices were singing together.  But the other voices were quieter and more hesitant.  Why?

Functionally, the Praise Team has replaced the hymnal.  When churches decided to sing contemporary music, they often could not find musical scores, and/or they could not reproduce them for the congregation for legal or financial reasons.  So the Praise Team would rehearse ahead of time (at least they had the musical score) and sing the material.  It was hoped that the congregation would “sing along with” the Praise Team; and it often did, picking up on the song as it went along. But the congregation—even if the members can sight-read music—cannot sing as vigorously or confidently as the Praise Team, for two reasons.  First, the congregation does not have the musical score, and must learn the song by ear.  Second, the Praise Team often varies its instrumental or harmonic parts (and worse, its instrumental bridges) between stanzas, so that the congregation is not entirely sure exactly how each stanza will be sung.  And since the Praise Team alone has rehearsed beforehand, those who operate the microphones must be sure that the Praise Team is not drowned out by the congregation because, after all, only the Praise Team actually knows what is going on.

What Ann hears in the two settings is two very different things, acoustically.  In one, she hears an entire congregation singing robustly together.  In the other, she hears a small, highly amplified ensemble, and possibly she also hears a hesitant group of congregants singing along with them.  Take the test yourself some time, and you will hear what Ann hears.  For just two Sundays, close your eyes during the singing, and listen.  You will hear what Ann hears—two very different things.  But here’s the point and the problem:  in the one case, what she hears–a congregation singing robustly together–is what is commanded; but in the other case, what she hears–an amplified small ensemble, and maybe some others following along hesitantly–is not what is commanded.

The hesitance of the congregational singers is an unavoidable consequence of using a Praise Team rather than a printed (or otherwise displayed) musical score; and the drowning out of the congregation by the Praise Team is due also to the fact that the Praise Team functions as the musical score, albeit one that is heard and not seen.  Some Praise Teams are worse than others, of course.  Some introduce more variations between stanzas than others, and such variations create even more hesitance for the congregation:  Will there be an instrumental bridge between the stanzas or not?  Will the same harmonies be employed in each stanza, or not?  Will portions of the refrain or one of the stanzas be repeated or not?  The congregation does not know—indeed cannot know—how each stanza will sound until it hears it, so the congregation sings tentatively, hesitantly, and a micro-second behind the Praise Team.  The Praise Team has unwittingly become like the third grade jokester who invites you to have a seat, pointing to a chair.  When you go to sit down, the jokester pulls the chair away, and you land on your backside.  The Praise Team does the same thing musically; the congregation never knows (indeed, it can never know) how the Team will perform each stanza until the congregation hears it.  And it can only hear it if the Praise Team is amplified to the point that it effectively overpowers the congregation.

Mrs. Gordon chastised me gently several years ago for saying that I just don’t bother attempting to sing when there’s a Praise Team present.  I explained why:  I was tired of and embarrassed by singing the “Two-Syllable Solo.”  Often the Praise Team goes straight from the first to the second stanza without an instrumental bridge; and does the same thing between the second and third stanza.  I assume that they will go immediately from the third to the fourth, so I vigorously begin singing the fourth stanza only to discover that I am singing a solo; everyone else is waiting to hear when the instrumental bridge will end.  Of course, I catch myself after a few syllables, and I too become like a sheep, waiting to hear what the Praise Team will do next and to follow it sheepishly when it finally decides to do whatever it is that it has decided to do.  Mrs. Gordon has sung a few of her own “Two-Syllable Solos” over the last few years, so she now ordinarily adopts her husband’s practice and does not ordinarily sing when there is a Praise Band present.

In the medieval church, the congregation was invited to join in the singing of praise, but was not able to do so, because the congregants did not know Latin.  So the priests in the front of the building sang the praise, because they alone had the knowledge necessary to do so.  One of Luther’s most intentional reforms was to re-introduce congregational praise, and he did so both by writing almost forty hymns, but also by translating others and encouraging the writing and translating of more (Brown, 2005). For Luther and Calvin, “the priesthood of believers” meant that the entire congregation now offered the sacrifice of praise to God (not just Levitical priests who offered animal sacrifices).  As James Hastings Nichols (1968) put it:

“The most important thing was intelligent participation, resting on full understanding of the language used.…Calvin knew, as did the ancient church, that ‘each Christian bears the exalted title of sacrificer’ (Opera Calvini, XXVII, 407) and has his rightful place in the corporate offering of praise and intercession.  The people should understand and, insofar as possible, unite themselves to voice the sung and spoken prayer of the service.  So they had done in the third and fourth centuries.”

Today, the barrier to full, hearty congregational praise is not the lyrical score (in Latin) but the musical score (withheld from the congregation).  The medieval worshipers did not know the lyrics; we do not know the music.  But in each case, some smaller sub-section of the congregation performs its praise for it, graciously inviting the congregation to participate, but not actually permitting it to do so in a vigorous manner.  What Ann hears is not the congregation/assembly of Jesus Christ; what she hears is a small ensemble, highly amplified.

The Reality More Important than the Term

It should be evident that my concern is for the reality of an amplified ensemble overpowering the congregation; not for what you call it.  But labels sometimes are indicative of the thing denoted thereby, and perhaps the problem with the label indicates a problem with the thing.  Whether we call it a “Praise Team” or a “Praise Band,” either one is problematic.  If we call it a “Praise Band” the title designates a performance, and we hesitate to replace the congregation’s vocal praise with someone else’s performance thereof (even though, in fact, this is largely what the Praise Band does).  If, on the other hand, we designate it a “Praise Team,” well then, what is the congregation?  This may even be worse, by designating a small ensemble within the congregation as those who do the praise.  When we have a “football team” on the field, we on the sidelines observe their performance, but do not play the game ourselves.  Calling the Praise Team a “Praise Team” therefore also denotes something we would rather not say.  But is not this difficulty of finding an appropriate label merely a reflection of the fact that the reality itself is problematic?  Having surrogate praisers is simply out of accord with the teaching of Scripture, which call the entire assembly to present vigorous praise to God.

Crafty Levites could have woven blue, purple, and scarlet cherubim into the tabernacle curtains so cleverly that they blended in with the curtains themselves.  They could have argued that they had kept the command to weave in the cherubim, but no one would have believed their argument.  If you fulfill the command to create a visible thing in such a manner that the visible thing is invisible, then you really have not fulfilled the command.  And if God commands the entire assembly to sing together vigorous praise, and yet Ann does not hear such, the commanded thing is not done.  Whether we “hide” the cherubim with threads that are the same color as the curtains, or whether we “hide” the assembled congregation with an amplified ensemble, in either case we have failed to do what is commanded.  God is enthroned not on the praises of an amplified ensemble; he is enthroned on the “praises of Israel” (Psa. 22:3).

As a final lexical consideration, I note that many defenders of the present liturgical model have coined the expression “contemporary worship music.”  They did not call it “contemporary congregational praise,” and they really could not have done so, since it is evident that the current practice actually makes it difficult for the congregation to sing robustly since no musical score is provided and difficult even to hear them if they do.  But the Scriptures do not command “worship music;” they command congregational praise.  So even the label here is mildly misleading.  If we required people to use the expression “contemporary congregational praise,” we would, in doing so, require them to do those things that enhance such congregational praise, and require them not to continue doing those things that worsen it or hide it.

Works Cited

Brown, C. B. (2005). Singing the gospel: Lutheran hymns and the success of the reformation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Nichols, J. H. (1968). Corporate worship in the reformed tradition. Philadelphia: Westminster.

Porter, S. E. (2000). Septuagint/Greek old testament. In Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter (eds.) Dictionary of new testament background. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.

 

Other articles

About the Contributor

T. David Gordon

T. David Gordon
T. David Gordon is Professor of Religion and Greek at Grove City College, where since 1999 he has taught courses in Religion, Greek, Humanities, and Media Ecology. He is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America. He is the author of Why Johnny Can’t Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers and Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Re-Wrote the Hymnal. His personal website is www.tdgordon.net. He lives in Grove City, PA, with his wife Dianne, and daughters Grace and Dabney (and innumerable cats). 

Comments

  1. Eugene Perry says:

    Well reasoned.

    Would the same reasoning not mitigate against the use of instruments in congregational worship?

  2. Larry Plaster says:

    Well written, good examples, a bit wordie but dead on. The biggest problem I see is that people just dont want to believe what the word says. They just cant understant the part that says not to add to or take away from gods word. The devil only has to insert one little word like ( maybe, couldbe, mightbe or similuar) and we are off on another thought that leads us away from the truth.
    Thank you.

  3. Max Lucado (See Editor's Note below: Not the famous Max Lucado) says:

    Boy, this is the biggest pile of Satan manure I have ever read. Sounds like a Church of Christer trying to revive a dead denomination.

    Max

    (Editor’s Note: We have confirmed that this comment was not from the Max Lucado who is the pastor of Oak Hills Church and is the well known author.)

    • I agree whole heartedly with my buddy Max. Rubbish.

      • Amy Monroy says:

        Brandon, you and Max sound like all the people you pushed against. Where’s your vaunted open-mindedness? Really letting me down. Or has the movement already degenerated from a business to a racket? You guys are scaring me; you sound like old clergymen defending your turf.

      • david van eaton says:

        Brandon…..really….you agree with what your buddy Max said? It seems to me you are more concerned with selling CDs and attendance at Zoe’s worship conferences than you are at reflection. You and Max seem quit juvenile.

    • Amy Monroy says:

      Max! I’m disappointed. Spiritual smugness is unattractive and unhelpful. Isn’t the main point that we all proclaim the risen Savior? Let people worship as their consciences’ dictate; at least consider it a “disputable matter” and let it pass unremarked.

    • Satan manure?!?!? This coming from a guy who teaches touchy-feely silliness, and who has proclaimed false teacher Christine Caine as equal to St. Paul, Mary, and Esther.
      http://www.donotbesurprised.com/2012/07/max-lucado-likens-christine-caine-to.html
      And who preached at heretic Joel Osteen’s church!

    • david van eaton says:

      I am doubtful that you are really Max Lucado. Even if he were to disagree with the article, I’m certain he would have written a more educated, thoughtful disagreement than yours…whoever you are. Your response seems bitter and is, quite frankly…just plain dumb.

  4. I’m intrigued and convicted by the points you make. I appreciate the strong biblical foundation upon which you make them. I intend to consider these points for quite some time in my own worship efforts.

    I do have one question. How can “heaven and earth praise him, the seas and everything that moves in them” (Psa 69:34), as you mention, if praise must necessarily be audible and intelligible? You yourself recognize a “call on creation itself” to praise. Doesn’t that call suggest praise can take forms other than sounds and words I can personally emulate with my discernible voice? This verse even mentions praise participation from sea creatures, which are categorically non-vocal. I realize God is capable of giving voice even to inanimate objects (Luke 19:40), but Psa 69:34 and several other verses indicate nature declares praise by its very creation and not just under supernatural animation.

    Psa 19:1 For the director of music. A psalm of David. The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

    Psa 96:11-13 Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad; let the sea resound, and all that is in it.
    Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them; let all the trees of the forest sing for joy.
    Let all creation rejoice before the LORD, for he comes, he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in his faithfulness.

    Psa 145:10 All your works praise you, LORD; your faithful people extol you.

    Psa 148:3-10 Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars.
    Praise him, you highest heavens and you waters above the skies.
    Let them praise the name of the LORD, for at his command they were created,
    and he established them for ever and ever– he issued a decree that will never pass away.
    Praise the LORD from the earth, you great sea creatures and all ocean depths,
    lightning and hail, snow and clouds, stormy winds that do his bidding,
    you mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars,
    wild animals and all cattle, small creatures and flying birds,

    If I can join in the silent praise of nature’s congregation, why can’t I join in the praise of talented musicians?

    • Carrie,
      The inanimate and mute portions of creation “praise” God figuratively, non-intelligently, and non-vocally; but animate, intelligent and vocal/linguistic beings (humans) are commanded to sing to God vocally and linguistically. This is why I included the (probably boring) passages that referred to “lip” or “voice” or “tongue,” to indicate that the act is in fact vocal for humans. Thank you for your considerate thoughts and questions.

      T. David Gordon

  5. Andrew K. says:

    Enjoyed the article.

    “Praising together” reminded me of something I read recently. I can’t find the article now, but something to the effect that the act of singing together harmonizes our thoughts, thus making us _think_ together as well.

    This makes an interesting scientific case for a high regard of congregational singing in churches, even if the Biblical case were not already so clear.

  6. Psalm 150
    1 Praise the LORD. Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens. 2 Praise him for his acts of power; praise him for his surpassing greatness. 3 Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet, praise him with the harp and lyre, 4 praise him with tambourine and dancing, praise him with the strings and flute, 5 praise him with the clash of cymbals, praise him with resounding cymbals. 6 Let everything that has breath praise the LORD. Praise the LORD.

    Psalm 149:3
    Let them praise his name with dancing and make music to him with tambourine and harp.

    2 Sam. 6:5
    David and all Israel were celebrating with all their might before the LORD, with castanets, harps, lyres, timbrels, sistrums and cymbals.

    Psalm 81:2
    Begin the music, strike the timbrel, play the melodious harp and lyre.

    There are many other references as well. I do agree that music so loud that you can’t tell others are even signing is problematic. It does indeed pull me out of a sense of worship that I totally get and feel when I am connected in worship with others around me.

    However the Bible does make clear that there were MANY instruments in the worship assemblies of His people. Call it a band, team, whatever, they were there.

    Also as you point out about the rarity of books and paper (papyrus and animal skin), the assemblies would not have had, music, score sheets, or even the words to the song in front of them. They sang songs that they learned and had heard. I can easily sing along with almost any hymn a church plays because I grew up in hymn singing churches. But even for ancient Israelites, when a new song was written…. it took them time to learn, and once learned, they could easily sing along with all the gusto and bravado that they could sing other songs they had already learned.

    I agree with many of your points, because I have easily seen modern “worship” become this thing that really doesn’t look or feel like worship. I think a worship leader or team isn’t a bad thing, and sure, when you do new songs, it’ll take time to learn the words and melodies etc.

    One question that comes up for me… if we’re going to be biblical, do you have dancing and all manner of instruments in your church? Sure we should be vocal because it’s commanded… but so it seems are these other things.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comments. Dance does not appear in any of the NT texts that describe or regulate NT worship; so I regard it as uncommanded in our economy. There are some cultures, of course, whose singing is always accompanied with bodily motion of some sort, and I would have no problem with their continuing that cultural convention; nor do I personally object when people sway to the music when they sing praise in our culture; I just do not regard dance as commanded in our NT economy.
      Instruments are, similarly, uncommanded and therefore unnecessary. A well-trained congregation can sing praise perfectly well without them (RPCNA). I regard accompanying instruments (to use Westminstser Confession language) as “circumstances, common to human actions and societies, that are to be governed by the light of nature…” So, if a congregation keeps tempo and pitch better by having instrumental accompaniment, then such a circumstance is warranted on that ground. Strictly speaking, however, they are unnecessary. Some of the Levitical priests were commanded to play certain instruments as part of their priestly duty; but the Levitical priesthood passed away with the priestly intercession of Christ, so we no longer perform in Christian assemblies any of the things that were distinctive to the Levites alone.

      • Darasings says:

        I would venture to say that most of what we know about corporate music and God comes from the Hebrew bible, specifically, the book of Psalms and with instrument references scattered in I and II Chronicles. To dismiss musical instruments because they were associated with the Levites makes little sense to me, especially if one is going to extrapolate the rest of our God-pleasing musical knowledge from the examples of David and his 4,000 Levitical musicians. Since instruments are mentioned so often in the Hebrew bible, couldn’t it just mean that their use was later assumed in the making of music as much as one’s voice? Other than in Revelation, there are very few references to actual group singing in the New Testament. In Ephesians 5:19, where Paul tells us to “…sing and make music in your heart to the Lord…” should we assume that we are to only sing silent solos in our head? In Romans 15:9, Paul quotes from one of David’s psalms: “…I will sing hymns to your name.” While we can’t prove that these hymns were accompanied by instruments, by referencing the Psalm, it may or may not be implied. Do not be so quick to negate the musicians who are called by God to use their talents in service to Him.

      • Michael Warner says:

        You look at Psalms and see ‘rules & ordinances’ that you can technically exempt yourself from. But I do not see what has changed in God’s heart that he no longer desires certain types of praise from His people. I DON”T WANT to be exempted from praise… OT or NT!

        Shouldn’t we exhibit passion all the more, with the NT revelation of salvation by grace? Or should I suppose you wouldn’t know to kiss your wife without a proof text?

  7. Hi David, thanks for your post.

    My understanding of music’s use in general, is that it was part of a godly life as a whole.. Numerous OT instances come to mind: Moses’ instruction (Deut 31:19), Jeremiah’s lament (2 Chron 35:25), Prophets prophesying (1 Sam 10:5), Deborah and Barak’s praise (Judges 5:1,3), Musicians at watering places (Judges 5:11), David’s personal prayer (Psalm 7). Not every psalm was “for the choirmaster.”

    A continuation of this kind of use is what I see encouraged in the NT. The words of songs are to be quoted/sung in our conversation, even as those songs are to be rich with the words of Christ (Eph 5:19, Col 3:16). Here I think it needs to be said, that these words are not limited to prayer and praise, but include teaching and admonishing.

    I submit that the mention of a psalm in 1 Cor 14:26, is not referencing congregational singing, but individual (each one has a psalm, a teaching, a revelation…). Though the general use of music in a corporate setting is congregational, it is not dogmatically so.

    When a performance mentality is prevalent in corporate “worship”, I think it is more a reflection of our lack of devotion to the things listed in Acts 2:42, and of doing things in humility for the good of others, than it is a departure from certain requirements of congregational singing.

    Peace.

  8. Hugh McCann says:
  9. Jonathan says:

    I appreciate the emphasis in this article on the priority of the command of God in worship. God shows us clearly in Scripture that when it comes to worshipping Him, we have to do what He says, and should not do more. As soon as we add to what He has commanded us (in worship), we are in error. The example of Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus 10:1-3 shows us this. God destroys them for doing something that might seem proper (offering incense before the Lord), except that He did not command them to do it. It was wrong not because God had forbidden it, but because He had not commanded them to use that kind of incense. When it comes to worship, we can only do what God commands, and no more. “Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it.” (Deut 12:32).

  10. I think we need to be remined that even in music, the Spitit of the Law brings life, but the Letter, death. But honestly, if we could get more godly enthusiasm in cold spiritless churches, the fleshy need for the music teams would probably cease and natural praise and worship could emerge and exist again.
    Let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater, if that makes sense….. ;)
    Blessings, Angus.

  11. I see several issues with praise teams. Typically a “praise leader” will encourage the congregation, “Come on. Sing with us.” What he does not realize is that the congregation cannot sing with them because they do not know the song.

    Praise team leaders seem to think that if they just play and sing louder the congregation will catch on to the music, too much of which lacks predictable form or linguistic logic.

    Certainly any “seekers” present will not know the music (although they might like the beat). Except for those few praise team led songs that are frequently repeated, most of the congregation does not either. Therefore their only hope of engaging in praise is to sway, wave their hands and have a pseudo-spiritual experience.

    I do think that Psalms 149 and 150 encourage the use of instruments as a source of praise.

    If a church wishes to use a praise team to lead the worship, the team should be taught how to engage the congregation without overpowering them.

    Sadly, most of our younger congregants do not have any idea about the majesty of some of our greatest hymns. Nor do they know about the strong doctrines many of them teach. Most of them know nothing about harmony

    I personally love to praise God with a wide variety of styles: psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. But there is a correct way to sing them; one that engages the congregation in the act of worship.

  12. ken marken says:

    I find it interesting to read in 2 Chronicles 5 the report of musical praise offered at the opening of Solomon’s temple, which included 120 trumpets along with cymbals, harps and lyres. Verse 13 says “The trumpeters and singers joined in unison, as with one voice, to give praise and thanks to the LORD.” I wonder what blind friend Ann would have reported hearing on that occasion? It seems pretty clear that the instruments were audible, probably at a significant volume.

    Verse 14 records that “the glory of the LORD filled the temple of God”; it would seem that God was pleased with the musical expression which included a large number of instruments in addition to voices. Did God’s taste in music change with the completion of Christ’s atoning sacrifice?

    I am puzzled by the manner in which Dr. Gordon moves from “unnecessary” to “not quite biblical”. I see neither a logical nor a theological connection between the two descriptions. Should we conclude that other expressions of worship not commanded in the New Testament- say kneeling or prostrating oneself in humility- are not quite biblical?

    My own experience with praise teams/praise bands is quite different from Dr. Gordon’s. Yes, I have seen and heard praise teams that have problems, just as I have experienced more traditional worship musical situations with problems. That is the nature of the human experience. When done well, praise teams prompt and encourage vigorous and unified expressions of musical praise from the congregation, which I agree is the biblical example.

  13. Consider taking a music history course from a music scholar, perhaps one with a special interest in early music and a lot of your misunderstandings will be cleared up.

    • Ken Marken says:

      Dear T,
      It is not clear how your cryptic response relates to the discussion themes here. Perhaps you are suggesting you have an academic answer to the question: What would blind friend Ann have heard on the occasion of 2 Chronicles chapter 5? Why not share your thoughts on the question, rather than make negative assumptions about a contributor’s education?

      It is clear from several comments here that many of us take seriously the biblical examples of the use of musical instruments in worship and praise. It is indisputable that there are church practices and traditions based on sound biblical interpretation that embrace instruments in corporate worship, and there are others that reject instruments in corporate worship. I am not convinced, based on the essay and the responses, that musical instruments in worship are either unbiblical or not quite biblical. I find it irrelevant to say they are unnecessary, as most liturgical practice includes many unnecessary elements. The real questions are do our practices please God, and do they build the body of Christ in our specific local assembly.

      • Herozero says:

        “The real questions are do our practices please God, and do they build the body of Christ in our specific local assembly.”

        Amen! Thank you Ken.

        And who gets to decide if they do or don’t? To whose eyes, ears, etc are we offering praise anyway? I kept looking for this throughout the article and the comments, and it seems woefully tragic to think that we would judge whether God accepts, approves and takes pleasure with others’ worship based on a limited human (not to mention influenced by culture and personal experience and preferences) interpretation of examples of worship in the Bible. And this goes for not just the proposal in this article, but any that seems to espouse a judgement of worship based on our human senses.

        How many decibels are required for singing to meet the requirements Mr Gordon has suggested in order to be approved of? I am truly saddened to think that we are reducing worshiping God to something that can be defined with such restrictions, requirements, and obligations, when it seems that so many of the quoted passages are promoting just the opposite. Is this a duty we must meet, or is it possible God prefers that we are responding out of an understanding of who He is in relating to us? Just food for thought.

        Also, what do we do with congregations of mute or deaf humans who have lips and mouths, but don’t actually follow the proposed “robust congregational singing” but rather are engaged in true gratitude and awe of their Creator and Lover who happens to have taken away their ability to do just that in an audible way that would please the writer of this article. I hope they aren’t considered disobedient by their Sovereign Maker.

        • Wouldn’t it be cool if the deaf and blind came into a worshipping congregation and be healed that they would be able to see and hear? You know, He still heals today. I’m just saying. That takes away that argument, but who believes that?

  14. Omitting the entire musical score segment (as people of antiquity and today didn’t always have the ability to read the score), one thing the NT does in fact command in corporate gatherings for worship, is that EACH member participates and speaks to one another with hymns and spiritual songs as well as all prophesy. Corporate worship has less to do with musical score and knowing ‘when the bridge is coming’ and far more to do with the edification of believers and the revelation of Christ while together. Either argument still shows the shortcomings and affects of the ‘worship team’ on congregational worship. Not to mention the inclusion of only those that have ‘auditioned’ to the exclusion of the saints to some degree. This format has ancient roots that show up around the 3rd century. I think we sell ourselves short to simply only go back to Luther/Calvin for our examples when the NT is rich and plenty with commands as examples.

  15. Dan McCoy says:

    (Necro-commenting, I know)…I’m afraid it comes down to a matter of personal preference. When a majority of the congregation likes to listen to lousy, crummy pop music all week, they like to sing the same kind of thing on Sunday. Once it starts, the dumbing down caused by simple choruses with the words projected on the front of the church is progressive and irreversible.

  16. As an instrumentalist, I take seriously the command to praise Him on my instrument. Many instrumentalist feel they are not giving God their best by just singing. Watch them when they are merely in the congregation singing. Their hands are moving as if their instrument were part of them. God blessed me with hands to play more skillfully and to give a distinction of sound. In my own case, I have always felt that I communicate better on my instrument than with my almost inaudible voice. I have young instrument student who now feels that his volume is being turned down because they are doing away with the orchestra in his church in order to have more singing. These praise teams are killing the joy of this very musically educated and talented church. I can understand having these types of leaders if small churches where their isn’t any other resource but when you have plentiful people to fill a choir, orchestra- let them give it back to their God.

    What does the Lord mean when he instructs to sing/play loudly? Does it have to with the actual volume or our heart? Does he really grade our volume or is he really desiring that we not hold back, be reserved or embarrassed to praise Him. I bring this up because I’ve been in situations where it physically hurts my ears. I can literally say that I can not worship or praise God when my ears are telling me to protect them.

  17. Seth Johnson says:

    Thank you for the emphasis on the Word and the nudge to consider the impact of the music portion of our Sunday Worship services I am curious about one aspect of your article, namely the use of a blind person as the judge/arbiter of music to the neglect of others with dissimilar limitations. Might a deaf man be then the judge use/non-use of word and pictures? What about those who cannot read music? Might they need the help of a strong vocal leader to follow? What of children who cannot understand the words being sung (any number of humorous examples of kids mixing up lyrics can be found. What of the orientation of the people who all face the same direction looking to the front of the chancel to the worship leader, how do they sing to one another? What of those who cannot sing due to physical limitations but can joyfully play a tambourine as some dear brothers from a group home have done with us? Please accept my thanks again, I will think more carefully about every song, word, prayer, text, announcement and point in my sermon so as to honor the Savior with diligent preparations and dignity befitting His place as King.

  18. Jay Stang says:

    Churches who don’t have praise teams or man made instruments use the best instrument on the planet: the instrument God created: the human voice.

  19. Erich Clark says:

    Thanks for the link; I have never seen Dr. Gordon’s opinion on worship music in written form, although he and several other founding members of our church have complained and even left our church over this debate. I must respectfully disagree with him; he is attempting to make into a Biblical mandate what is actually a generation gap.

    One of the comments on this post brought up (though not explicitly) the cherry-picking nature of Dr. Gordon’s scripture references. He brought up Psalms in which David exhorted the use of instruments in worship to God. Dr. Gordon responded that instrumentation in the Old Testament was solely a Levite duty. But there are clear examples of King David (NOT a Levite) and his praise bands. David himself was an accomplished musician, and instruments were used in the temple under his direction.

    Gordon mentions that the praise band are now the only congregants with musical notation of contemporary songs, but musical notation has only been around for a few hundred years, which means that songs in the Bible were purely an oral tradition, so that everyone (including the priesthood) learned songs by ear. In our church, when we began transitioning to contemporary worship songs, we initially made printed sheet music available for the congregation, at the behest of Dr. Gordon and others, but no one found them useful, because very few know how to read music. Those who were raised on hymns simply know them by ear and by memory. Those who listen to contemporary worship recordings and sing them regularly know the words and tunes by heart in the same way that those raised on hymns know their hymns.

    As far as loudness goes, sound design is a far more nuanced art than he makes it out to be. Yes, concert level sound can make hearing the rest of the congregation less discernible, but that is not because they are singing hesitantly. In a louder environment, people talk and sing louder. Those that know the words and the tunes often sing very loudly.

    That being said, sound design in congregational worship varies widely because of differences in preference and in skill. We now have two distinct levels of sound volume at our three Sunday morning services. Our quiet 9am service does not employ a kit drummer and the total sound output from the band is less than 80dB. This is very difficult to accomplish as a soundman, but even from the back, I can hear everyone singing. I cannot hear them as clearly when they are accompanied by the church organ, because the organ is at a sound level of around 90-95dB, which is the exact same physical noise level as both of the 11:15 services which employ drums and louder amplification of the band. At sound levels over 100dB, I think we bridge over into the realm of the concert, which becomes arguably a concert, and I can certainly understand reticence to concerts at church. But Christian concerts are an order of magnitude louder at 120dB, and people singing in the audience are literally shouting. But they are still singing along and praising God, so it is in fact corporate worship. Personally I am not comfortable with that level of sound on Sunday morning, but I also think that level of sound is physically unhealthy, because it causes ear damage. But there are many others who are comfortable with it. Sound level is really not the issue at all; rather it is a question of comfort with pop-music style and instrumentation.

    Let us not disguise adherence to tradition and generational preference as a matter of Biblical accuracy.

  20. While I find it a valuable read, I do nevertheless have a few points of contention with it. Primarily I think the author relies too heavily (though not solely) upon his own experiences and expectations to make his point about why having a praise team hinders robust congregational singing. (I do not necessarily mean to argue his conclusion, just pointing out that some of the points in the latter half the article I find problematic.)

    A few examples:
    1. The writer comments several times that not having a musical score (and he does seem to genuinely mean sheet music, notes and staves and such) is a great hindrance to many people. However, most people don’t even know how to read music, nor do I think it occurs to such people to even want a musical score. If all people are ever given are words, they work with what they get and learn to make do. The writer seems to be used to being given a musical score, and thus finds it difficult when not given one to sing robustly. But this does not necessitate causation.

    2. The writer seemingly implies that each time a praise team sings a song they do so in a different manner, such that the congregation will never learn the song and will always be hesitant. However, it is my experience over 14 years that most praise teams will play a song the same way each time, and so you really only have the issues noted when a song is new, or when you have a visiting band that the congregation is unfamiliar with.

    3. The author also cites his embarrassment in singing a “2 syllable solo” as evidence for a congregation’s timidity in singing with a praise team vs. with a piano or a capella. However, in attempting to prove that the band’s variableness in verse-chorus-bridge patterns necessarily causes timidity, he actually disproves it (at least he disproves the point in #2 above) by acknowledging that “everyone but him” was quiet during the bridge while he sang his “2 syllable solo,” expecting the 4th verse to start.

    He seems to be connecting (unnecessarily) the experiences of visitors and infrequent church attenders with regular attenders of a given church – And since he is using his experiences as a visitor to gain insight into the situation and write the article, the experiences he noted are somewhat expected. I appreciated his knowledge and Biblical references, though I think his anecdotal experiences do not necessarily indicate the points he was trying to prove.

  21. “The problem with this article” might be a better title. Granted, I’m not overly worried about the theology. Congregations should sing and “with gusto” makes exegetical sense. However, the application you use is poor at best.

    The fact is, most church goers don’t read music. And while the notes may help direct someone singing high or low because the notes go up or down, most people don’t read the notes. They learn by hearing. it’s really no different then someone learning a favorite song on the radio and being able to quite capably sing along with it, in time.

    The fact is, organs and pianos can create the same issues you fear from praise bands. Those instrumentalists can play as performers too, and can do so loudly enough that congregations aren’t encouraged to sing but to listen.

    The problem is not with the praise band per se, rather it’s who’s leading, why and how they are leading? I’ve been in plenty of churches that no longer use hymnals but still sing hymns that are printed in the bulletin. No notes. And the congregation still sings very well. And I’ve heard plenty of 2 note solos in hymn services too.

    No the real issue is, whether praise band or organ or piano, why and how are we doing it? If the goal is to create robust congregational singing, that can be taught or ruined from an organ or piano just as easily as it can be from a person up front with a guitar. The sound can be adjusted for the same purposes on any of the aforementioned instruments. And I’ve worshiped with too many worship leaders that foster a fantastic participatory atmosphere where people sing very loudly for any of this article to make sense. Conversely, I’ve worshiped in enough hymn singing congregations to know that people don’t always participate – especially not loudly. That is, they use hymnals, the organist plays well, and the people just don’t sing along.

    It’s not about the band. It’s about the DNA of the congregation. It’s about values. Does the church value robust congregational singing or not. If they do, it will permeate through the congregation and people will sing robustly no matter what style of worship is in use. It’s really that simple!

  22. I appreciate your approach to looking at what we see in scripture as to how we are conduct our corporate gatherings and specifically vocal corporate worship. However, I don’t believe your conclusions follow from the evidence. It is quite possible to have a praise team and for the congregation to worship in a manner that is congregational, together, and vigorous!! Simply having a praise team does not inherently mean it will be so loud that no one can hear themselves or their fellow congregation members. Certainly it is the habit of some churches to have a concert-type atmosphere, with all the lights off, spotlights up front, and loud amplification such that you can only hear the praise team, but in my experience that is an exception to the rule!

    I completely agree with both Deanna’s and Luke’s points from above. And to expand on one of Luke’s comments about not knowing when to sing, two-syllable solos, etc., you yourself said that it is “a well-trained congregation” that can sing well without instruments. Clearly none of those people arrived on planet earth with the natural ability to read music or to sing those Psalms in four-part harmony – they learned it. This is the same learning process that happens in a congregation with a praise team, sans sheet music. The congregation learns the songs and the manner in which they’re sung, and then they can participate quite vigorously and robustly!! Only when there is a new song introduced from time to time is this process repeated. Plus, the worship leader can give vocal cues to help with when they will begin a certain verse and which one.

    I have attended churches with a praise team for my entire life, and I would say the worship has always been congregational, together, and vigorous! I can hear all of us singing together loudly, I can hear the melody and harmonies amplified a bit which helps the members of the congregation sing along to those if they so choose, and I can also hear the worship leader giving vocal cues if we are going to repeat a verse or a chorus or whatever. Like I said, I appreciate your thoughtful approach but feel your anecdotal evidence is insufficient to reach the across-the-board conclusions you have.

  23. I appreciate the thought that went into this article. It seems that theology is being stretched a bit to back up an outcry against vapid loud showmanship that has been causing good people to scratch their heads as they try to decide if they are going to stay at their current church (which has limited itself to a certain kind of praise format) or find a new congregation where they can occasionally hear themselves sing. It is an unnecessary scenario driven by leaders who have to be right. Wonderful music has been written in many different ways for instruments, hymns, choirs and congregational singing. It is just waiting to be interpreted by musicians who read music. There is still much to be learned by rote also that is edifying to God. Praise teams have limited variety and participation in musical worship.

  24. Rather than calling it “The Problem with Praise Teams,” I think this article should be called “The Problem with Performance-focused Singing in Churches.” Hymns and organs can be just as performative as bands. I’ve been scrolling through the comments and have been seeing a lot that are edging on legalism, which is quite reflective of the author’s tone at times as well. It’s not a question of is being used (e.g band vs. a capella) to lead the congregation in worship, but rather it is being used. I’m part of the worship team in our church and there is a certain repertoire that we know the congregation knows. When we want to introduce a new song, the band plays the first verse and chorus through then invites the congregation to follow along, then finally we finish with singing together. Teaching the congregation a new song equips them with some new tools for worshiping. A praise team can be integral in encouraging and setting an example for participation during worship.

    It’s not such a common thing for laypeople to read music anymore (there are even instrumentalists who don’t read music in our band, like me — we just use chords) so I don’t think plopping a hymn book in front of people would be inclusive for all. I do agree that the Praise team shouldn’t be overly loud and that the congregation should be able to hear themselves (and it’s imperative that the band can hear the congregation, too). But there’s no need to be so ultimate about the superfluousness of praise teams or to discount other God-given talents and skills such as playing instruments or even sound-mixing (which would address the issue of the praise team engulfing the congregation’s sound).

    • The reason it is becoming less common for lay people to read music is because they are not being given opportunities to read music in church. The largest class in most schools is the choir class followed by the instrumental music classes. Yet we have limited opportunities for participation by insisting on praise team dominated formats. Someone has sold this as the most effective method to attain true praise and worship in a church service. Church choirs have traditionally been a place where people of many different walks of life could meaningfully participate and meet together in a music fellowship weekly. Music ensembles that require musical training are being discouraged because we’re afraid it will be a performance and therefore somehow be contrived. Meanwhile musicians who have the training to interpret all the wonderfully inspired sacred music are leaving our churches or becoming nonparticipants because they no longer have that opportunity in church other than congregational singing (if they can even hear themselves). 3 heavily mic’d people singing into a spot light with their eyes closed and their hands raised to heaven many times seem to be oblivious to the corporate worship possibilities out there in front of them. I love moments of being totally enveloped in sound. However, there is much more room for a variety of musical participation in worship when we are not limited to volume and hype.

Speak Your Mind

*