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 Рuntouched by the unrelated motives of musical excess Рthe 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 Рthese 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.

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.