Praise Teams (Again)

I was mildly rebuked following my last post. I knew I would be, and I really don’t mind. “Praise Teams” are a touchy subject. Those who have them, or want them, cannot see any harm or fault in having them. Those that do not want to have a “praise team” in their worship are pretty firm in their convictions. There really is not much of a middle ground.

I am going to make a generalization based on my experience, but it is my belief that those who argue for “praise teams” do so for one simple reason: it makes the song service sound better. There is no biblical or theological reason for the addition of “praise teams.” The issue is either that there is a large, but basically empty, auditorium that kills the sound of the congregational singing, or that the congregation is getting old and feeble and therefore cannot sing as vibrantly as they once did, or that the congregation doesn’t know the new songs and therefore cannot sing them very well. Whatever the specific issue, the argument for “praise teams” revolves around aesthetics. It is all about making the song service sound better for human ears. At the risk of offending – it is all about entertainment.

We are a nation of pragmatists, virtually every decision we make is based on one bottom line – does it work, or does it work better, than what I am currently doing? The church is particularly stricken with this disease. Because of our (I speak as a member of the Churches of Christ) aversion to theology, we have surrendered our commitment to deep theological thinking long, long ago. When a church surrenders its theological foundation, the only thing left for it is pragmatism – what works. So, if a congregation is faced with a problem (poor singing) it does not search for a reason that can be found in the realm of the Spirit, but only what will “work” to fix the problem, ergo, “Let’s form a ‘praise team’ of some really good singers, give them all a microphone, and our singing will improve overnight.” The problem is, it doesn’t. Having a “praise team” is putting a band-aid on a cancer. A “praise team” might make the auditorium singing sound better to human ears, but it does nothing toward engendering a more spiritual worship service. It is all a part of the “Seeker Sensitive” movement that caters to the whims and fancies of the world at the expense of theological content. In a sentence, there is no “there” there.

I pointed out in my last post where I think “praise teams” violate the spirit of Scripture, if not the letter. I will not rehearse those reasons – none of those who took the time (and I thank them!) to converse with me attempted to address those issues. However, I want to add another voice to the conversation, one who speaks with the theological understanding of which I find so abysmally lacking in so many conversations about the church today:

The essence of all congregational singing on this earth is the purity of unison singing – untouched by the unrelated motives of musical excess – the clarity unclouded by the dark desire to lend musicality an autonomy of its own apart from the words; it is the simplicity and unpretentiousness, the humanness and warmth, of this style of singing. Of course, this truth is only gradually and by patient practice disclosed to our oversophisticated ears. Whether or not a community  achieves proper unison singing is a question of its spiritual discernment. This is singing from the heart, singing to the Lord, singing the Word; this is singing in unity. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible, vol. 5 of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works in English, ed. Geffrey B. Kelly, trans. Daniel W. Bloesch and James H. Burtness, [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996], p. 67. Additional note – these words were written in 1938.

This is thinking theologically. This is looking to the Spirit for answers to questions of the Spirit. This is taking a human, temporal problem and seeking to discern the moving of the Word and Spirit. This is the kind of thinking that is virtually non-existent among Churches of Christ today. We use John 4:24 as a textual battering ram and yet when everything comes down to a point we are all about what works; what looks, sounds, and what feels, “better.” We have attained all the spiritual depth of a thimble.

Bonhoeffer goes on to add words that could have been written yesterday:

There are several elements hostile to unison singing, which in the community ought to be very rigorously weeded out. There is no place in the worship service where vanity and bad taste can so assert themselves as in the singing. First, there is the improvised second part that one encounters almost everywhere people are supposed to sing together. It attempts to give the necessary background, the missing richness to the free-floating unison sound and in the process kills both the words and the sound. There are the bass or alto voices that must call everybody’s attention to their astonishing range and therefore sing every hymn an octave lower. There is the solo voice that drowns out everything else, bellowing and quavering at the top of its lungs, reveling in the glory of it own fine organ. There are the less dangerous foes of congregational singing, the ‘unmusical’ who cannot sing, of whom there are far fewer than we are led to believe. Finally, there are often those who not not join in the singing because they are particularly moody or nursing hurt feelings; and thus they disturb the community.

In case you missed it – Bonhoeffer is arguing for pure unison singing – as in no parts – no soprano, alto, tenor, bass. Unison singing, because it is only in unison singing that we sing in the unity of the Spirit. Unison singing, because if God can take Jew and Gentile and make out of two nations one family, then he can certainly take four vocal ranges and make them into one voice. Unison singing, because it is in unison singing that we all, old and young, male and female, soprano, alto, tenor and bass, can submit our voices to each other and join in one ephemeral voice to lift our praise to God. These are radical words – restoration type words – of which the Restoration Movement should be able to hear. But I doubt that we can.

We are too wrapped up into what works.

To my conversation partners: I get it! What I said about “praise teams” can also be said about single song leaders. What I also did not say, but also firmly believe, is that we have created, or are dangerously close to creating, a “professional” class of preachers who are approaching idolatrous standing. (Maybe my next series of posts?) But this is what I don’t get – if someone points out that driving over the speed limit is dangerous and illegal, and then someone else points out that driving too slow is also dangerous, that does not make driving over the speed limit less dangerous or more legal! If a congregation worships a song leader, that does not make “praise teams” more acceptable. Just because a single song leader can be in love with his voice and dominate a song service, that does not absolve “praise teams” from that very same sin. I still maintain the basic premise of my first post: “praise teams” are inherently divisive, they are elitist, they elevate one member’s position to praise above another’s for the simple reason of their natural singing ability.

I happen to believe that the church has a higher calling than just to have a song service that is aesthetically pleasing and entertaining.

I happen to believe that our song service is supposed to be praise to God, and not to human ears.

And, yes – if that means a total and complete return to unison singing, count me in.

I happen to think that is ascending higher by climbing lower.

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.

6 thoughts on “Praise Teams (Again)”

  1. My belief is that if we had started with praise teams, then someone had innovated with song leaders, the outcry would have been much greater. The inherent “evils” in the song leader system seem much greater than that of the multiple leader system. In my rarely humble opinion.

    As for unison singing, in much of the world that’s pretty much a given. Except for where U.S. missionaries have tried to insert the foreign sounds of harmony. So yeah… this is a first world problem.

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    1. Tim, you have me really curious. Why do you think the outcry against single song leaders would have been greater? What evils in a single song leader system outweigh the full-blown production of the “praise team”? Song leaders date back the the Psalms, if not earlier. The synagogues had those who directed in song. Even “praise teams” need directors. “Praise teams” require amplification – they are an unmistakable product of the late 20th, early 21st century church, largely promoted (although probably not created by) the Bill Hybels/Willow Creek model of “Seeker Sensitive” worship services. I will admit that bad song leaders make worship dreadful, but I would really like to hear why you feel they are more of a problem than “praise teams.”

      I had not stopped to think about unison singing vs. harmony singing throughout the world. You make a good point.

      Paul

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  2. Your two “praise team” posts interested me a lot – because over 6 decades I came from a very conservative C of C background, was initially uneasy about praise teams, then joined one, then rode the wave into the introduction of accompanied music and now both play an instrument and still sing A Capella songs in the same service. I’m fully on board with the praise team model, and have seen the growth of MORE congregational involvement in the song service with the new blended-music service in which I’m involved.

    I chuckled at the concern in your previous post about an “audition” and “ability to read music” – in our small-ish congregation, we’re *begging* members to join the praise team, and the ability to read music is not required. And most of us were born *well* before the election of Reagan – but we have a nice smattering of young folks too.

    Now you insert the notion of unison singing – and we’re back to the origins of song! Just listen to modern (accompanied) worship music – there’s even a Billboard chart for Praise and Worship songs – and you’ll find that unison singing is the norm. Accompanied worship music often includes sections in which the instruments drop out – and that’s when the voices of the assembly, in unison, ring out in a single voice that often brings tears to my eyes. We found that people are often willing to sing louder when the room is filled with both voices and accompaniment, and then continue their exuberance once they are comfortable joining the voices unaccompanied.

    Thanks for your thoughts. Note that I grew up in Abilene also have a degree from ACU (chemistry).

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    1. Hmmm. Thanks for the comment. I note – “praise team” –> instrumental music = higher and more complicated levels of musicianship = more entertainment. Glad it works for you – but just goes to prove my point. Its not about worship, its about tickling ears.

      Paul

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  3. Slow getting back. I think if you’ll search for “singers” in the Bible, you’ll find that praise teams go WAY back, at least to David’s day. (Though yes, they seemed to use instruments in their singing…)

    I think the risk of an individual being elevated over the congregation for their singing is greater than that of a group. That’s why I think the outcry would have been greater. If we had regularly had groups, then one man insisted on doing it solo, people would have been outraged.

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    1. Good points, but many of the Psalms were addressed “to the choirmaster,” so there was still a single leader doing something in a directorial fashion. Also, while I admit that I am not the sharpest knife in the drawer, I just don’t see how having a group sing without the aid of electronic amplification would have been of much use in an auditorium of otherwise un-amplified voices. The value of a “praise team” resides solely in the fact that their voices are amplified over that of the congregation “so the congregation can hear how they are supposed to sing” or words to that effect. (my experience – ymmv)

      I do not disagree that single song leaders can hijack a worship service – been there, done that, don’t want the t-shirt. I think that first century worship services must have sounded somewhat like the old Tuesday night devotionals on the steps of the Admin building – although maybe without quite as much chaos. (Maybe not . . . maybe that is why Paul had to fuss at them in 1 Corinthians). Not so much one single, isolated song leader, but one song leader leading one song at a time. Who knows? I’m sure I was alive, but I must have been otherwise occupied at the time.

      Paul

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