A Pox on ‘Praise Teams’

If you have read very many of my posts you have no doubt noticed that I am not a fan of “praise teams,” those Hydra-headed creatures that have become synonymous with contemporary worship these days. Some may wonder why I am so irked, so non-plussed, so aggravated.

Well, for one reason, I’m a nut – a knuckle-dragging troglodyte that would rather be using a typewriter than a computer, and would really prefer to be using a fountain pen. I was born shortly after the crust of the earth cooled, so anything after the invention of the wheel is flat out revolutionary.

But, those failings aside, I think I have some pretty good reasons for my position. While I firmly believe there is no “thus saith the Lord” or “book, chapter and verse” that specifically condemns the use of “praise teams,” I believe their creation and use does fray the very fabric of the concept of worship. Let us examine the question.

At the very outset, let me say I am not against special singing groups in the church. I actually think they are wonderful, and fill a special place for those who love to sing (regardless of talent!). I have been greatly edified by the service rendered by quartets, sextets, octets, and larger choruses. My life would be much poorer without them. I feel the same with instrumental music. I absolutely adore music – one of the greatest gifts my father ever gave to me was an appreciation of music. I can’t play it if I had to save my life, but I sure do love it. So, my animosity to “praise teams” does not stem from an irrational hatred of special singing groups, nor even of my disapproval of instrumental music in worship. I pray it is not irrational at all.

In James 2:1-7, James condemns the sin of partiality. In the specifics of the text, he is condemning the elevation of the rich, and the humiliation of the poor. Note, however, that the poor are not excluded from worship, but there is a clear distinction of status based on the wealth of the rich and the poverty of the poor. Now, just replace “rich” with “glorious singing voice” and you have a praise team – those who are elevated, and ironically those who are “praised” for their voice tones above those miserable wretches who can only sing with joy and gladness in their hearts, but have no “America’s Got Superiority Issues” talent.

The two primary texts that mention singing in the New Testament (Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16) both stress the “one another” aspect of singing – we sing with each other, we sing to each other, we sing for each other. But “praise teams” are elevated – they have a special place, or at the very least, they have microphones so their voices are just a little more special, than those of the hoi poloi, the common singer. Here again, there is no clear violation of the text, but the spirit of the text is shredded. It is clear that when a select group of individuals are highlighted and “praised” for their talents, that the “one another” aspect of worship is being minimized, if not eliminated.

This, of course, leads to the basic hypocrisy of the “praise team” movement. On the one hand we are told the “praise team” is no different, is just a part of the congregation, is just leading the congregation in song. But the very formation of such a group utterly destroys that argument. A director, usually known as the “worship leader” must select, or recruit, suitable members. How will he/she choose such members? Through an audition, of course. What are the criteria? Perfect intonation, the ability to read music, and a desire to be “front and center” are obvious items. I would argue there are other, less honorable, measurements – such as age, gender, age, perfectly coifed hair, age, the wealth to purchase cultural appropriate clothing, and age. I’ve seen many, many pictures of “praise teams,” and have experienced a couple in person, and I would suggest that the average age of most “teams” places their birth after the election of Ronald Reagan, some after the election of Bill Clinton.

I’ve often wondered, how does a “worship leader” dismiss a “praise team” member wannabe? “I’m sorry, but you are just not good enough to praise God here at our church.” Regardless of the wording, that is the message. Ouch.

After their selection the team must rehearse, of course. They are allowed to have the songs for that Sunday service days in advance of the rest of the shmucks that sit in the pews (oops, let my snark come through there). They, ¬†therefore, are “in” on the worship – the congregation is on the “out.” One particularly egregious example of this I witnessed personally – the “praise team” was seated at the front of the auditorium, and they were the only ones who had the sheet music for the songs – just the lyrics were projected on an overhead screen. The “team” was mic’d at an ear busting volume, and the result was a total projection of their voices and a few mumbles from the congregation as we struggled to keep up with the melody – which only the “praise team” was privy to.

So, the argument that the “praise team” is just a part of the congregation, is just leading the congregation, is just to educate the congregation, is just specious. It is hypocritical at best, and divisive at its worst.

That leads me to my last point, that of the name of the “praise team” itself. Is not the congregation itself the praise team? Are we not all, as members of the body, called to speak to one another, to lift one another up in song, are we not all, regardless of talent, supposed to lift our voices in gladness? “Praise teams” are inherently divisive – they divide according to (perceived) talent and according to other criteria which clearly separate the “haves” from the “have nots.”

I will admit I struggle with the process of corporate worship. On the one hand I genuinely love the spontaneity of an un-planned, “ad-hoc” type of worship. I had the incredible experience one time of guest speaking at a congregation. The song leader had no idea of my topic – but he formulated the most powerful, the most enriching, the most moving, the most theologically profound, series of songs that I can honestly say that I ever remember in a worship service. I was moved to tears, and introduced my sermon by apologizing to the congregation for interrupting that awesome experience of worship.

On the other hand, I have benefited from a well-planned and carefully thought-out worship where the songs, the Lord’s Supper memorial, and the sermon were all carefully integrated. That takes time, work, and some very close relationships between speaker, song leader, and any other worship leaders. For many congregations, that kind of close working relationship is not likely on a week-to-week basis. It takes some real dedication and communication. It also removes some of the immediacy that inspires so much of worship. It is hard to know on Monday or Tuesday what the mood of the congregation will be on Sunday. It tends to be confining, even as it is designed to create more expressiveness.

All I can say for sure is that for this knuckle-dragging troglodyte, “praise teams” are just a huge burr under my saddle, and I will never be comfortable sitting in an auditorium and being entertained by their glorious voices and perfectly coifed hair.

And I just wonder what James would have to say about our 21st century form of discrimination disguised as super-spirituality.

Author: Paul Smith

Paul Smith was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He holds the Bachelor of Science in Youth Ministry, Master of Biblical Studies and Master of Divinity, all from Abilene Christian University; and the Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Paul's passion is in teaching and preaching the gospel. Beyond the study of the Bible, his main academic interest is in the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He is an unashamed mountain-goat, and longs to spend his time with his feet in a cold trout stream.

3 thoughts on “A Pox on ‘Praise Teams’”

  1. Don’t many of these same criticisms fall on song leaders? In fact, it seems to me that the dangers are greater when we elevate one person to a certain status than if we elevate a group to that status.

    It’s worth noting as well that much of this is about praise teams done poorly.

    My druthers:
    1) Well-prepared praise teams that can support the congregational singing without overpowering.
    2) I prefer they be seated and inconspicuous.
    3) Song leaders(s) keep the congregation on track. They’re job is to help the group start and stay together, like a human metronome.

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    1. Tim, you are absolutely right, and I will see you one sone leader and raise you a “professional preacher.” I do not like having one man, and one man only, as a congregational song leader. Had that experience once and it was dreadful. I believe all who are “gifted” with the “ministry” of being perceptive worship leaders should be allowed to lead the congregation in worship. Same with preachers, and I am one – I do not believe in a “professional” class of preachers, even though a congregation may hire a man to lead and equip others to speak publicly as well. My question with your “druther” #1 is how can a team support without overpowering? I know it is a great theory, but if they are mic’d, their voices are louder than the congregation. If the congregation raises the volume to match that of of the amplified voices, the sound board operator just amps up the volume so that the mic’d singers can hear themselves. It becomes a vicious circle.

      As I stated in my closing comments – I am not sure how to “fix” a lethargic worship service. It is part of the beast we have created with auditorium style seating, and a hierarchal worship “leadership” style. I believe that if we truly focused on the “one another” aspect of our corporate worship we would change a number of our traditional aspects of a Sunday worship. That might (and probably would) impact my specific form of ministry, but if the body of Christ is built up and becomes mature, would it not be worth it?

      Thanks as always – your gentle nudges are greatly appreciated.

      Paul

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  2. I’d love to see a church that would meet together ahead of time to practice the songs for Sunday worship. In fact, I’ve heard of a congregation that regularly invites all who so desire to come and practice on Friday evening. But my experience is that most congregations won’t do it. That’s where I see a non-obtrusive praise team as being beneficial.

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